It takes ongoing effort to cultivate the parents who will run the group after you retire.

by Tim Sullivan


For many parent group leaders I meet, the toughest job isn’t raising money or hosting family events or even getting regular volunteers for the fun fair. Those tasks are easy compared with finding parents who will lead your key events, or your whole group, in the future.

If you’re a leader, I imagine there’s a part of you looking forward to the day you can pass the proverbial gavel to your successor. And maybe you’re a bit worried that you’ll never get that chance.

There’s no doubt that volunteering to run a booth for an hour at the fun fair is a much less daunting commitment than signing up to actually chair the fun fair. Of course, raising your hand to help run the entire PTO is an even bigger, scarier commitment. So it’s no wonder that those jobs are hard to fill.

It’s exactly because those jobs are so intimidating that your group has to think differently in recruiting. It’s one thing to try to get parents to attend your meetings or events. There you want to make the events varied and the atmosphere always fun and welcoming. From among the parents who attend events and meetings, it’s not too big a leap to get a few basic volunteers, especially if you ask personally, define the job clearly, and limit the time commitment.

But everyone knows that chairing a big event or serving on the board of your group isn’t easy. The same old tricks (free coffee, babysitting, and the 3rd graders singing holiday songs) won’t help you find your next treasurer. That kind of tough job takes long-term cultivation, personal approaches, and a commitment to making the roles less taxing (both in appearance and in reality).

Let’s start with that last point first. If you’re the kind of leader who continually emphasizes how busy you are and how crazy-hard the leadership job is, then you’re going to have a heck of a time finding your replacement. That’s like trying to sell your car and only talking about the dents and bad gas mileage. Emphasizing the positive throughout the year will be a big help when it comes to recruitment time.

And that brings up the next point—recruiting and developing your next crop of leaders starts in August and ends in June. If you’re hoping just to place a paragraph in your April newsletter and watch the new leaders pour in, then you’re likely to be disappointed. Your next batch of new leaders will almost certainly come from your current gang of good volunteers. The more regular volunteers you have now, the better your odds of finding new leader types for next year.

The key is to create as many “test it out in a manageable way” jobs as you can this year so that you can increase your pool of leader candidates for next year. If you have a big event with cochairs, see if you can make it tri-chairs. Or quad-chairs. Give your enthusiastic new volunteer a chunky job on an important committee (“Could you run the delivery day for the fundraiser?”) rather than giving her no job (ouch) or a bottom-of-the-barrel job (not much better).

The final step is to make leader recruitment personal. When you want to bring all the parents to your family events, sending your newsletter and flyers home with the kids and placing press releases in the local paper are good mass-market tactics. But when it comes to finding the two or three perfect leaders you want for next year, that’s a high-touch, personal job. You probably know who the best candidates are already. Don’t just hope they step up; work on making it easier for them and thus more likely that they will step up. Invite them to leadership meetings, even if they’re not on the board yet. Take them out to coffee for a discussion. Work on making your job more attractive, by reducing or eliminating efforts that aren’t working or aren’t necessary anymore.

There’s no better feeling for a current leader than to “retire” from the job knowing that a great successor is going to build on your hard work. But that doesn’t happen by accident.

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Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly

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