Why getting enough parent volunteers is harder than ever and how you can still succeed

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The solution to getting more parents to volunteer is as simple as ABC: you ask them -- early and often.

Proven PTO volunteer recruitment ideas: Getting enough parent volunteers, especially for the PTO Board, is a big challenge for PTOs, and it’s just getting bigger. Fortunately, there are proven PTO volunteer recruitment ideas that will get more parent volunteers, even when it comes to Board positions. #PTO #SchoolVolunteersShare #volunteerrecruitment

Ta dah!! Now I can take a small bow. And then curtsy. And then smile and Queen-wave while I acknowledge the cheers, because I’ve just solved all your problems.

(Cue the record scratch) Not so fast, right?

Because that surefire, tried-and-true, annoyingly simple solution to getting parents to volunteer just isn’t working like it used to. And you’re probably really feeling that.

Even though PTO work benefits all families, chances are high that you’re part of a small group doing all of it.

Getting enough parent volunteers -- especially for the Board -- is a big challenge for PTOs, and it’s just getting bigger

The latest PTO Today survey of school volunteer leaders shows that

  • Four in 10 feel their group is being asked for more volunteer support

  • Five in 10 feel their group is being asked for more financial support

At the same time that many leaders feel like they’re being asked to provide more help:

  • Eight in 10 say they have 20 or fewer regular volunteers

  • Even schools that are used to having larger volunteer bases are feeling it: just 9% of leaders say they have 30+ volunteers, down sharply from 21% who said that in 2013

How many regular volunteers do you usually have during a school year? By “regular volunteers,” I mean parents who do at least multiple small jobs during the year (like shifts during lunch/recess) on up to coordinators, committee members, and Board members. 

How many volunteers do you think is “enough” to make sure the work is shared fairly, that nobody gets overloaded, and your group has a successful year? (I would really love to hear your answers if you’d like to share them in the comments below).

Answers will vary widely, of course. Because schools vary widely in size and so does the amount of time that parents are able and willing to give. “More” volunteers than we have now is probably a good place to start!

Especially to serve in leadership roles. Leadership jobs, like serving on the Board and chairing committees, that involve planning and coordinating other volunteers, are harder to fill than smaller ones, like a shift at a book fair or bringing supplies for a class party.

We’ll look at proven ways to get more of the volunteers you need to make sure PTO work is shared fairly and no one gets overloaded. The first step is to look at the reasons why more parents aren’t volunteering.

See how many of them hit close to home. Then we’ll look at the steps for fixing the problems that are giving you the most trouble.   

Why PTOs don’t get enough parent volunteers

#1 -- Parents are scared to volunteer

Getting sucked into the "black hole" of never-ending volunteer work is a real danger in many school parent groups. Parents see a small group of stressed-out volunteers doing do all the work and they stay the heck away.

Getting sucked into the "black hole" of never-ending volunteer work is a real danger in many school parent groups. Parents see a small group of stressed-out volunteers doing do all the work and they stay the heck away.

Many parents are scared to volunteer. Not shaking in their boots, exactly. But they’re definitely worried about what volunteering involves – often with good reason!

  • “The Black Hole” – Parents worry that by saying "Yes" to even the smallest volunteer job, they will get sucked into a “black hole” of never-ending, and often desperate, guilt-spiking, requests for help. Some parents worry that the help they can offer is not enough to make a positive difference, or that others will not think it’s enough, so they just skip it completely.

  • Burnout – Fear of getting stressed and burned out from working long hours to get everything done, with little or no help, scares away a lot of parents, especially from Board positions. I’m raising my hand high on this one.

When my son started Kindergarten, I saw how hard our PTO leaders were working and how stressed out they looked. If they couldn’t persuade other parents to help, they filled the gaps, all for the sake of the kids. So, they were running the PTO AND chairing multiple committees AND being Room Parents AND sorting fundraising orders AND stuffing flyers into backpacks AND dressing up as the mascot AND so on – on top of the work waiting for them at home and elsewhere.

So I told anyone who asked that I would “NEVER” join the Board. And I meant it!

Two years later I was Secretary and then Co-President. But only after our group took some really smart steps that made it easier for me and other parents to take on all kinds of volunteer opportunities, including leadership roles. I’ll give you more details about that in a bit.  

  • Failure and criticism – Fear of failure pops up a lot in life, especially when we’re trying something new or out of our comfort zone. Some parents worry that they won’t have the skills or know-how to do a volunteer job well. Some worry that they will just get thrown into a situation, “sink or swim” style, with little or no guidance and support. They might see how well, or how much, that more experienced volunteers are doing and feel a little intimidated. Some parents also worry about getting criticism. Not the positive, constructive kind so much as the cranky, complaining kind.

#2 – Parents can’t volunteer

Many parents can’t volunteer, or can’t do as much as they’d like, because there are not enough opportunities that fit their schedules.

