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"Can you make a few calls?" may be the single phrase volunteers least like to hear. A simple system can make the task less stressful and more successful.

by Kathleen Whitney Barr


I hate calling people! But we can put announcements in the newsletter and send flyers home and still have only half the volunteers we need for a major PTO event.

A generalized request for help works for some parents, but others want a personal invitation.

I've been one of those myself. I saw the posters asking for a donation of baked goods for the bake sale. It flickered across my consciousness. I thought, "I'll sign up later," or perhaps, "They'll probably get more than they need from everybody else."

Then I forgot all about it. But the next day, someone from the bake sale committee called me and said, "Oh, Kathy, would you make one of your famous chocolate cheesecakes for the bake sale next week?" Barring a birth or death, there is almost no way I would say no. My special talents are noticed and needed. I am beaming as I say, "Sure, I'd be glad to."

That's the beauty of a personal request for help. One of the easiest ways to make a one-to-one invitation is by telephone. Yet the phrase "Could you call some people?" has caused many a valiant parent group member's knees to buckle.

There are two main reasons for this. First, calling is time-consuming. Second, some people are shy, especially when it comes to calling people they don't know well. To lessen the burden and the pain of making "a few calls," I developed some rules of thumb for committee chairpeople.

Don't give anyone more than 10 people to call (unless they really love telephoning). This pares down the time-consuming part of the burden. If you still have more people to call, ask more people to join in the task of phoning. You could even have callers ask the 10 people on their phone list to call two or three friends each. People who can't help you one way may be glad to help in another way.

Let people choose whom they would like to call, if possible. Phoning becomes a more pleasant job if there are at least a few familiar names on each caller's list. And people are more likely to agree to volunteer when a friend calls asking for help.

Provide callers with written guidelines to help them make more efficient and successful phone calls. This can make the task seem less daunting. It gives people a structure to get started. It shows that you are aware of the time and effort this job requires.

Provide script suggestions for the shy ones. This should be a page with a word-for-word message, with blanks to fill in to personalize each call, that callers can use until they gain confidence. I got this idea from my son, who hates to talk on the phone. When he makes calls for dates or jobs, I always find a sheet of paper near the phone with exactly what he wants to say written out, beginning with "Hello, this is..."

Basic Guidelines

Here are examples of guidelines and some script suggestions I developed for my volunteer callers. These clearly define the job so committee members know exactly what is expected of them.

Be organized. Have your list of people to call, with room on the sheet to record the outcome of your call. Note whether you got no answer, left a message with someone, left a voice mail, or got a yes-or-no response. Have a copy of your work chart to fill in when people agree to help. Keep track of whom you are calling right now. It seems basic, but once you start call-backs and leaving messages, it's easy to get confused. Remember, everyone likes to hear his own name. It makes people feel special. And they are. Joe and Patty and Jeff and Ann are people we really need.

Respect each other's time. Call at reasonable times (just like Mom taught you), not during dinner hour and not after 9:30 p.m., unless you've gotten a personal OK to call later.

Be concise. Identify yourself as a school parent immediately. You'll get a warmer reception if you make it clear you aren't trying to sell something. "Hi, this is Katie McIntyre from St. John's School. May I speak with Margie Ford, please?"

Write an outline or a script. Plan what you want to say, setting out the facts clearly. When you ask someone to volunteer her time, it is a mini job contract. Make the job definition clear. What do you want her to do? When and for how long? Where? Does she need to supply anything? "Mrs. Sharp, I need two more people to man the handicrafts booth at the Christmas bazaar. Would you be able to do that on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.? We're asking people to wear Christmas attire."

Make it personal. Think of one reason this person is good for the job or the job is good for them. "I worked the barbecue last year. I think you'll have a good time with the other dads." "Fifth-graders and older are allowed to help their parents run games. Mrs. Glass thought your daughter, Jaimee, would enjoy working the birthday ball booth with you." "Bill Short said you were good with numbers and would be a great cashier."

Be prepared to leave a detailed voice message. Be sure to state your name, what you need, where, and when. End with your name again and your phone number. Repeat the phone number. Give a time that you'll be available to receive their return call, or ask them to leave a yes-or-no message.

Be ready to be flexible with times or jobs. Know what other help you need. "If Saturday is bad for you, is Sunday any better?"

Confirm the job, place, and time if the parent agrees to help. "OK, we'll see you Sunday at 2 o'clock at the plant booth in the front of the gym."

Be gracious regardless of whether the answer is yes or no. "Thanks so much for helping out." "I'm sorry this won't work out for you. May I call you again another time?"

So when you ask PTO committee members to "make a few calls," keep the number of calls manageable and the message clear. It will take the sting out of telephoning. Some members may even find it a pleasant way to meet the parents of their children's schoolmates.

Kathleen Whitney Barr lives in Newark, Del., and is an active volunteer at the three schools attended by her five children.

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