No Time to Volunteer?

I ran into the incoming parent teacher group president at my kids’ elementary school the other day and she related a conversation that sums up what is wrong with volunteering:

“My friend asked me if I am quitting my job to become PTG president.”

Clearly, her friend knows something about volunteering:  It’s labor intensive.  And the suggestion that one would have difficulty juggling paid work with such an important volunteer position is quite reasonable.

And that’s precisely the problem.  As the scope of what PTA/PTO/PTG organizations do has grown (I’ll use the term PTX to include them all), the volunteer pool has become more constrained, which translates into more work for fewer people.  And that leads to burnout.

It is easy to understand why the scope of effort has grown.  School budgets are constantly under pressure, and PTXs consistently step in to pick up the slack.  Some of the needs are financial, and many PTXs make grants to teachers, provide classroom supplies, and fund field trips, assemblies, and other special programs.  The average PTX in America raises about $15,000 each year.  The other consistent need is for volunteer help that was probably provided by school staff in the past.  Here I’m thinking of roles like library volunteers, noon aides, and playground supervisors.

Moms have always been the backbone of the PTX, and as more moms have gone into the workforce, the pool of available volunteers has shrunk, leaving a larger burden to be shouldered by a smaller number of people.  The net result is that the same people volunteer over and over, often getting burned out in the process.

This is a problem crying out for a solution.  While we probably can’t bridge municipal budget shortfalls, there are things we can do to relieve some of the inefficiency:

  • Communications.  I think email was supposed to be an improvement over the telephone and newsletters sent home in the backpack.  Uh uh.  “Reply all” ruined that.

Step 1:  Streamline communications

  • Scheduling.  Most active families have incredibly busy schedules.  They aren’t looking for more things to do, and the things they are already committed to are on different calendars in different places.  Scheduling is a real bear.

Step 2:  Simplify scheduling

  • Volunteer management.  Volunteers are parents, parents have a lot on their plates, and they don’t always remember what they committed to donate to the classroom, bring to the class party, or even that they committed to help out.

Step 3:  Improve volunteer management

My belief is that if we could do these three things, we would take a lot of the pain out of volunteering.  And if we could do that, we would be doing a huge service to current volunteers and making it easier to draw new volunteers into the system.  Especially those working moms who want to volunteer but don’t think they have the time!

2 Responses to No Time to Volunteer?

  1. Tim Sullivan says:

    Good stuff, John. This is the time of year when all the school angst comes rushing back, and — for parents — “volunteer guilt” is definitely part of it.

    I agree that better systems will be a huge help. I only wish that were it, though. Two other key changes we need are: 1) schools actively welcoming parents and taking on some of the more professional responsibilities of engaging parents meaningfully (PTOs and PTAs struggle to make inroads if/where the school powers-that-be don’t see the essential value of involvement); and 2) some real changes in how we define and celebrate volunteer opps. Many parents are afraid to get involved because it actually is a huge commitment. The best groups break things down really well, encourage modest commitments, and celebrate all involvement.

    Great topic!

    Tim Sullivan
    Founder & president, PTO Todat

  2. […] the moms would welcome the help, both because it would relieve some of the burden (we know that recruiting volunteers is always a challenge) and it would create more opportunities to do things together, as a couple […]

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