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Catch and Keep School Volunteers

Volunteer recruitment tips to bring people in, keep them happy, and avoid the pitfalls that will keep them from coming back.

by Craig Bystrynski


5 Good Ways To Find New School Volunteers

“Position available.” Write help-wanted ads to advertise the areas that need support.
Create a flyer or section of your newsletter with descriptions of the jobs you need help for. Include the duties of the position, the potential time commitment, and other pertinent information. You’re more likely to find a good match for your position if you publicize it well.

“There’s a lot you can do in just an hour or two!” Offer short-term opportunities.
You already know that one of the biggest fears volunteers have is that they’ll be sucked into a black hole of never-ending time commitment. One way to address this fear is to create a list of all of the things that volunteers can do in one or two hours to help your group.

2 Hour Power volunteer pledge program

“Would you help?” Ask someone specific.
The number one reason people say they don’t volunteer is because “no one asked.” Asking doesn’t mean a newsletter ad that says “new officers needed.” It requires a personal approach, and it works best if you have a specific task in mind. “Jim, can you spare an hour to help? we need ticket-takers for the carnival.”

“Bring your friends!” Make it social.
People are much more likely to participate in a group if they know someone who participates already. You can use this to your advantage by asking existing members to issue personal invitations to people they know.

“Thanks for your interest.” Follow up right away when someone offers to help.
Don’t let volunteer surveys sit around for weeks before you respond, even to people who expressed interest in an event that is months away. People are much more likely to follow through later if you make a connection now. Also, this is an opening to ask for more involvement: “I know you said you'd help with the spring carnival, but I wonder if you could spare an hour to help children pick out books at the book fair in October?”

Stress less about volunteer recruitment with the 2 Hour Power pledge program

5 Ways To Get the Most Out of Your School Volunteers

“Let me show you.” Use a buddy system.
When you have a new volunteer, have an experienced volunteer show her the ropes. Your new volunteer will get up to speed faster, and if your mentor does her job well, she’ll feel more like a part of the team from the start.

“It’s all written down.” Document everything.
Create a binder with information on your most common activities. Include resources, tools, and key steps. Don't forget items like tips for using the copy machine, how to handle cash, etc.

“Let’s work together!” Suggest job-sharing for big tasks.
Two heads sometimes are better than one. By sharing one job, two people can often put more energy and creativity into the work. This tends to work best if you have, for example, a chairman and a chairman-elect—with one person as the final decisionmaker in case of disagreements and the other preparing to step into that role the next year.

“You can do this at home.” Offer ways to help outside of school.
It’s common for people who aren’t familiar with parent groups to think every job needs to be done at school during school hours. Make a list of “flex time” and “work at home” jobs to attract people who can’t help out during the day.

“This is what you can expect.” Set expectations from the start.
You don’t have to be formal and businesslike with your volunteers, but let them know that you expect them to be punctual, to have a positive attitude, to abide by school and group rules, and to maintain confidentiality, if applicable. Likewise, make sure your committee chairs know what volunteers expect from them: the tools and training to do the job, a positive work atmosphere, respect for their time, and an understanding of how the task relates to overall goals.

5 Things School Volunteers Love

“We’re so glad you’re here.” Give a warm welcome.
Introduce new volunteers to others. Show them where the restroom is and how to use the copy machine. Include them in conversations. If the work environment is pleasant, your volunteers are much more likely to participate again.

“We’re doing this because...” Put the job in context.
Help your volunteers understand how their role relates to your overall goals or mission. Working on the assembly line is no fun if you can’t see the finished product.

“Thank you so much.” Appreciate every moment.
Let your volunteer know you appreciate her help, whether they donated an hour or a week, whether they did the most difficult task or the easiest. They could have spent time with family or at the gym or with Scouts instead.

32 Ideas for Volunteer Appreciation

“Whatever works best for you!” Let volunteers take ownership of the process.
People have different styles and abilities, so give them the goals of the project or the desired outcome, and let them choose their own way to get there. Don’t say “we do things this way,” especially if there’s no compelling reason to stick with the status quo.

“Your hour’s up.” Respect their time.
New volunteers are almost universally concerned that the time commitment will be too much. Want to impress a new volunteer? Ask them to spend an hour helping out, then remind them when the hour’s up. (And don’t forget to say thank-you!)

5 Ways To Keep School Volunteers Motivated

“That’s a great idea!” Ask for input.
Nothing is more motivating than making your own idea a reality. An atmosphere that encourages new ideas not only energizes volunteers; it also keeps your group fresh and injects excitement.

