Volunteering 101 – Building a High-Participation Volunteer Program

Time and again we hear the mantra, “It takes a village,” and for good reason. It’s simply not realistic to expect a single teacher or even a school to meet the needs of every child with the tools and resources at their disposal. This is why volunteers are so critical.

Volunteers enrich students’ learning experiences in a variety of ways, from helping in the classroom to acting as communication agents who disseminate accurate information and voice their support of the school. Perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate a commitment to learning. “It’s a huge benefit when students see that their parents value education,” said Tammy Quist, principal at Estes Park Middle School in Estes Park, Colorado.

Despite these known benefits, soliciting volunteers is a challenge. Not only do parents find themselves short on time, they don’t understand how they can provide value. To capitalize on the resources parents and community members can offer, schools must clearly define their goals and the intended results to attract volunteers.

A well-defined program helps volunteers understand and support the broader vision of the school, resulting in a higher level of participation. To create a high engagement volunteer program, one where a broad group of people contribute on more than one occasion, consider these recommendations below.

Building Your Plan

Most schools strive for a high engagement volunteer program, but find themselves alternately burdened with no volunteers or begging the same small group of repeat volunteers to do more. So how does a school attract more than just a core group of volunteers and keep them coming back?

Step 1: Redefine what it means to be a volunteer.

“I think the word (partner) connotes a more participatory role for a wider variety of constituents who have a stake in helping schools,” said Dr. Layne Hunt , Principal at Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School in Benton Harbor, Michigan. “I think a partner might feel more valued than a volunteer.”

For example, when we look at volunteers as partners we encourage them to become engaged as opposed to simply following directions. Engaged people have a better understanding of their value and develop a greater connection to the mission and vision. Simply give volunteers a framework and let them dig in, they’ll often find the experience rewarding enough to come back.

The term partner also connotes a relationship as opposed to an interaction. Establishing a connection to the person, not just the task at hand, can have a significant impact. Simple things like knowing a person’s first name, asking how their weekend was and thanking them for their time go a long way towards building connections that make people feel valued, leading to high engagement rates.

By setting the tone that volunteers are an asset to the school they feel like a valued part of the team. This simple shift in perspective can turn the volunteer search from a scramble to find bodies into an opportunity to develop lasting connections with the many parents, neighbors and supporters of the school.

Step 2: Create an Intentional Volunteer Strategy

To find volunteers many schools default to a ‘more is better’ approach akin to throwing enough darts at the wall that one of them will stick. And while asking the entire school community to help out at any and every turn might find a volunteer here and there, it won’t help you build a volunteer program. They key to achieving that is to know your audience.

Volunteer requests should play to people’s strengths. Consider, if you ask an event planner to laminate papers or help in the nurse’s office, they might not jump at the chance to help out again. But if you ask that same event planner to oversee family game night or the school auction, he or she might welcome the opportunity to contribute in an area where they feel confident they can have an impact.

“People get caught up in ‘I have to get something done and I need to line these people up,’ but the reality is you have to create a relationship and find out where people are coming from,” says Haleh Rabizadeh Resnick, former president of the Kellman Brown Academy PTG in Voorhees, N.J.

Ads Ray Uhrig, former Volunteer Coordinator at Skyview Academy in Highlands Ranch, CO, “By having parents complete an ‘Interest List’ we find out what they’re passionate about or where their job skills or expertise could have an impact, and we ask them to contribute in those areas.”

This solicitation strategy enables volunteers to take ownership of their contribution rather than simply filling an empty chair, which often inspires the individual to keep volunteering, and strengthens the volunteer’s relationship with the school. By making the effort to understand where volunteers fit best, you can focus your requests on the audience most likely to respond.

Step 3 – Create the Corresponding Message

“I was bribed at a coffee shop with a cup of coffee and the promise that most of the stuff runs itself. They lied,” said a PTO volunteer from St. Louis who prefers not to give her name.

Unfortunately her story is not uncommon. Many times the scramble to find volunteers results in miscommunication or misrepresentation, which may fill an immediate need, but often leaves people feeling undervalued. Conversely, straightforward dialogue about what help is needed, the time commitment it will require and the impact it can have, generates trust and engagement.

