12 casual comments that discourage involvement, 12 positive alternatives that build it.

by Christy Forhan


No one who feels committed to her PTO would consciously turn away eager volunteers. But sometimes the most innocent of comments can do just that. You’re juggling six projects, behind on a deadline, and hurrying home after a long meeting. The last thing you want to do is listen to a new idea or explain how a new member can get involved. Those conversations take so much time. But that’s exactly what you need to do if your group is going to thrive into the future. Consider these lines, guaranteed to kill the enthusiasm of the most wide-eyed newbie.

1. “We’ll have someone call you.”

This is the PTO version of the classic dating line “I’ll call you.” We all know what this means: a complete brushoff. A better way to end the conversation is “You want to talk to Sue Smith about that. Here’s her phone number. Also, you should add your name to the committee sign-up sheet in the office.”

2. “We tried that already” or “That won’t work.”

It’s wise to learn from the past. No one wants to repeat mistakes. But sometimes ideas that failed once can be successful with new people or a new situation. Instead, respond with “We had a bad experience once with a similar idea. But maybe it’s time to reconsider and take a new approach. Would you like to look into it?”

3. “Run all decisions by me.”

The committee has a mission, a budget, a work plan, volunteers, and a chairwoman committed to success. Why must every little decision be run by the executive board? That’s what a committee is for. A sure way to deflate the confidence of a chairwoman is to take away her power to run her committee. Let her take ownership. She and her committee members will develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments, which will build better leaders and a better PTO. Keep an eye on things, but don’t try to run the show.

4. “We’ve always done it this way.”

This line is sure to squelch any hope for new ideas. Just because your PTO has settled into a comfortable pattern doesn’t mean it is perfect. Change is hard, it’s disruptive, and it takes time. But often, it can energize the group. A better response would be “We’re so used to doing things a certain way, it’s hard to consider changing. Can you explain how your new idea might improve the PTO?”

5. “We’ll call to schedule a meeting.”

Few people really love meetings. Much too often, participants wander away from the agenda and turn the gathering into a marathon social session. Getting volunteers together at the same time and in the same place is vital to any project. But leaving an eager volunteer hanging is the same as ignoring her completely. Be careful about using “we” as a generalization, too. Saying “we” depersonalizes the statement so no one person is accountable.

6. “Call if you have questions.”

This line could be followed by “...because this is all the training you’re gonna get.” While the statement might be a sincere offer to provide help, it can also sound like a dismissal. Try closing the conversation with “I’ll give you a couple of days to look over the materials and I’ll call to see how it’s going. In the meantime, here’s my phone number and email address if you have questions.”

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7. “Why didn’t you sign up last year?”

Maybe you’re frustrated that a 5th grade parent is just now getting involved in the PTO. Where the heck was she last year when you single-handedly ran the book fair? But are her reasons that important? Maybe she worked, maybe she had a sick parent, maybe she’s shy. The point is, she has signed up now.

8. “We’re not allowed to do that.”

Are you sure? Can you explain why the idea isn’t allowed? Are you really listening to the new idea? Assumptions can get elevated to gospel truth simply by virtue of the passage of time. Try this line instead: “We’ve always operated under the assumption that we aren’t allowed to do that. But we’ve never taken the time to find out why. Would you be willing to look into it?”

9. “Have you paid your dues?”

Is parent involvement valuable only if it comes from a dues-paying member? Even if your PTO requires membership dues, think carefully before you confront an eager volunteer with this line. Making a strong statement about dues suggests that folks are welcome in your PTO only if they can pay.

10. “That committee is full.”

The unspoken next line is “...and they don’t want you.” Rather than cut off the eager volunteer, find a better place for her talents. Try this line next time: “I think there are already enough volunteers for the amount of work in that committee. But the A, B, and C committees could really use more help. Would one of those interest you?”

11. “You don’t really want to work with her.”

How do you know? Maybe the newcomer will hit it off with “her.” Instead of gossiping about someone else’s shortcomings, you could offer constructive advice to the new volunteer...or just keep your mouth shut. However, if a PTO project is at risk because of conflict within the committee, the president should step in to help get the group back on track.

12. Say nothing.

To really turn off new volunteers, just ignore them. Soon they’ll all fade away, finding an outlet for their time and talents at church, with Scouts, or at the senior center. On the other hand, making personal contact as soon as someone expresses interest helps get her excited and contributing. The next time you have a new volunteer, listen carefully to what she has to say, and answer with a thoughtful, sincere response. A few minutes invested now can generate a big return in the form of loyal volunteers.

Originally posted in 2007 and updated regularly.


# Merryll 2008-03-24 23:44
Well said. These really turn me off.
# Brenda 2008-09-17 15:11
Thank You!
During open house I heard a board member telling 2 people at differant times...oops! Book Fair is all scheduled, Sorry. ???What??? Thank goodness I heard those because I quickly and laughingly added..."But don't worry, we'll call you for Santa Shoppe?! :-)!
I just wonder how many more I had missed before I was able to get my point across, without actually having to speak to her directly.
These, 12 things not to say, willl absolutely be on the table of hand outs and helpful into at our next meeting.
# Los 2008-11-26 23:31
Good article
# Erin 2010-01-12 20:53
How about when a PTO president uses "I" all the time. Or "my." As in "my fundraising event." And "I have been working hard."
# Andy Derenthal 2010-10-02 03:54
Not ALL volunteers are women!! Yes, the majority of "homeroom moms" are. But there are a some guys out there that work from home that volunteer as well. I know that most of the volunteers I see everyday are ladies, but don't tailor your site to just the women. I ran a search for fundraising and got to this. Soccer moms are not the only ones doing their part in the support of our kids! Just sayin'
# SAHMing 2011-06-27 18:03
Whenever we have filled up our volunteer slots for an event, we ask if we can add them to our backup list. It never fails that someone is sick, can't help and then we have an opening. This has worked great and since we end up using them anyway.. they feel important and are willing to help in the future. Just a thought for others!
# Jennifer Johnson 2013-02-13 05:07
These are very helpful. Thank you.

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