Secrets That Build Involvement

Savvy tips and tricks to get parents more interested in volunteering, and get more out of them when they do.

by Evelyn Beck


Focus on New Families

The families most in need of information and most eager to connect with other parents are those whose children are new to the school. So reaching out to them can pay great dividends.

The PTA at Flint Hill Elementary in Vienna, Va., has a position called the new family ambassador who is responsible for tracking and then contacting new families. The ambassador emails families weekly about school and community events.

“Many times I simply repeat the information on the PTA’s website,” says Stephanie Schubring, the new family ambassador. “You can never hear things enough when you are new and overwhelmed. I encourage new families to either email me or call me whenever they have a question so they don’t get frustrated trying to figure out who to ask.” She also distributes welcome packets and organizes four get-togethers each year for new families.

“We had one mother email me after a few weeks,” says PTA president Jennifer Lippman. “They’re a military family, but she said this was the first time in an elementary school that someone had reached out in friendship and that it had made a world of difference. That’s exactly what we were hoping for.” Flint Hill also invites kindergarten families to several summertime play dates before school starts.

Serra Catholic School in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., hosts a catered dinner for new families soon after school begins in the fall. “For every table, we have a current family sitting with them so they have someone to talk to, someone they can make a connection with,” says PTO president Sally Palmer. And on Serra’s website, there’s a link for first-year families that includes such information as the school calendar, dress code, and PTO fundraisers.

Anne Hodgson, president of the PTO at the Kolter School in Houston says that new parents are her group’s biggest targets. “Parents of children in grades K-2 feel that whatever they give to the school, their child will have a longer time to benefit from it,” she says.

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Tap Into Parents’ Expertise

One of the most effective approaches in recruiting parents is to find ways to apply their talents and interests. “When we talk to new parents, we say whatever you’re interested in, we have a committee that can meet your needs,” says Kelsey Stetzenbach, PTA president at Sunset Ridge Elementary in Middleton, Wis. Parents at her school have shared such talents as yoga, gardening, and photography.

At Peirce School in Arlington, Mass., a “time and talents” list filled out by parents provides a starting point. Word-of-mouth communication helps expand the pool of those with a particular interest or skill. Then comes the personal approach. “I’ll go up to someone and say ‘I heard you’re an excellent baker; would you be willing to make a loaf of bread for the bake sale?’” says PTO copresident Susan Goetcheus. “Sometimes people don’t realize what they know, or they don’t realize it would be something useful to bring to the school.”

Hodgson of the Kolter PTO views the role of PTO officers as problem-solvers. “We’re solving the problem of getting the volunteer to the event and to sign up,” she says. “It’s like being [a human resources] manager, matching parents’ skills, abilities, and interests with what you have available. Instead of walking up to someone and saying ‘Will you be our fundraising chairperson?’ I say, ‘What do you like to do?’ Everybody likes something, and everyone wants to help their school. We need to help them over the obstacles and find them a niche.”

Offer a Variety of Ways and Times to Volunteer

If you can offer multiple ways to become involved, parents will be more likely to volunteer. Since most parents aren’t available during school hours, they would be more likely to take on tasks they can do from home or from work, during the evening or on the weekend. Such tasks might include stuffing envelopes, counting labels, or cutting items for craft projects or bulletin boards.

After hearing from working moms who felt bad that they didn’t have time to volunteer during the day, Flint Hill parent leaders created a volunteer pool, similar to a temp service. Parents who have signed up to be part of the pool can be called on for short-term or last-minute needs to pitch in if they can. They might be asked to help during crunch time before the school’s annual 5K and Fun Run by stuffing race bags and organizing T-shirts on a Tuesday night for two hours. Or they might be called upon if someone drops out of helping with the school’s Thanksgiving lunch or staffing the new family table at back-to-school night.

Allowing parents to identify the extent to which they can be involved gives them control of their time and lets them know they won’t be bombarded with requests they’ll have to refuse. On its volunteer sign-up forms, the Peirce School PTO asks parents to specify a commitment level they’re comfortable with. “They can choose a level that fits their life,” Goetcheus says. Parents sign up for one-time events or make monthly or weekly commitments.

Ask, Then Ask Again

A direct, personal request to get involved is best. Even if someone says no, they still might be responsive if you ask again with a slightly different proposal. “Last year I approached one mom I thought would do a good job as a vice president,” says Stetzenbach. “She said no, that she was intimidated to be a VP. I ended up calling her back when I found someone to be a co-VP. Sometimes people do need a little push.”

Flint Hill’s Lippman agrees. “Most people will say ‘I’m busy.’ But everybody’s busy. So push a little. Say ‘If not this, then how do you see yourself?’ Nudge them. Ask a couple of times. Eventually most people will say yes.” For key positions, she suggests brainstorming about possible candidates and then approaching the person you choose like this: “Tell why they’d be good at it, and then give them time to think about it. Say ‘I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.’ It’s worked for us.”

