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Escaping the Guilt Trap

There's a better way to get parents involved than guilting them into it.

by Tim Sullivan


There are really two approaches to getting more parents involved at school and engaged meaningfully with your parent group.

The first approach is the most common, and it's a recipe for frustration. For this approach, the key message sent out by the parent group, delivered to one degree or another, is that parents need to get involved because, well, it's just the right thing to do. Where are all you parents? What's wrong with you people? Don't you care about the kids?

I call that The Guilt Approach. Others might call it begging. And it only works for a small subset of parents and only for a short time.

Ironically, that type of approach probably worked on you. Most stalwart parent group leaders I know are just the types who do get involved because it's the right thing to do. You wouldn't consider not getting involved. You couldn't fathom not helping out at your children's school.

The danger is in expecting other parents to be motivated by the same things that motivated you; most parents are not. The Guilt Approach is like water torture: If we nag them enough, they have to help sometime, right? To a degree, yes. But many will help just enough to get you off their backs—or to alleviate the guilt. If you rely on the Guilt Approach, then you may get your five current core volunteers up to 10 or 12 if you're lucky, but you have very little chance of engaging dozens and dozens of key volunteers for the long-term.

That's why instead of the Guilt Approach, I advocate using a second method to build involvement: the Sales Approach. As an engaged leader trying to get more and more parents on your team, you have to sell the benefits of getting involved at school. While you would get involved just because you're supposed to, others need convincing about what's in it for them.

It's your job to convince parents that getting involved is a more attractive option than (choose one or all): volunteering for a different organization or coaching youth sports or getting an extra workout in at the gym or, heck, sitting on their duffs watching reality TV.

Just as the store owner has to sell customers to shop at her store, you have to sell parents on getting connected with your group. The best stores are clean and nicely decorated. The sales associates are helpful. Customers get a sincere thank-you as they leave. Those are stores I return to.

What's the equivalent for your group? Do folks who get connected with your group have fun? A lot of fun? Do new volunteers get help from more experienced volunteers? Do they get meaningful assignments where they feel like they're making a difference? Or are they cutting labels or the equivalent? These are the types of questions that are going to make or break your involvement efforts.

In the Sales Approach, not only do you have to say why getting involved is so good for parents, getting involved actually has to be good and fun and rewarding for them. And if involvement is rewarding and fun, you can spread the word about how great it is to be connected with your school. That's when the involvement gains really kick in.

You might be able to trick or guilt some parents into getting involved for some time. But if the involvement isn't rewarding and pleasant for those parents, most will subtly find a way to slide away from the group. On the other hand, if the involvement makes them feel great and rewarded, they will stay and become some of your best salespeople in bringing more parents on board. The Sales Approach beats the Guilt Approach every time.


# Concerned PTO parent 2013-01-28 13:47
How do you fix problems with the rest of the school or PTO not fully backing these ideas? I've tried for 2 years and haven't gotten any respect from my other board members or school staff. Any advice would be appreciated since I have considered not returning to the PTO and the more involved volunteering that I do now...
# Craig Bystrynski 2013-01-28 15:14
Often, change has to come in small steps. Inertia can be a powerful thing. You can see lots of ways things could be better, but your PTO's president might see any change as more work for unknown results.

I'd suggest targeting one or two small things you think should be changed. Work on those first, and build from there. Successful small changes can build into a bigger change. Trying to change all at once can bring out the naysayers and the "we've always done it this way" crowd, while proceeding one step at a time might achieve the result you want without the same level of resistance.

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