It’s true volunteering can be hard work, but it’s also fun, offers insight into what’s happening at the school, provides students with more individual attention and helps build relationships that strengthen the school community. When building your volunteer network be sure to express what the work entails as well as how it can benefit the volunteer, the student and the school community.

A clearly defined scope of work, expectations and benefits enables volunteers to make an informed decision about where and how to make a contribution. Better yet, targeting that message according to the volunteer’s interests and expertise will reinforce your vision that volunteers are partners.

Proper messaging is essential to building a high-engagement volunteer program, but keep in mind that some parents simply don’t have the time or resources to volunteer. As you build your volunteer network, be sure you aren’t sending the message that those who can’t volunteer have less value than those who can.  

Step 4 – Implement Your Plan

Once you’ve identified who you want to reach and what you want to say it’s time to tackle the how. How will you communicate with prospective volunteers? What information needs to be shared? How frequently will this communication occur? The best laid plans are fruitless if there is no process to implement them, so the ability to answer these questions is critical to implementing a successful volunteer program.

If your school doesn’t already have a Volunteer Coordinator, either on staff or via the PTO/PTA, we suggest identifying someone who can spend a few hours each week focusing on communications. This individual can disseminate all volunteer requests, which not only reduces the number of people vying for a prospective volunteers attention, but can consolidate the number of notices being sent and coordinate participation signups.

Consider, rather than having the band leader, the soccer coach and the administrative staff all sending out requests for volunteers, a Volunteer Coordinator can send one notice inclusive of all the slots that need to be filled. To the extent those notices can be filtered to the audiences they are most likely to resonate with, those notices will have even greater impact.

If one person is managing the notices staff will have more time to focus on students, while parents will recognize the call for volunteers and know who to communicate with about those opportunities.

Evaluate the Response

There are two ways to evaluate the effectiveness of your plan. You can track participation, or you can track value.

According to Child Trends, 43% of parents volunteered at the school or served on a committee in 2016. However, the actual amount of participation varies by socioeconomic status, race and grade.

Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University, suggests that just under a quarter of parents in a typical school are what she calls “good partners,” including those who volunteer time. We could interpret this to mean that a 25% participation rate is indicative of success, however, we would be remiss if we didn’t suggest that it’s ok for results to vary by school.

Tracking value is a little more subjective, but no less important, because it provides insight into why your plan is or isn’t working.

Surveys are the best way to provide subjective data, because there’s no parameter on the information you gather. Would you like to know how well a volunteer was matched to an activity? Do you want to understand whether the volunteer understood the roles/responsibilities assigned to them? Perhaps you’d like to find out how they were asked to volunteer? Any of these questions could be addressed in a survey.

Tools like Survey Monkey are free to use and offer the flexibility for schools to build a questionnaire that addresses their specific needs. When these follow-up tools are provided to volunteers, perhaps with a thank you note or appreciation gift, you can collect feedback on virtually any metric you need to help you fine tune your volunteer program.

Join The Conversation

Volunteering is not just giving of one’s time but giving of oneself, including an individual’s unique knowledge, insight, experiences and personality. By communicating to prospective volunteers how and where they can add value you can develop lasting partnerships that benefit the entire school community.

Says Uhrig, “Two years after implementing a more personalized approach to volunteering, over 93% of our families have met or exceeded their required volunteer hours. I believe if you are able to create a personal, flexible, inviting and open atmosphere, your volunteers will inevitably exceed your expectations.”

Does your school make volunteers feel like partners? How can you encourage your volunteers to give of themselves rather than just giving their time?  


Child Trends Staff (2017) – Child Trends. Key Facts About Parental Involvement In Schools.

Educationworld.com Staff (2010) – Educationworld.com. Schools Recruit, Recognize Contributions of Volunteers https://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin420_a.shtml

O’Donnell, L. (2018) – PTO Today. 9 Steps for Better School Volunteer Recruitment. https://www.ptotoday.com/pto-today-articles/article/1193-9-steps-to-recruit-more-volunteers

ValEd Staff (2012) – Vanderbilt Assessment of Leadership in Education. https://valed.ioeducation.com/

Uhrig, R. (2015) – Hive Digital Minds. Building a High-Participation Volunteer Program.