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The Myth of the Volunteer Trap


Even the best “tricks” to get parents involved will fail if working with your group is not a positive experience.

by Tim Sullivan


Nobel Prizes could be won with the amount of brainpower that is spent trying to trick parents into volunteering for our PTOs and PTAs.

Door prizes for parents who attend meetings. Concerts and art shows that miraculously turn into meetings. Reward programs where parents earn school perks based on hours volunteered. Mandatory volunteering (now there’s an oxymoron!).

Versions of the above are attempted every week at schools across the country, and I’ve yet to see any of them work. Door prizes mean more gift cards for your regulars. The concert fake-out turns parents off. Reward programs and mandatory volunteering actually dilute the biggest advantage PTOs and PTAs have, which is their connection to a great cause and the chance to serve the kids.

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If your group is spending time thinking about or executing these kinds of volunteer recruitment tactics, then you’re focusing on the wrong things. There is no effective volunteer recruitment trick. Instead, the only tactic that has ever worked is attracting new volunteers and making sure that every experience they have with your group is as positive as possible.

Dozens of “please help” pleas will be wasted if helping out at your school is painful or thankless or—worse yet—if volunteering once at your school means that the volunteer will then be continually expected to help out even more. Moms and dads talk. A lot. And if the scuttlebutt around school is that volunteering is boring or inescapable or stressful, then all of your tricks simply won’t work.

The recipe for growing school volunteerism is the same at every successful school I’ve ever worked with. It starts with positive vibes for a few and grows to positive vibes from many.

Is the school itself a positive place that parents want to get connected to? If the answer is no, then your first steps are to work on that. Perhaps your principal isn’t strong on the warm and fuzzies or the school has the look and feel of a fortress. Your current leaders could start by communicating more effectively (making the principal look great and warm) or working on the welcome experience.

Then there is your group’s reputation and reality. What kind of message do you send to the school community? Are you always asking for dollars? Do you use mostly guilt language (“should” and “must” and “need to”)? What is it really like to be connected with your group? Are your leaders overworked and stressed or otherwise not that pleasant? Those are things that people notice. And they will stay away from your group if the answers are negative.

Finally, there are the actual volunteer jobs. What’s it like to volunteer for your group or at your school? Would most parents call it fun? Do they feel wildly appreciated? Do they see and hear about the results of their work? Are the time requests reasonable, or are they overbearing?

These are the questions (and positive answers) that lead to growth in volunteers and volunteer retention. One positive volunteer experience gets talked about and noticed, for sure. But one negative volunteer experience gets talked about a lot more. That’s the way of the world, and PTOs and PTAs aren’t immune from it.

I’m all for raffles and fun and concerts and art shows. Those are the kinds of things that successful groups do to add even more fun to the school atmosphere. But don’t fall for the myth that those tactics can work even for groups where volunteering is—for whatever reason—drudgery. Parents have too many options for where to spend their time, including at home on the couch. A 1-in-10 chance to win a coffee shop gift card is not the winning formula for growing your volunteer base.

So what does work? Hard work and attention. Like most things, success comes from a series of good steps repeated over time. For your group to attract more volunteers, it comes from making your school and your group a great place to connect. One or two volunteers having a positive experience, having their time respected, having fun, making a difference, and being thanked will lead to one or two more doing the same. And that will end in better long-term results than any other trick you might try.

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