There is often a big mismatch between what parents can give (how much, when and where) and available volunteer opportunities. This is a sample scenario. To get useful information about parent availability at your school, ask them to fill out a  volunteer interest survey and sign-up form.  You'll find customizable print and online forms below.

There is often a big mismatch between what parents can give (how much, when and where) and available volunteer opportunities. This is a sample scenario. To get useful information about parent availability at your school, ask them to fill out a volunteer interest survey and sign-up form. You'll find customizable print and online forms below.

Some parents can help at school or outside of school. A higher number – often much higher -- can only help outside of school. Some parents can make a little time to help, some can make more, and others can make even more.

When there is a big mismatch between the number and type of volunteer positions that a group offers and parent availability – meaning the amount of time they can give and where and when they can give it -- there will be a lot of unfilled slots.

This is especially true for leadership positions, including the Board. Too often, these jobs are so oversized and inflexible that only a small (and apparently shrinking) number of parents can even consider doing them.

#3 -- We’re asking for too many volunteer hours

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This is easy to do! Because figuring out how many parent volunteer hours it takes to reach a fundraising goal, or build a strong community, or support and appreciate staff is not a simple math problem.

We know that having a successful year takes a lot of hours. We also know that there are limits to how many hours our base of families is able and willing to give.  And the only way to figure out those limits is through trial and error.

Ways that groups ask for more hours than parents can give

  • Overscheduling - As a busy parent yourself, you know all too well that your group’s schedule is just one of many competing for the time and attention of families. Sports, scouts, clubs, faith communities, charities, and more are also scheduling events and activities during your peak times. And it really feels like this problem gets worse each year.

It’s tempting to pack the schedule with events and activities and tasks so that there’s no question your group is doing all it can to help the kids and the school. But if you’re scrambling for volunteers, including people to plan the events, and family participation in events and fundraisers is not as high as you’d like, your schedule may be more than families can handle.

  • Spending more volunteer hours than needed – Okay. So this is my nicer way of saying that sometimes we “waste” volunteer hours. I hate to put it that way because it feels too judgey and blamey. I think wasting some hours is unavoidable in any organization, whether it’s a business or a non-profit, but especially for school parent groups.

Volunteer helpers are always coming and going which is not ideal for running a well-oiled machine. Also, when life happens, and our families need us, other things may fall through the cracks.

When things do fall through the cracks, or maybe a PTO event or activity does not happen as smoothly as we’d like, parents should cut each other slack -- Golden Rule all the way -- and work together to make improvements.

The limit on how many volunteer hours parents can give – for specific events, or jobs, or for everything the whole year, is not obvious. We know the sky is not the limit. The key to staying under that limit, and avoiding scrambling for volunteers, is to minimize the volunteer hours, wherever possible, that you spend achieving PTO goals.

Time for the good news

So, those are the reasons why the tried-and-true solution of asking parents to volunteer, just isn’t cutting it these days.

Ask parents all you want, with a big smile on your face and an amazing flyer in hand:

  • If parents have good reason to be scared of volunteering because the “black hole” is real, or burnout is real, or volunteers don’t get enough support

  • If parents can’t volunteer, or can’t do as much as they’d like, because there are not enough opportunities that fit their schedules

  • If you’re asking for more volunteer hours than your parent base can handle

…you won’t get enough yeses.

Enough of the bad news. Here is the important good news!

No matter how many of these volunteer recruiting problems hit close to home, there are proven steps for getting a lot more parents to say yes when you ask.

I’ll cover the steps below, but first I want to help ease a concern you might have...  

If you’re feeling overwhelmed

If the lack of parent volunteer help at your school is stressing you out, please don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The situation your group is in did not develop overnight. So, be nice to yourself. Give yourself permission to tackle it over time.

Each step covered below will give you positive results. The more steps that you and your fellow leaders can take over time, the more your efforts will snowball. 


Need more help? If you feel the need to fix your volunteer recruiting problems faster – including filling Board positions -- and would appreciate friendly guidance from a veteran school parent group leader, I'd love to help. Check out my free easy-to-follow, fun-to-watch video lessons. You also get access to done-for-you volunteer recruiting tools and resources to save time and stress. Click here to learn more.


Making it easier for your group to succeed

The main goal of your group is to help kids achieve more. You do this by raising volunteers and money to provide valuable learning experiences, resources, and staff support beyond what the school budget alone can provide.

That’s a lot of work that adds up to a lot of volunteer hours. And the more volunteer hours you spend to do all the tasks, projects, activities, and events your group wants done, the more volunteers you need to share the load to keep everyone’s job manageable.

By minimizing the number of parent volunteer hours you need to have a successful year, it’s easier to do the work and recruit parents to share it.  