“We’re all in it together.” Give everyone a chance to participate.
If your volunteers feel like part of a team, they’ll be more motivated to do their part. A team atmosphere means making sure everybody feels wanted and participates. And it’s crucial to break up cliques.

“You’re really good at that.” Use people’s talents, not just their time.
Not many people will get excited about constantly being on the cleanup committee. But if you let the person who loves carpentry build your carnival booths or the one who’s interested in graphic design create your newsletter, they’re much more likely to do a great job and want to continue.

“How did that go for you?” Check in regularly.
Make sure your volunteers’ needs are being met and they haven’t become disgruntled. Personal contact lets them know you care about them individually, and it catches potential problems before they become significant.

“We did it!” Share the glory!
When things go right, share your successes with your volunteers. A shared sense of accomplishment can be a powerful volunteer recruitment tool.

5 Things School Volunteers Hate

“We don’t need you after all.”
Your volunteers show up on time and ready to help. But when they get there, they discover there’s no work to do. Maybe you have enough help already. Maybe the task changed and you’re going to do it a different way at a different time. The reason doesn’t matter. The message to the volunteers is: “Not only don’t we need you, we also didn’t care enough about you or your time to tell you before you came over here.”

“We just need to run to the store.”
When the volunteer shows up to do some work, all of the materials to do the job are not yet in place. While organizers gather everything that’s needed, volunteers end up standing around, waiting. The message: Volunteering with your group is a big time-waster.

“Good night, and good luck.”
Being given a job to do without proper instruction or the tools to do the job properly can be very frustrating—especially if you leave your volunteers on their own to figure things out for themselves. Most people won’t submit to that kind of experience twice.

“Just another hour—or so.”
You ask volunteers to donate an hour of their time. But it turns out to be the great elastic hour—it stretches and stretches until the job is done. They might stick around to see things through, but they’ll think twice before committing to help out again.

“You’re doing it all wrong!”
It’s OK to tell a volunteer when they’re doing the wrong thing, but presentation matters. Be helpful rather than confrontational. Anything that sounds like “You’re dumb” will cost you at least one volunteer—and maybe more if they tell their friends.

Originally posted in 2006 and updated regularly.


# Jenn 2008-06-17 21:46
Lots of helpful and useful hints here! Also, it is a good double check to make sure we remember how precious our volunteers are and to treat them right so they will come back again. Thanks for the great info. Keep up the great work!
# holli 2008-10-18 10:50
I really enjoyed this article, I can't wiat till our next news letter to put out our wanted ads.
# Sharon 2009-03-16 21:58
This information is so helpful. Thank!
# Chris 2009-03-18 16:21
Every year we have a morning tea for all the volunteers. We give them volunteer pins and show our appreciation by flowers and food. They really appreciate the special morning dedicated to them.
# Martha 2009-04-06 17:39
There are so many great ideas for bringing parents in, I'm excited about implementing some or all of these next year. I especially like the recognition suggestions you gave, I think we all agree on how important that is!
# Ray Newlands 2009-05-21 10:24
Thank you for the helpful article! After being elected last night, (the first male PTO President), at our school. I was hoping to put a welcome letter in the School Newspaper, saying thank you and join me. Any Samples?
# Lisa @ PTO Today 2009-05-21 11:20
Congrats Ray and thanks for the comment!

There are are a bunch of welcome letters in our file exchange http://www.ptotoday.com/filesharing/category/68-welcome-letters

Also, if you have further questions you will get great insight and support from other leaders on our message boards -

Hope to see you back on our site often.

# AmeliaDamlo 2009-06-10 18:34
great article! thanks.
# Judith 2009-08-11 19:25
I think if you publish in the paper the PTO board members (Pres., Vice, Treasurer, Secretary) and leave the rest of the PTO out then some feelings might get hurt. Take a big picture of the group as our PTO...someone may see one of their friends in there and may come...no one likes to go to a meeting alone not knowing if they will know anyone?
from a shy Judith :-) now a member of our PTO
# Lisa 2010-06-02 14:24
This article had some great information and good tips that I can use as a volunteer coordinator.
# adriana crosby 2010-07-07 12:42
To tell you the truth, I base my PTA meetings in your information. it is so complete and helpful that I don't have to look some place else.
# Debbie 2010-07-23 12:54
No need to reinvent the wheel, this article has everything you to have a successful voluteer program. Thanks
# Cedric Patterson 2013-11-07 19:36
I would like to use some of these ideas at my school.

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