“How come you guys bought red balloons when the school colors are orange and black?”
That was it. One little, simple question. That was the comment that sent “Christina the Cochair” (not a real person, but you get the idea) finally and completely out of her mind with frustration.
Christina, seven other moms, and one dad had just spent five straight days taking care of the 476 final details to pull off the Family Dance and Jogathon Health Fair ’Palooza. Christina forgot the names of her own children—twice!—that same week. She hadn’t seen her dining room table since September. She filled out janitorial service request forms (in triplicate) three times for this one event. She regularly attends long PTO meetings.
But it was the balloon question, asked during the event by a mom who doesn’t volunteer much, if at all, that did her in.
For sure, Christina has dealt with this same circumstance before. In the fall, it was the mom who complained that fundraiser pickup day shouldn’t be on Tuesdays because “all the 3rd grade girls take dance on Tuesdays.” Last spring, it was the dad at the Family Movie Night who didn’t like the popcorn and wanted his 75 cents back. By now, you might have guessed that dance mom and popcorn dad were also not exactly candidates for volunteer of the year.
There are lots of frustrations for PTO and PTA leaders, from long meetings to unsupportive principals to bureaucracy to crazy time demands. But nothing rubs quite so wrong as the critics who volunteer maybe a 50th of the time you do but still feel it’s OK to criticize or question the work you’re doing (for free). Worse yet, those criticisms are quite common. If you’re a parent group leader, you will face them frequently.
The question is, What do you do about them? And the answer will define the way your group is perceived.
The wrong but very tempting response is to snap back at the critic with a snarky “Why don’t you try next time?” or an emotional but honest “You know, we try our best; it really stinks having to hear these criticisms.” While both responses are perfectly understandable, both responses will get talked about widely, and the story will be about how the parent group is just a clique and doesn’t want to hear from anyone. Or how you are a crank and it’s no wonder no one helps out. Unfair as heck, but reality.
If you can do it, your group—and your school and the kids—will be best served by meeting these comments with a smile. Trust me, as a stubborn Irishman with a temper myself, I know that’s hard. I always try to remember that the parent group and volunteering in school are my passions, not everyone else’s. It doesn’t make me better or them worse. I try to assume that they give their time to something else, something I’m not involved in.
Since the success of the group and parent involvement at the school are things I’m passionate about, it’s important for my fellow leaders and me to help each other not snap back at the critics. If you can sell a sincere “Yeah, thanks for the feedback—we had 500 leftover red balloons from the Valentine’s party” or a “Yes, we’re definitely not going to win any best popcorn awards here” and include a smile with it, then your group will be far better off in the long run.
While I don’t recommend jumping back at every critic with an immediate request that they help themselves, I do think it’s perfectly OK, especially after you’ve calmed down a bit, to reach out to those critics with a personal request to maybe get involved with that event next year or another event this year.
Try this: “Hey, I just wanted to thank you for the feedback last week at the dance. It’s always helpful. I was wondering if you might be able to help out on the dance committee for next year? With a couple more volunteers, we can make it even better.”
That’s killing them with kindness, and it works great on three levels: one, you’ll get some volunteers; two, it emphasizes that you listen to outside ideas; and three, perhaps most important, it makes those critics a good deal more careful with their words next time the balloons aren’t flying perfectly.