Minimizing parent volunteer hours spent achieving PTO goals

School parent groups have a lot of flexibility in deciding how to achieve their goals for fundraising, community building, and more. Here are ways you can use that flexibility to reduce the volunteer hours you need from parent volunteers.

  • “Declutter” outdated and low priority tasks – Groups and their needs change over time. Scan the list of committees and jobs your group has every year. Are there responsibilities that no longer fit or can be downsized? Are there events and activities that have low participation? Are there things that are “nice to have” but not required for a successful year?

  • Take a “less is more” approach to scheduling – Sponsoring fewer events and activities will help you get more out of the ones you commit to. More funds, more fun, more participation. It puts less pressure on volunteers and families right from the start and still gives you the flexibility to add things later if you have enough volunteer power and interest.

  • Make events and activities easier – Ways to reduce the number of hours needed from parents include: shortening duration (fewer days or hours), simplifying (fewer parts and streamlining processes), and outsourcing all or parts to older students (elementary through college), community service groups, or vendors.

  • Swap harder events for easier ones - Think of the “harder” events and fundraisers your group does – the ones that require the highest amount of volunteer hours to plan and carry out successfully. For many groups, these are events like carnivals/fairs, auctions/galas, “thons” (fun runs, walk-a-thons, etc.), golf tournaments, holiday shops, some product sales, etc.

If you’ve tried making the event or fundraiser easier, but volunteer support still comes up short, or if you’re group is just ready for a change, replace one or more of your “harder” events and fundraisers with easier ones to decrease the pressure of finding volunteers.

Working "smarter" to reduce parent volunteer hours and stress

We often hear that we should “work smarter, not harder.” Which is good, because many volunteers are doing so much to help the kids, that working harder is clearly not an option. So, let’s look at ways that PTOs can “work smarter” to reduce volunteer hours and stress.

Good organization and processes will help you use conserve volunteer hours and get things done as efficiently as possible.

  • Documentation - If they’re not already written down, have Board members, committee chairs, coordinators and other leaders describe what they do, how they do it, and key dates and keep these current. Having this documentation makes doing the work and training new volunteers much easier for everyone involved.

  • Save and reuse resources - Save all your flyers, donation letters, etc., so you can reuse them whenever possible to save time.

  • Store and share files online – Storing all your group’s files in a central place online, like Google Drive or Dropbox, makes it much easier to train people, help one another, and ensure that important information is safely backed up and always at your fingertips. Some people prefer paper planners and binders. Planners that offer the best of both worlds are the type with fillable PDF pages that can be saved online and printed too.

Time-saving software tools will help you work even more efficiently and effectively. Basically, anything you need to run a business or organization is available for free or at reasonable cost, including:

  • Banking, accounting and credit card payments

  • Calendars and meeting scheduling

  • Communication – Web, email, social media, messaging, video conferencing, etc.

  • Graphic design

  • Online fundraising – shopping fundraisers, donations, auctions, etc.

  • Online sales of tickets, merchandise, etc.

  • Event registration and management

  • Volunteer signup and management

Good volunteer training and support will help your school volunteers get up to speed more quickly and be more likely to have a positive experience and volunteer again. Your group will benefit from having:

  • Good documentation of job responsibilities and processes and who volunteers can contact with questions

  • Volunteer orientation and transition or “hand off” meeting with a predecessor if that applies

  • Volunteer Chair or Coordinator in charge of matching candidates to jobs, coordinating volunteer training and appreciation.

Making volunteering easier and more attractive

Everyone (including you!) is busy with important priorities. It’s much easier to recruit volunteers for manageable jobs that can fit busy schedules than it is to fill jobs that are so large or inflexible (or both) that most parents can’t even consider them.

Make Board positions more manageable and accessible

If your group struggles to fill Board positions, making these important jobs more manageable, will go a long way towards fixing the problem.

School parent groups are typically managed by a Board of elected officers. Board make-up is decided by each group and varies widely, but it’s common for boards to have at least a President, Treasurer, and Secretary. Vice Presidents, and shared offices, like Co-Presidents, Co-Vice Presidents, are also common.

On paper, Board positions usually sound pretty reasonable. In reality, though, they often grow into oversized jobs that burn out board members and scare away successors.

  • Minimize total volunteer hours - The Board is responsible for the overall management of the group. So, everything you do to reduce the volunteer hours your group spends achieving goals, like the steps covered under “Minimizing parent volunteer hours spent achieving PTO goals,” helps make Board positions manageable.

  • Delegating is so important to making Board jobs more manageable and keeping them that way.

    • Delegate permanently - Break up oversized Board positions and permanently assign parts to other leaders who are willing and able to do them, or create new manageable roles for new volunteers.

    • Delegate routinely – Board members should ask others to share or handle tasks and projects on a regular basis so they don’t get overwhelmed.

For more tips on breaking up jobs into parts more parents can do, see “Think outside the school” below.

