Many parent group leaders have the basics of volunteer recruitment covered. Send email? Check. Print newsletter articles? Check. Have current board members, teachers, and principals ask others to volunteer? Check. Check. Check. If you’ve done all these things and are still struggling to recruit volunteers, you might need a different approach.
Start by thinking about all the groups who are invested in a students’ education—parents (who might be married, divorced, single parents, or stepparents) as well as grandparents and volunteers in the community. For many of them, involvement with school starts and ends with the bus stop or front door. If they aren’t reading school newsletters or attending your PTO meetings, they might not know much about what your group does, what the school needs, or how they can help. To connect with them, it’s important to send messages that speak directly to them and ask them to think carefully about the opportunities you provide for them to get involved.
Lisa Hutter knew from experience that working parents could have a difficult time connecting with their children’s schools. “I was a working mom and couldn’t attend the daytime meetings,” she says. “I felt like it was hard to follow what was happening at school.”
In 2012, Hutter formed a working parents committee for the Byram Hills PTSA in Armonk, N.Y., making sure the first program would provide valuable information and be scheduled at a time that working parents could make it.
“Because many of the PTSA events took place during the day, I decided to hold our first event in the evening, at a local supermarket’s upstairs bar area. We asked the superintendent to attend and over 65 parents showed up,” Hutter says.
School administrators spoke about the activities that take place during the day so working parents didn’t feel like they were missing anything, and they discussed ways parents could get involved with their children’s school. The working parents group lets parents know about school volunteer opportunities, as well. The group has grown to include not only parents with 9-to-5 jobs but also those with other daytime responsibilities.
Keep in mind that working parents might want to take time off from work to help with big events that happen during school hours. Start asking for help far in advance so parents can change their work schedules, if needed.
Key message: All involvement is needed and valued, even if someone has limited time to give.
More ways to reach working parents: Make it easier for working parents to attend PTO meetings by alternating between day and evening meeting times. Make lists of volunteer tasks that parents can complete at home on their own schedule.
Senior citizens can be great school volunteers, but they probably make up a small percentage of your email list or social media followers. Recruiting grandparents as volunteers will be more successful if you ask for their help specifically and if you enlist school families in your efforts.
Leaders of the St. Michael’s Episcopal Day School Parents Club in Carmichael, Calif., realized that the grandparents who attended student performances and classroom events were an untapped pool of potential volunteers. After the school’s director of advancement learned about a successful grandparents club at a conference, the parent group found a volunteer willing to lead a similar club at their school.
The St. Michael’s Grandparents Club has about 50 members and hundreds more on its email list, according to vice president Mary Hanson. Members have volunteered in classrooms and in the lunchroom, taught sewing, overseen the school’s garden, and more. Grandparents often serve beverages at school events like back-to-school night and open house. Two or three times a year, members meet for lunch or take day trips to area attractions to strengthen social ties.
Key message: Volunteering at school gives grandparents a way to stay involved in their grandchildren’s lives and make a difference in their community. Let grandparents know that help is especially needed during the school day, when most parents can’t volunteer.
More ways to reach grandparents: Hold a Grandfriends Day event at school when they can have lunch with students and visit their classrooms. Find out whether your school district has a relationship with a local senior center through with retired senior citizens can volunteer in the classroom.
Events geared toward fathers can help them feel more welcome at school. If your group puts on a Doughnuts With Dudes breakfast or other father-focused event, get their contact information to let them know when you need help in the future. If time allows at the event, tell attendees what your PTO does and how you can use their help. By making a concerted effort to help dads feel welcome and needed at school, you could end up with a healthy list of volunteers.
Once every month at Sandburg Elementary in Wheaton, Ill., fathers and kids attend “bring your own breakfast” events before school. Parent Jeff Crowley worked with the school’s PTA to launch the program from All Pro Dad, which encourages dads to get more involved in their kids’ schools. The breakfast events offer a way for fathers to connect with each other and their kids at the same time.
“Each meeting, we start off with the dads saying what they are proud of their children for the past month,” Crowley says. After a short video on a monthly topic provided by All Pro Dad, attendees discuss their thoughts as families and with the larger group. “We encourage the kids and dads to both share their thoughts, and it’s a great way to talk about topics that are on both of our minds,” he says.
Key message: Call on dads directly for help. If they aren’t interested in planning meetings, meetings, tell them about specific projects.
More ways to reach dads: Invite fathers to school to events especially for them, whether it’s a weekend landscaping project or a special breakfast with the kids. Form a dads club that can organize its own events or pitch in to help with other school happenings.
Flyers and newsletters sent home with kids have an iffy chance of making it into the hands of the adults in a single household. When parents or caregivers don’t all live in the same house, chances are even lower.
Electronic communication can significantly help with this problem. Keep up a consistent stream of communication so that all potential volunteers can access information and stay up to date even if they aren’t at a meeting or in the same household. Many parents without primary custody attend back-to-school nights or open houses, making those events good opportunities to collect email addresses. When asking for help, be specific about the time commitment, location, and purpose. Caregivers without primary custody might not be as familiar with the school or daily procedures.
In addition, if your parent group compiles a school directory, give families an option to list more than one address as well as multiple caregiver email addresses and phone numbers.
Key message: Connecting with the PTO or PTA can help families stay informed about what’s going on in their children’s school lives. Parents can be active in the group without committing large amounts of time to volunteering.
More ways to reach multi-household families: If your school doesn’t share parent email addresses with your group, ask teachers or classroom representatives to forward your PTO messages to families.
Parent groups can form partnerships with community organizations to make it easier to round up a large number of volunteers for a big event. The Wedgwood PTO in Sewell, N.J., partnered with a Cub Scout pack to provide volunteers for the PTO’s back-to-school night, an annual book fair, and a holiday shop. Scouts have greeted parents, handed out refreshments, and run cash registers.
The Springman Attea PTA in Glenview, Ill., found a great source of volunteers for the middle schools’ 8th grade graduations by working with a local high school community service club. The 11th and 12th grade students helped staff the event alongside parent volunteers, creating a win-win for both groups.
Key message: Community groups with strong service components are an often-untapped source of volunteer power. Reaching out to these groups also provides a way to forge connections that will pay off for years to come.
More ways to reach community groups: Ask your members whether they’re part of any organizations that might want to help. Some schools have partnered with college clubs or service groups as well as with neighborhood houses of worship or local civic organizations.