“The first meeting of the year is standing room only,” says Christine Zona, copresident of the Northville Elementary PTO in New Milford, Conn., “but by midyear, it’s just the officers doing pretty much everything.”

It’s common for parent group leaders to start the new school year with a calendar full of events and volunteers aplenty. But by November, volunteer numbers and participation begin to dwindle, and by the start of the second semester, the same core group is doing everything. Fortunately, this thinning of the volunteer ranks can be avoided by communicating with volunteers, recognizing their efforts, and continually working to recruit new parents.

Don’t Keep Them Waiting

The key to having all the volunteers you need is treating them well when they initially sign up to volunteer. By doing a little extra work up front, you’ll be able to retain those volunteers not only for the initial year they signed up but also for the remainder of the time they’re at your school. “I’ve heard it time and again,” Zona says. “Parents say they sign up but no one ever contacts them, so they think we have enough volunteers and never come back to the PTO.”

Don’t stall out! Reenergize involvement for the second half of the year

Kim Forbes, the PTO volunteer coordinator at North Elementary in Somerset, Mass., suggests calling, emailing, or sending a letter home in students’ backpacks to all parents who return a sign-up sheet. Be sure to thank parents for offering to help, clarify what they have volunteered to do, provide the chairperson’s contact information, and simply reassure them that someone will be in touch. Make creating and sending group emails (and managing all those addresses!) a breeze with PTO Today's Parent Express Email, a free parent group email tool.

Make Timely Requests

In addition to reassuring volunteers that their information has been received, North Elementary is trying something new: a seasonal volunteer sign-up system. Separate sign-up sheets will be sent out for fall, winter, and spring events. “We have a lot of people who sign up for a specific event, like field day, that doesn’t come around until spring. When they sign up in the fall for everything, we lose a lot of people because they forget they signed up and schedule themselves to work or have other commitments,” Forbes explains. “A trimester sign-up system keeps things fresh in their mind.”

Show Some Appreciation

Another key element to keeping volunteers is to show them what they mean to you. Even though most people will say they don’t volunteer for the recognition, no one’s feelings will be hurt if you thank them. Host a simple midyear event, such as a breakfast, tea, or lunch, to show your gratitude.

At James Cole Elementary in Lafayette, Ind., teachers provide breakfast casseroles, doughnuts, cider, and coffee for a volunteer appreciation event before the holiday break. “This goes a long way toward retaining volunteers and boosting morale,” says PTO member Kim Jones. Other schools hold end-of-year volunteer appreciation events; at Northville Elementary’s first appreciation event last year, more than 100 volunteers were treated to a dessert bar and a performance by the junior high school orchestra.

Saying thanks throughout the school year can go a long way toward keeping up volunteer morale. Some possibilities include:

  • Presenting a certificate or a small token after a person chairs an event.
  • Publicly recognizing individual volunteers at meetings.
  • Including thank-yous in the PTO newsletter, on a bulletin board at the school, or on the school or PTO website.
  • Saying thank-you when you see people or when you email them.
  • Praising volunteers to others—word will get back to them.
  • Working with the local newspaper or cable station to feature a volunteer of the week. (Write a small blurb about the person, what they did to help, and their background or interests. Consider including a photo, too.)
  • Printing a “Thank You, PTO Volunteers” page in the school yearbook. Include photos of volunteers working at school events or even just having fun at PTO activities.
  • Issuing a volunteer card in partnership with local restaurants, coffee houses, or movie theaters to provide a discount for cardholders.

Bring a Friend

Once you have a core group of volunteers who feel needed and appreciated, encourage them to tell others about their experiences and ask them to bring someone new to the next get-together. LeeAnn Williams, volunteer coordinator for the Franklin-Randall Elementary PTO in Madison, Wis., suggests talking to friends at places like the bus stop and inviting them to a PTO meeting. Williams knows firsthand that this technique works; she was recruited at a birthday party she attended with her daughter.

Add a fun twist: Make recruiting new parents a friendly competition and award prizes. A rotating priority parking spot or “gold” name badge for the “Recruiter of the Month” will help hold interest and increase volunteer numbers throughout the school year.

Recruit Like It’s August

Most schools hold their volunteer recruitment efforts at the beginning of the school year. Imagine if you extended that all year long. Continually let parents know you need volunteers, and provide opportunities for them to sign up. Set up tables at every event, including at after-school parent pickups or on days your school is used for other events, such as voting. Or create a commercial on your local public access TV station to spread the word that you’re in need of volunteers.

Just Ask

Sometimes people simply need to be asked. If you see a parent at the school often but don’t recall seeing them at the PTO meeting, personally invite them to come. Ask classroom teachers which parents help out regularly in the classroom and might be interested in helping the PTO if asked. When you ask a parent to volunteer, be specific about the help you’re looking for. Busy moms and dads will be much more likely to agree to a two-hour shift selling snacks at the Valentine’s Day dance than to a vague request to help out with the dance.

Recruit More Than Parents

Don’t stop at parents when thinking of volunteers. Many grandparents and high school or college-age siblings would love to interact with students in the school. In addition, organizations such as the National Honor Society, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and many other service clubs may be looking for community service opportunities; members may be glad to work at school events. Work with the high school in your community to find students who need service hours or who are looking to complete volunteer work to add to their resume or college and scholarship applications.

Connect on a Non-PTO Level

Host a social event for parents and invite everyone to attend. Meet at a local restaurant or coffee house to socialize and get to know one another on a personal level. Other fun “parents’ night out” ideas include wine and cheese nights, movie theater outings, game nights, or instructional evenings, such as dance lessons or a cooking class.

Talk About the Benefits

Emphasize that the PTO is a great place to make friends. “I met some of my dearest friends through the PTO,” Zona says. Parents who are new to the school or community are especially looking for ways to get involved and meet people. Reach out to these parents and pair them with a “PTO buddy,” someone who is willing to call to remind them of meetings or offer them a ride. You can also match new volunteers with veterans to give them the opportunity to learn new skills.

Remember to point out how the involvement of parents benefits students. Remind parents that their involvement at school has a positive effect on their child’s academic performance and is a great way to create family memories.

Share Your Accomplishments

Regularly point out what your group has accomplished and thank everyone for doing their part. Make sure you tell them you couldn’t have done it without their assistance. Publicize the PTO’s accomplishments in the school newsletter, the local newspaper, and through announcements at events. Be specific about what you’ve achieved; say that the fundraiser paid for three computers and a software package rather than that the proceeds went toward technology.