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» A Culture that Engages Every Family, Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

» How to Revitalize Your School-Parent Compact, Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.

» How Do You Know if You're Really Open to Partnership, Anne Henderson & Karen Mapp

»PTA--Gateway to Engagement, Advocacy, and Access, Meryl Ain, Ed.D.

» The Power of Asking-Instead of Telling, Jody McVittie, M.D.

» Empathy in Action, Rick Ackerly, Ed.M.

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Volunteer Deja Vu All Over Again

By Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

For most of the 18 or so years that I have committed myself to championing the concept of engaging every family, I have heard the same or similar questions, concerns and challenges regarding the issue of volunteers in schools. Those questions seem to always be centered on the same themes:

How do we get volunteers? (Or How do we get more volunteers?)

How do we keep volunteers once we have them?

And my favorite statement: “The same five people do everything.”

It happened again last week when I attended a district PTA council meeting. Everyone in the room was eager to learn how to attract and retain more volunteers for the school asked the same questions and made the same statements. The depth and breadth of the conversation necessary to adequately answer these questions reaches far beyond one blog entry, but I do think there are some things that can be shared to help all organizations begin to move in the right direction.

Conceptualize Volunteerism in Your School

Many years ago, I was a guest speaker at a school parent workshop. The auditorium was packed with parents. In his introductory remarks the principal said: “I would like each of you to consider giving us one hour of volunteer time…just one hour. Just think of what we could accomplish if every parent gave us one hour.”

Steve ConstantinoI did a quick calculation of the auditorium and estimated that there were about 500 parents in attendance. Five hundred hours of service divided by 180 school days is 2-3 parents per day. My question to the principal was this: “Let’s say every parent takes you up on your offer, what will they do when they arrive? What programs do you have in place? How will the volunteerism support the learning outcomes of your students? You challenged the parents to think of what you could accomplish. What, exactly, do you wish to accomplish?

We know that we need the help, but we often don’t take the time to conceptualize, organize and plan for volunteers in our schools. Instinctively, we don’t want to turn volunteers away when they arrive, but neither is it productive to provide menial tasks because we don’t have a clear idea of how volunteers fit into our plans. If a volunteer arrives to a school and doesn’t feel that their time was of value, the likelihood of their return is significantly decreased.

Teams of educators can collect information on how parents can volunteer to support their work. Then, work directly with your parent organization to conceptualize and plan the work…then work the plan.

 If You Say You Will Call, Call!

By far the biggest complaint I have heard from parents over the years is this one: “They say they need the help; I filled out the form and said I can help, but they never call me.” This is much more common than we want to think. Some estimates have placed the number at 70%, meaning 70% of the parents who have been asked to volunteer or participate in some manner are never called to do so. Many parents end up with the perception that the organization is a clique or simply more interested in monetary contributions than volunteer time.

The solution to this one is easy: Call everyone who signs up to work. Thank them for their interest and dialog with them about their interests and ability to commit. With a pre-conceived volunteer plan, the scheduling can be done right there on the phone, or through e-mail, web, etc. If you don’t have a clear plan, call them anyway, to thank them and let them know you will be in touch, or share some opportunities for engagement. Better yet, ask them for their ideas and interests.  

This is Me

When my son was in elementary school, it was our turn to provide snacks…cookies I think. (Back in the days when we could have cookies.) At ten o’clock the night before, we had burned the third batch of Toll House cookies and I was in the car looking for something to buy that we could send to school the next day. Our house was as chaotic as most and baking on a Wednesday night was not our strong suit. (We did envy those families who could always pull this off though!)  

It gave me an idea. At the time, as a high school principal, I created a program called “This is Me.” (Remember, this was before the internet, web, social media and e-mail revolution. Yes, I am that old.) We drew a figure of a person. Down the center, we drew a straight vertical line. On the left hand side we wrote: “Things I like to Do.” Down the right hand side we wrote: “Things I Don’t Like to Do.”  When we asked for volunteers we gave them a “This is Me” flyer and asked them to fill it out. We then collected all of these flyers and had one of our business marketing classes create spreadsheets by categories.

When we needed people who could help build floats for homecoming, we called those who indicated that carpentry was something they liked. When we needed food, we were sure not to call people who indicated they didn’t like to cook or bake.” We a saw a huge increase in volunteerism. Why? Because we found a way, archaic as it was, to provide meaningful and relevant experiences to parents and volunteerism. Research has been clear for years: Families tend to engage more often when the experience is meaningful and relevant to them. (I’m quite sure it will take the Joe Mazza’s of the world 10 seconds to figure out how to do this with today’s web tools if they haven’t done it already.)

Are there other issues, challenges and ideas about volunteerism we can talk about? Absolutely!  I’ll save that for the next blog.


Posted on September 27, 2013 by Steven M. Constantino, Ed.D.

Dr. Steve Constantino is an internationally-known author, speaker and thought leader in the field of family engagement as well as the Superintendent of the Williamsburg-James City County School District in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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