But if a parent’s circumstances make volunteering impossible, accept the refusal graciously. One way to do this is to ask them to recommend someone else. Then thank them for the recommendation. The person will feel good to have been of help, and those good feelings might translate into a desire to volunteer when the person is able.

Support Your Volunteers and Their Ideas

Once someone has volunteered, it’s vital to support them, especially if they have stepped into a leadership role. That means allowing them the freedom to run an event the way they want to, even if that’s not how it was done before. “When people decide to chair, they deserve to have artistic license to run it the way they choose as long as they follow school rules,” Hodgson says. “It’s their show; you shouldn’t micromanage.”

At Hodgson’s school, a parent wanted to have an art contest as part of the spring fundraiser, with the goal of creating an international T-shirt that would become part of a new school uniform. Kolter, the only elementary foreign languages and cultures magnet school in Texas, features a comprehensive language program for kindergarten through 5th grade in Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish. The new T-shirts feature artwork reflecting a country’s culture as interpreted by students learning about the country’s language and art.

To build support for this parent’s T-shirt idea, Hodgson helped win approval from the principal and teachers and other PTO chairpeople before the idea was presented at a PTO meeting. “You need to get support before you walk into that room to vote, just like at any level of politics,” she says.

Think Like a Parent

Offer activities that will make life easier for busy parents, such as dinner or talks on topics of interest. The Flint Hill PTA holds short meetings followed by speakers such as a police officer addressing cyberbullying and a professional tutor.

Parents also appreciate opportunities to get to know other parents. The Kolter School hosted an adults-only PTO involvement party at someone’s house during the evening. All school parents were invited to this wine and cheese social to learn how they could become involved in the PTO. The executive board members introduced themselves and offered examples of easy ways to get involved.

“It was like an evening out,” Hodgson says. “There weren’t that many people, but all who came wanted to volunteer, and they were parents we’d never seen before. I found that the most important information to convey was that working parents were able to volunteer. Many volunteer positions involved independent computer work—spreadsheets, emails, creating flyers—and could be done by a full-time working parent.”

And recognize that many parents, especially those who are new to the school, want to help in their child’s classroom. So let the message to volunteer come not just from the PTO but also from the teachers. “Parents aren’t always clear on how the PTO meeting will transfer to their child’s classroom,” says Hodgson. “So connect the dots for them by having sign-up sheets at Meet the Teacher Day that say this teacher needs this volunteer position.”

In addition, don’t focus on attendance at PTO meetings as a sign of involvement. “I have a lot of people who say they can’t go to a PTO meeting,” Hodgson says. “I say, ‘I can help you. I can give your report at the meeting. You can do the flyer at home or recruit volunteers through PTO Manager [PTO Today’s online database for parent groups] or call volunteers during the evenings or weekends.’ That’s a great obstacle breaker. I’m surprised by how many parents want to help but can’t get out of the house at night or be at meetings during the day. We have to be creative in ways to help them volunteer.”

Say Thanks

Sometimes there’s such a focus on completing a project that individual thank-yous get overlooked. But everyone likes to feel appreciated, so make sure that you express your gratitude to everyone who volunteered. “We can’t say thank you enough,” Stetzenbach says. “When we see parents we’ll say, ‘That display case looks great’ or ‘You did a great job with Family Fun Day.’” Hodgson makes those thank-yous a part of every communication. “Every time I send an email to a chair or a volunteer, no matter what it is, I thank them for their effort or idea or hard work,” she says. “It’s the easiest, smallest thing.”

6 Involvement Builders

  1. Assume that all parents want to help their child’s school. Also assume that all parents are busy. Then find ways to make it easy for parents to find time in their schedules to volunteer.

  2. Alert parents early about events so they can put them on their calendars and fit them into their busy schedules.

  3. Start reaching out to parents before school starts with summer get-togethers.

  4. Wear name tags so people get to know who you are.

  5. Display all contact information (phone numbers and emails) for PTO officers prominently on the website and include them in all communication.

  6. Send thank-you notes to volunteers throughout the year.


# Elaine DiIeso 2013-01-22 14:28
I am responsible for Parent Engagement in the daycare that I work at. We are a non-profit organization which means money is tight. I was searching the internet and came across PTO it has answered many of my questions. This is a new position at the center and I would like to become more organized and more informed on the ways to have my parents become more involved in their child's school. You have many articles and brochures that can be down loaded or free. When you say free do you actually mean free?
# Craig Bystrynski 2013-01-22 15:18
Hi Elaine -- I'm glad you've found our site to be helpful. Almost everything we offer is free to parent group leaders. We do have some detailed toolkits; a software program for managing your finances and organizing volunteers; and a membership that among other things gives you access to a discounted insurance pool. Beyond that, pretty much everything we offer is free. Here are links to some of those extra services. Best wishes to you and your group!

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