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PTO Today

25 ways to catch and keep volunteers

Is your parent group looking for new volunteers? Here are tips to lure them in, keep them happy, and avoid the pitfalls that will keep them from coming back.

By Craig Bystrynski, PTO Today

Do your school parent group meetings consist of the same four people each month? Does your child's classroom need a volunteer to take on a special project? Are you trying to recruit volunteers to help with the school festival? These tips will help you attract school volunteers and keep them coming back to help.

Five things volunteers love

"We're so glad you're here." A warm welcome can win your volunteer's heart. Introduce her to others. Show her where the restroom is and how to use the copy machine. Include her in conversations. If the work environment is pleasant, your volunteer is much more likely to participate again.

"We're doing this because..." Help your volunteer understand how her 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." Let your volunteer know you appreciate her help, whether she donated an hour or a week, whether she did the most difficult task or the easiest. She could have spent time with her family or at the gym or with the Girl Scouts.

"Whatever works best for you." People have different styles and abilities. Whenever possible, let volunteers take ownership of the process. 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." New volunteers are almost universally concerned that the time commitment will be too much. Want to impress a new volunteer? Ask her to spend an hour helping out, then remind her when the hour's up. (And don't forget to say thank you!)

Five things volunteers hate

"We don't need you after all." Your volunteer shows up on time and ready to help. But when she gets there, she discovers 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 volunteer is: "Not only don't we need you, we also didn't care enough about you or your time to tell you before you drove 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 volunteer on her own to figure things out for herself. Most people won't submit to that kind of experience twice.

"Just another hour-or so." You ask the volunteer to donate an hour of her time. But it turns out to be the great elastic hour - it stretches and stretches until the job is done. She might stick around to see things through, but she'll think twice before committing to help out again.

"You're doing it all wrong!" It's OK to tell a volunteer when she's doing the wrong thing, but presentation matters. Be helpful rather than confrontational. Anything that sounds like "You're dumb" will cost you one volunteer - and maybe more if she tells her friends.

Five things that keep volunteers motivated

"That's a great idea." Nothing is more motivating than making your own idea a reality. An atmosphere that encourages new ideas not only energizes volunteers; it keeps your group fresh and injects excitement, too.

"We're all in it together." 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 with volunteers occasionally. Make sure their 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!" When things go right, share your successes with your volunteers. A shared sense of accomplishment can be a powerful motivator.

PTO Today provides resources for school parent groups across the nation. Learn more at

Comments from readers

"I think that creating a private online community for the school and specifically for the school volunteers is very helpful for maintaining ongoing communication with the volunteers. I would vote for (disclosure: I'm the founder). UpToUs provides a private and free community tools, specifically for parents. It takes 5 minutes and you can use a bunch of customizable sign-up sheet templates to organize volunteers for any school or calssroom activity. In our school, we also post pictures from the events to create some community feel around volunteering. "
"It was good to see the list of ways to keep volunteers, I have been trying to get schools to understand the importance of volunteers. Its one thing to have this list once you get volunteers, the major problem in schools is getting and keeping volunteers. I will however copy this list and give it to the School Improvement Team and the PTA parents that we are trying to organize at my son's HS."
"Thanks for the tips, my kids are in high school and I want to continue to stay connected and help their school as longs as I can. I would like to maybe give a motivational speech at their school. And inspire more parents to do the same."
"These are great suggestions, and our PTA uses most of them. Another we use is a payback system, in a way. We supply snacks and sodas for the volunteers to have while they are helping out. We keep a stocked refrigerator and cupboard in our teacher workroom that has a sign that says it is for those giving 'Their time Freely', and the school has always had iced tea available for teachers and volunteers. We used to purchase these from the PTA budget, but now we receive donations from local businesses that has cut this budget by about 65%. We also give a Volunteer of the Month gift to the person with the most volunteer hours, as well as hold a Volunteer Luncheon at the end of the school year. These gifts are sometimes items donated from local businesses(such as gift baskets, flowers or gift cards). We have wonderful parents that get each other involved. We try to recruit at all our PTA meetings (before the different grades performances). This opens the doors to all parents that do not understand what the school's particular needs may be. Thank you for your newsletter. It helps many find their way through hectic times. I hope these suggestions have helped, as well."
"This article is a great help! Thank you very much!"
"'No One Can Do Everything, But Everyone Can Do Something' author unknown I'm a volunteer coordinator and I think this list is gold!"
"Love it! I am a 'classroom mom' and it will help me too!"
"Thank you for the tips, Volunteers are some of the most important people at home and school. There are so many ways a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle etc.. can help either from home or school. I plan to pass this article on to my teachers. "
"Thank you for this article! I am the PTA President for my child's school, and we have a hard time finding new parent volunteers. I think our Volunteer Chairperson will find this informative. "
"Thank you for this article! I am the PTA President for my child's school, and we have a hard time finding new parent volunteers. I think our Volunteer Chairperson will find this informative. "
"This is a topic that really need to be addressed. I would love to get more new ideas on this because the volunteer is a dying breed!"
"Marvelous suggestions. I will pass this on to my PTA and put them in my 'Parent Binder'. Thank you for the great tips!"
"At my dauhgter's school. We Parent Club members have volunteer lists with all the activities listed throughout the year, and at our Open House, the night before school starts, we ask people to sign up to volunteer,and also encourage them to come to Parent Club Meetings....It works like a charm!!! We have at least 20-25 parents at every meeting."
"These are great tips that I can use when I get hired as a teacher. Having a binder to show volunteers how to use the copy machine, etc., will allow me to give someone a quick job and not have to spend more time than necessary teaching them how to help!"
"These are GREAT!!!!"
"Great! Keep sending tips on how to get more parents involved and creating a school community where most parents know and understand that they all must participate in any way that they can."