People can’t offer to help if they don’t know what you need. Let people know what tasks there are available – and be very precise and specific about what is involved. You might have a notice board where jobs are posted, a Facebook page or website. Make sure you detail the tasks involved, skills required, estimated time commitment and due date. You can also indicate how many people are required for the task – a great way of getting new people to volunteer is allowing them to sign up with a friend.
Similarly, let your school community know well in advance of the major events and fundraisers that will take place during the year, including when it will happen and the sort of tasks that will need volunteers. That way people can plan their year and sign up for an event that suits them, and the committee can lock people in well ahead of the event, rather than scrabbling around for volunteers at the last minute.
Every school has a handful of long-term volunteers who have been helping on the committee and with events for a number of years. Allowing them to mentor more recent arrivals is a great way of a) avoiding burnout and b) ensuring succession planning by making sure there are people to take over as families graduate out of the school.
Newbies feel more confident knowing there is someone they can ask if they have questions, and it is a great way to learn the ropes while also allowing fresh new ideas in. This can be done in a formalised way or just allowed to occur naturally, but it is something that committees need to actively think about and ensure that mentors (and mentees) have all the resources and support they need.
Talk to Staff
Volunteering shouldn’t be restricted to just the parent body. Teachers and staff have a vested interest in the school and what happens there, so make sure they are included in the (relevant) major decisions. Ask them for their opinions and feedback. Send them information about events and links to the sign-up sheets. You should not expect or demand that teachers be involved in out-of-school events, but they should feel welcome and included.
Make it Personal
Tailor your requests for volunteers to individuals by asking for help in areas that are relevant to them. When you meet new parents, ask them about themselves. Maybe they’re a green thumb and love gardening, maybe their father-in-law is a retired carpenter. You can formalise the process by asking parents to complete a ‘Parent Skills Register’, which helps you discover the (sometimes hidden) skills and hobbies of the parent community. People are more likely to volunteer for a job if it’s a task they know they are well suited for.
Listen to Feedback
It’s important to ask for feedback from your volunteers after each event, to find out how they thought the process went. Get them to write a few pointers about what they did and if they’d change anything for next time. People like to know that their opinion is valued. Likewise, don’t dismiss the critics out of hand. Take the time to listen to their feedback – they might have very valid points, or else they might just need some gentle education. People outside of the organising committee often don’t understand the extent of the work behind the scenes, and why certain decisions were made, and responding to their concerns might be sufficient to quell their displeasure.
Make an Investment
Make contact with new families as soon as they start at your school. This includes new Kindy/pre-school enrolments as well as those families who start during the school year. Welcoming new families is something that should be done as a matter of course, but often new families actively seek out the P&C with the intention of getting to know people at the school. It can take years to build involvement levels, so the early interactions need to be seen as an investment that might take a year or two to realise. This means not dumping complex events on families from the early years – you don’t want to scare people off.
On the flip-side, you want to let new families know that the school has certain expectations regarding volunteering, so you need to make sure they have the opportunity in those early years to be involved in a capacity in which they feel comfortable.
While you want to promote your committee as a friendly and fun group to be part of, be careful not to go too far and make it seem cliquey or exclusive. Make sure you acknowledge new members when they come along to their first meeting by having everyone introduce themselves – there’s nothing worse than feeling like everyone knows each other and you’re the odd one out. This also might mean taking the time to explain to the new person about the history of a decision or the discussion so far when voting.
Encourage people to mix up who they sit next to each meeting; this helps avoid the little in-jokes and side-bar conversations that can be off-putting for new people, but also helps you get to know different people. The culture of your P&C and its perception within the wider school community will be a major factor when people decide to volunteer or not. Not sure if your P&C is perceived as a clique? Ask around (or ask the teachers).
Acknowledge your helpers
Most volunteers don’t want overt public recognition, but they do want to know that their contribution is appreciated. This can be as simple as thanking volunteers by name in school newsletters, using a photo (with permission) on the school website, community board or social media page. Thank organisers and volunteers by sending them a handwritten card, bring chocolates to your meeting, give them free tickets to the event they organised or hold a raffle once or twice a year, with a raffle ticket given to every volunteer every time they do a task within the school. Even a personal email to say thanks is probably enough.
The reward does not need to be big, and sometimes just a few words of thanks is needed, but acknowledging and rewarding volunteers also sends a positive message to the rest of the school community. It lets everyone know that volunteers are valued, and (hopefully) that you have a diverse group of volunteers. If people see a familiar or relatable face, they may feel more inclined to volunteer [see point 13: Be Inclusive]
Make a Connection
It’s a simple truth that people like to help their friends. Get your committee members and class reps to simply reach out and make connections with other parents. This has to be genuine, and some people are naturally more chatty than others (not to mention not everyone can be there are drop-off and pick-up every day) but if people recognise your name or face when a volunteer request comes through, they might be more likely to respond than to a person they don’t know.
If your committee is flexible with how and when it seeks volunteers, you will find that more people make themselves available. Not everyone is able to attend meetings in the evenings. Some people can’t assist during school hours. Some people (or their partners) are FIFO, or have no family nearby to act as babysitters. Some people might not have access to transport. Personality and skills also affect the types of jobs people are willing to do – one person might be happy to get up in front of hundreds of people and MC an event, while another would prefer to work at home alone to create table decorations.
Minimal is enough
Make it a policy that any type or length of volunteering is acknowledged. People will be more likely to sign up for things if they know that spending an hour doing inventory in the uniform shop is just as valued as spending ten months organising a fete. If people feel valued for their effort, no matter how small, they are more likely to volunteer again, and perhaps for longer. This can be frustrating to the long-term heavy hitters, who may be exasperated by those they see as doing little, but it’s important to remember those people are still doing more than most. It’s also vital not to judge others contributions by your own (probably super-human) standards.
Encourage input and ownership
Ask the parent body for their input for new events and fundraising ideas. People might be more willing to put their hand up to volunteer to help if they feel ownership or connection with a particular idea. It can be frustrating when people who aren’t on the committee and never seem to volunteer their time come up with lists of ideas of what the committee ‘should do’, but a simple (and polite) response that ‘what a great idea, maybe you can come along to the next meeting and we can figure out a way to put it on the agenda’ both acknowledges their idea (which might actually be a great idea) as well as reminds them of the need for volunteering without expecting them to run the entire thing single-handedly.
The most important thing for committees is to be open to new ideas, and not shut down any suggestions out of hand. Remember that asking people to propose a new idea in front of the entire committee might be very intimidating and can often result in knee-jerk reactions. Letting people approach committee members individually or via email to discuss their idea first, might be another way to encourage input, as well as doing simple online surveys to get parents to vote on a short list of proposed ideas/events.
Look out for groups who may feel out of place – this could be families who are new to the school, people from a specific language or cultural group, or even an entire year group who might, for whatever reason, not have well-established links to the P&C or a poor history of volunteering. How Dad-friendly is your P&C? Do you have a way of inviting involved grandparents to be part of your committee? Be inclusive and find out what would make it easy for them to get involved. Encourage volunteering in pairs or small groups, and advertise tasks that need more than one person.