The same scenario plays out in many parent groups across the country. Whether at board meetings or general meetings, kickoffs or carnivals, book fairs or bake sales, a look around might reveal the same people doing all the work. Of course everyone wishes it could be different—and logistically it has to be, for every volunteer parent has a finite shelf life as her kids age out of the school.
Building involvement may seem like just another item on an endless to do list, but savvy parent group leaders know it needs to rank near the top. Here are some smart ways to accomplish this vital task.
1. Make a good first impression.
The beginning of each school year presents a perfect opportunity to drum up interest in your group. Carefully consider the message you want to get across during those initial days. Now is not the time to kick off fundraisers—instead, focus on welcoming potential new members. Think open arms, not hands outstretched for money.
The Patriot Elementary PTO in Papillion, Neb., appoints a hospitality committee each year. Last year the PTO hosted a back-to-school barbecue and open house for new and returning families. Amid all the good food and good times were strategically placed signup sheets identifying various committees that needed members. Eighty people signed up that evening for future volunteer duties.
2. Meet and mingle.
Whatever the school event, parent group leaders need to make themselves known in a crowd. If you haven’t already, get some T-shirts or aprons made up with your group’s logo plainly visible, and wear them. Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Chances are the parents of new kindergartners are feeling slightly overwhelmed and would appreciate a friendly face and a few kind words. They are, of course, fresh potential volunteers, and their goodwill is worth cultivating.
Meanwhile, sign-up sheets on a table tend to get overlooked without an informed and friendly presence nearby to answer questions and build enthusiasm. “We usually piggyback on things like back-to-school night,” says Angela Hubbell, a leader at both the Harmony Elementary PTA and the
Diamond Valley Middle School PTSA in Hemet, Calif. She says people are pretty open to coming up and talking to parent group representatives who are selling spiritwear, frozen treats, or other items. The conversation morphs into an opportunity to get parents to sign up for volunteering and membership at the same time.
3. Ramp up communication.
Keeping the school populace informed generates interest. People want to know what the parent group is doing for their child’s school and how fundraising dollars are being spent. News could influence them to jot an upcoming family event on their calendar or motivate them to attend a meeting to debate fund distribution. Either way, it gets them involved.
The PTA at Vera Scott Elementary in Colorado Springs, Colo., set a goal last year to build community. Copresident Velvet Stepanek says a concerted effort to increase their communication channels helped quadruple the group’s membership. “We did a monthly newsletter. We started a closed Facebook group to get parents to join. We sent out communications through the school via email and automated telephone calls to get [the] word out. I think all these things helped a lot,” she says.
At Saint Joseph Catholic School in Bradenton, Fla., the PTO puts together a brochure to hand out to incoming families on back-to-school night, which takes place a week before school starts. The brochure lists the previous year’s events and proceeds of each fundraiser. It includes specific volunteer opportunities available at school and at home. “We find that the more specific we can be with volunteer requests, the better,” says PTO president Sherri Berardi. The PTO officers’ names, emails, and phone numbers are listed, as well.
4. Make volunteer gigs more desirable.
Manning the face-painting booth at your school’s harvest fest might be fun at first, but even the most dedicated volunteer eventually grows tired as the hours drag on. It’s best to keep shifts short, whatever the endeavor, because parents also want to spend time with their children at such events.
It’s also a good idea to match a parent’s specific skills with the tasks at hand wherever possible, or as requested. It could be that the accountant by day would prefer not to crunch more numbers at night as parent group treasurer, and would much rather head up the committee staging a Valentine’s Day dance. Never assume, but don’t overlook inherent talents that might benefit the group. It doesn’t hurt to ask, but also be sensitive to ways parents want to spend the time they devote to volunteering.
“Volunteers need a little freedom to express themselves,” says Jacqie Hegarty, Patriot Elementary PTO secretary. “We’ve learned from past experience that when they don’t get it, we end up with people not wanting to volunteer. It’s why we try not to micromanage committees. We try to keep our [chairpeople] happy. If they have a committee, they’re in charge of that committee and we let them run with it and do what they want to do.”
5. Offer small perks.
A chance to win something is one way to pique interest in proceedings. It’s what led the Patriot Elementary PTO board to offer door prizes at parent group meetings—giant bakery cookies and bags of popcorn from local companies, $5 gift cards solicited from area businesses, and items that sport the PTO logo. This year they plan to institute a punch card system: Come to all five PTO meetings for an opportunity to win a $200 family membership to a local swimming pool; come to at least two and be entered in a drawing to win a $25 restaurant certificate.
Providing childcare at meetings also encourages attendance. Try engaging a local Girl Scout troop intent on earning badges for this duty. Homework help is appreciated, as well. The National Honor Society at your local high school is an excellent source for tutors as the kids need credit for community service work.
Serving complimentary pizza or other dinner fare at a parent group meeting could spike attendance. Try persuading a new restaurant to offer free or discounted catering with the incentive that it will help promote their business.
6. Score a big “get.”
This is more challenging, but if you know how to structure things, a big “get” could work out well for your school. Just ask Chonnie Richey, former PTA president at Independence Elementary in Lewis-ville, Texas. Parent involvement was woefully low when she took over, and her corporate background told her she needed to do something to energize the team. “What we really wanted was for parents to sink their teeth into something tangible. Once established, that something leaves the door open for them to volunteer, to do other things within the school,” she says. The PTA set its goal on creating a school garden. The Home Depot and a local contractor stepped up to provide all the materials and the labor free of charge. It was quite a coup, and Richey’s vision was right—PTA membership increased 33 percent by the end of last year. Her advice? “Be more focused on mission, on goals, on programs because they will get you where you want to go. If you build it, I promise you, they will come,” she says.
7. Be generous with praise and thanks.
Handwritten notes, a mention in the newsletter, a special breakfast or lunch, perhaps a tea—ways to express thanks to volunteers run the gamut. Remember to do it often and sincerely, even if it’s only to say “great job!” in passing. Thank parents for taking time out of their evening to come to a meeting. Thank volunteers for taking time out of their Saturdays to distribute water bottles at your school’s fun run. No gesture is too small, no sentiment too corny. The people you involve are the lifeblood of your organization—and in the end, they make your job as leader that much easier.
Originally posted in 2014 and updated regularly.