“I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse.” —Florence Nightingale
It happens every year. You hold your late summer/early fall kickoff meeting to start planning for the year. The gym is packed with eager parents full of exciting new ideas. You outline the parent group’s goals—always challenging, because every suggestion seems like a top priority. You voice concern that six fundraisers may be too ambitious, but the parents sitting in the far left corner of the room insist they are all necessary. “We will manage them,” they tell you. “If we’re willing to do the work, then what’s the big deal?”
You walk away with what you know is an ambitious plan. A little voice in your head says you bit off more than you can chew; you did try to set a realistic agenda for the year....
You go home and your spouse asks how the meeting went. “Fine,” you say, and you change the subject. You don’t need anyone or anything dampening the excitement. There was so much enthusiasm there—this year will be the best year yet! And you calm yourself down by thinking of all the people in the room who told you they would help.
Fast-forward six weeks. It’s 7:30 p.m., and in just 13 hours the fundraising company will deliver 300 pounds of frozen cookie dough to your school. You need help—people to unpack the pallets, sort the shipment, manage the money, and call all the parents who forget to pick up their orders.
You dial number after number listed on your volunteer sign-up sheet, and on each call you hear the same thing: “I’d love to, but...”
Excuses. They can bring even the best-run parent group to a halt—and how you handle them can be the difference between a successful year and a stressful year. Here’s our No-Excuses Response Guide—specifically, what you might be tempted to say, and what you should say instead.
What you might want to say: Nothing—just stare intently at the person or keep quiet on the phone until they agree to help or turn away in shame.
What they mean: Most likely, they really would like to help, if only someone could help them figure out how to juggle it all. Between the boss, the clients, the kids, and the house, there’s never enough time to give back. It’s no fun feeling guilty and wanting to be in two places at once.
What you should say: “Is there something that works for your schedule?” Assign the working parent tasks she can complete at home in her own time frame. Maybe she can send emails, create a flyer, or update the website. Nothing turns off a working parent like asking her to swing by the school in the middle of the workday. The same goes for parents who work the overnight shift or weekends. They may not be able to help out at curriculum night, but perhaps they could serve coffee at the teacher appreciation breakfast.
“I’m so busy. I just can’t find the time.”
What you might want to say: “We’re all busy. But I still find time to do things that benefit your kids.”
What they mean: “I know what you’re up to. You’re going to suck me in and take up all my time.” Many people don’t want to volunteer because they’re afraid it will turn out to be a bigger commitment than what they had planned.
What you should say: Be specific. Don’t just say, “Can you volunteer?” Break down your request into smaller tasks. Ask “Can you buy the medals?” instead of “Can you help with the kindergarten Olympics?”
“I don’t have a babysitter.”
What you might want to say: “It’s OK for me to leave my kids to support the school, but you can’t leave yours?”
What they mean: “Truly, I don’t have a babysitter.”
What you should say: “Bring the kids.” PTO activities should be as family-friendly as possible. Sure, it would be easier to stuff envelopes without little ones interrupting, but don’t worry about it. Things might take longer with the family in tow, but think about the lessons the kids are learning when they see Mom and Dad volunteering. They’ll learn the importance of service and giving back. They’ll get a sense of community. And they’ll understand the value their parents place on education. When possible, offer babysitting services and some snacks so that both parents and children feel welcome.
“I don’t want to miss my favorite show.” (We’ve heard this one more than once.)
What you might want to say: “It’s called a DVR. Try it.”
What they mean: “It’s outside my comfort zone.” This person may be shy or worried he doesn’t have the right skill set for the job. People are much more likely to help out if they can work with someone they know and like.
What you should say: Before you say anything, take the time to get to know the parents at your school and then engage them in ways that meet their interests, skills, and schedules. Identify groups of volunteers who work well together and let them know they’ll have support. Also, parent groups often seem like cliques to outsiders. Make a conscious effort to be inclusive and open to new ideas.
“I’ve already paid my dues.”
What you might want to say: “Dues may be tax-exempt, but they’re not work-exempt.”
What they mean: “I gave you all the support I had planned to.”
What you should say: “Thank you—that helps.” Many people feel that giving money is enough. Some of those don’t realize it’s not. Explain that volunteering even a couple of hours a semester can make a difference.
Originally posted in 2012 and updated regularly.