Concerns about how they'll be treated if they stop volunteering makes some parents avoid getting involved at all.

by Tim Sullivan


As a parent group leader, I’m usually the one trying to get other parents to jump in. But in church a couple weeks back, I was the recruited rather than the recruiter, and thinking about my reaction that day has helped me understand the parent group challenge a bit better.

The speaker was inviting men of the parish to join a prayer and social group that has been growing for about a year now. As the invitation talk drew to a close, the speaker, Jim, openly addressed what he called the “fear of quitting,” and it struck me as one of the fundamental challenges facing PTOs and PTAs, too.

What’s Fear of Quitting? According to Jim, it’s the worry that potential members have that if they attend (or volunteer) only once, they will have to explain later to a friend or acquaintance why they’ve stopped attending. They don’t join at all because they fear that quitting sometime down the road will be awkward or difficult.

It was a light bulb moment for me. I’ve addressed Fear of the Black Hole in previous columns (“If I volunteer once, they’ll suck me into a huge volunteer commitment that I’ll never get out of”), but I’d say Fear of Quitting is an equally important challenge.

While Fear of the Black Hole is a reality for all volunteer organizations, Fear of Quitting is unique to organizations where volunteers and nonvolunteers rub elbows all the time. It’s not that hard to quit a group where—once you’re gone—you’ll rarely see that group’s volunteers and leaders again. But if a parent quits your PTO, or even significantly reduces her volunteer commitment, she knows she’s still going to see the PTO leaders (and get the guilt pangs) at school events and Little League games and dance recitals for the next decade or two.

Could Fear of Quitting be affecting your group’s volunteer recruitment efforts? I bet it is. The real issue is what you can do about it. I loved Jim’s approach at my church. The first thing to do about both Fear of the Black Hole and Fear of Quitting is address them openly and often. It’s OK in your open house talk or in a newsletter to tell folks that you understand their fears and how you plan to address those fears. In fact, it’s not just OK—it’s a must. Ignoring the issues will just allow them to hold back your group longer.

To confront the black hole, a great tool is a pledge program (like our 2 Hour Power) that tells parents, “It’s OK if you can only give a couple of hours; we value all our volunteers, and we promise not to harass you for more.”

For the Fear of Quitting, it’s key that you create an atmosphere around your PTO that is guilt-free, and it has to start with your leaders. Getting involved with the PTO or PTA is a passion for you and your fellow top-level volunteers. But you can’t expect it to be the right fit for all parents in your school. I hear too many parent leaders offering some version of “I can’t believe every parent wouldn’t choose to get involved at their children’s school.” That’s the kind of statement that will keep people away. The most effective philosophy—one that will help you strike the right chord with potential members—is to assume the best of all the parents who aren’t coming out.

Assume they volunteer actively for another organization. Assume they work two jobs or take care of an elderly parent. Make your group the kind of group that appreciates the efforts and volunteers you do get, as opposed to lamenting (and openly wondering about) those who don’t help. When folks can volunteer and then stop without fear of reprisals or guilt, you’ll actually have more luck building involvement.

I still haven’t joined that men’s group at the church, but Jim’s message got me thinking. Knowing that the group understands and respects the challenges I face definitely has me closer to giving them a shot.

Do you understand the parents you’re trying to recruit? Do those parents know you understand? It’s worth some thought.

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