  • Be flexible about how you conduct Board business (or any committee business for that matter) will help open these positions up to more parents.

    • Meeting schedule - Being open to changing the timing and frequency of Board or general membership meetings or both as needed will make it possible for more parents to consider taking Board positions.

    • Technology - Conference calls, including with video, make it easier for more parents to participate either from home or the office.

    • Bylaw changes - Remember that your group’s bylaws are not set in stone. So even when your bylaws outline some of the details of how you do business, e.g., job responsibilities, meeting requirements, voting rules, etc., they can be changed as needed to fit the ever-changing needs of your group.

Make other leadership and helper roles manageable and accessible to more parents

Volunteer jobs tend to fall into two main categories:

  • Leadership roles - Involve planning, project management, and carrying out plans, including possibly coordinating the work of other volunteers. In addition to Board positions, common leadership roles include co-chairs, subcommittee chairs, and coordinators. They could responsible for one-time projects (e.g., planning a family math night, organizing concessions for a dance) or for ongoing jobs (e.g., Social Committee Co-Chair, Box Tops Coordinator, Room Parent). Leaders help recruit and coordinate helpers.

  • Helper roles - Helper roles involve doing tasks, like making copies, or selling tickets, or helping kids at lunch, that have been defined by someone else.

All leader and helper roles can be broken into smaller parts to make them manageable and accessible to more parents. The bigger the job, the more you will have to break it up to get the work done without overloading anyone.

There are a number of ways to divide up work, including:

  • Task

  • Date

  • Timeslot

  • Location (e.g., within the school, outside of school)

  • Group involved (e.g., class, grade)

Or some combination of these.

Sometimes slicing a job by task or date will be enough. Other times, you might need to keep slicing and dicing (by location, timeslot, etc.) until you create the right mix of jobs. The goal is to end up with a list of manageable jobs that will get everything done and matches well with volunteer availability.

Think outside the school

Some parents can help at school and outside of school. A higher number can only help outside of school. Offer more volunteer roles that can be done outside of school and you will get more helpers.

One hundred percent of some volunteer jobs, like helping at lunch/recess, must be done at school. Most jobs and events, however, involve at least some tasks that can be done outside of school, including:

o   Accounting/banking

o   Communication (e.g., updating web site, social media, email)

o   Cooking

o   Data entry

o   Deliveries/distribution

o   Designing/making (e.g, flyers, decorations, gifts)

o   Documentation/record keeping

o   Editing/proofreading

o   Meetings

o   Planning/research

o   Preparing materials (e.g, cutting, sorting, collating)

o   Purchasing

o   Recruiting

o   Selling/soliciting donations

o   Training

o   Writing (e.g., marketing text, grants, correspondence, documentation)

Offering more of these kinds of tasks as volunteer opportunities makes it easier for more parents to help.

Ask everyone to do at least one small thing and appreciate everything

Ask everyone — Moms and Dads, “stay-at-home” parents and those who “work outside the home,” busy people and busy people (because, let’s be real, everyone’s busy juggling important priorities) — to commit to doing at least one small volunteer task. Assure parents that even just doing the minimum will help and be appreciated and they won’t be pressured to give more.

Many parents will do more. By starting with a small request, though, a larger number of parents will commit to helping. Offering small volunteer opportunities (even ones as small as bringing cups to an event) also shows parents that helping the kids takes a big group effort. It says that all help is welcome and even small contributions are appreciated and add up to good things for the kids.

Volunteering often leads to more volunteering, including bigger jobs. So, getting more parents started, even with small tasks, grows your base of helpers and leaders.


Done-for-you Volunteer Interest Survey & Sign-up Forms

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Customize for your group and then share them in your welcome packets and by email, web, and social media.  


In conclusion… YOU are AWESOME

YOU are AWESOME for all that you do for the kids, families, and the school. Your caring, creativity, time, and effort help the kids be all that they can be.

You deserve a ton of thanks. And a lot of help from other parents.

You can get enough parent volunteers

  • To help the kids achieve more and be happier doing it

  • To share PTO work fairly

  • To have a successful year without getting burned out

By making volunteering easier and more attractive for more parents and minimizing the volunteer hours your group needs to succeed, you will get more YESes when you ask.

You are also BUSY! And I’m not sure how much help you have tackling this challenge

  • If fixing the parent volunteer problems at your school feels overwhelming

  • If you’re not sure where to start to make the biggest difference as quickly as possible

  • If you’d love to get friendly, experienced guidance so you can tackle your group’s specific challenges faster and with less stress

Or all of the above...

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Please check out my free easy-to-follow, fun-to-watch video lessons. You also get access to done-for-you volunteer recruiting tools and resources to save time and stress. Click here to learn more.

What’s your biggest volunteer recruiting challenge? Please comment below. The more we share, the more we all learn. I’d love to hear from you -- and help!