Why People Don’t Volunteer: Ten Ideas to Get More Folks Involved

Last week, I wrote about the decline in volunteerism in schools. It certainly touched a nerve for some folks in my community. No one disputed that it is happening. Comments ranged from “I made all of my closest friends at my children's school while volunteering” to “there has been an increase in the banter that people should say no to things and protect their time” to “volunteers doing great things become overwhelmed with the drama and feel it is not worth it.”

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One reason cited many times used to seem like a lame excuse to me. Every year on my preschool’s year-end parent survey, a handful of folks complained that no one contacted them or that the job they were offered had nothing to do with their interests and skills and was not what they had volunteered to do. I used to find this complaint annoying until I experienced it first hand.

When I retired after over 25 years as an early childhood administrator and before that an educator, I thought it would be easy to volunteer my talents in a school. Of course, my preschool community welcomed me with open arms. But I thought I should also volunteer at the elementary school my grandchildren attended. I was grateful and wanted to make a contribution beyond supporting fundraisers and helping at the school bookstore, so I offered to volunteer in the school office. I was first ignored and then given a different assignment that was a total mismatch to my skills and temperament. I must shamefully admit I quit, the first time I had ever done so as a volunteer, halfway through the year. The next year, I volunteered again, this time being explicit about my skill set and interests. I was assigned a job that was time consuming and turned out to be unnecessary because the person in charge had already done it. So now I understand how people who sign up for a committee and are never called or recruited to do a task where they are not really needed or assigned a job out of their wheelhouse feel: Irritated and uninspired to volunteer again.

Another major thread in the comments to my initial post was that, for many parents, there just weren’t enough hours in their day for volunteering. As one parent explained, just attending a school assembly for her child (which she does do) results in having her pay docked. A single working mother stated, “After 10-hour workday, dinner, homework, cleaning, etc. I am lucky to make it to my own child's functions or even sit down with her for family time.” Another wrote, “I can't even get laundry done. I loved volunteering…for years, but now I simply have nothing left.”

When my children were young, before I returned to work, I was one of those parents who did the bulk of the school volunteering. I enjoyed contributing, was personally enriched by the experience, and learned important leadership skills. Like several commenters, I knew my efforts were important. I made lifelong friendships with other volunteers and experienced the fulfillment of belonging to a community. So as a former super-volunteer (think PTA President) who tried to recruit others, I can understand the frustration of the 10% that do 90% of the work and feel unappreciated.

On the other hand, I empathize with a third group of comments written in response to involved volunteers like me at that stage of my life. One parent pointed out that when trying to recruit volunteers, it is important to avoid “guilt-inducing and shaming tactics…that just drive people away… [It is also important] to actively work to keep groups from becoming cliquey.” Another parent agreed, explaining there are parents “who would like to be involved but find it hard to feel comfortable at PTA types of events. They might show up to a meeting and see that there is a core of people who all know each other and not know how to enter the scene…breaking in can be very difficult for the non-extroverted or people who feel they do not fit in.”

Finally, a commenter agreed with my theory that the shrinking middle class makes it difficult to “live the American Dream” and still put in hours volunteering. To afford decent housing, modest vacations, and medical expenses (to name a few) many parents are spending more time pursuing income, leaving a gap in volunteerism. “The middle class may truly be getting squeezed to the point where we are seeing the results in this way right here in our community.” The pool of volunteers is drying up as folks work longer hours just to get by.

OK, we all see the problem but what can be done? Schools and community organizations without the traditional supply of volunteers are hurting. Here are ten ideas from the readers who commented:

1) Find those volunteers in non-traditional places. Teenagers could represent the family at elementary/middle school functions. College students are often looking for ways to give back to the community. And don’t forget those retired but still valuable seniors like me.

2) Use technology more effectively. Why not use streaming video or webinars for PTA meetings for people unable to leave home at night? Embrace virtual groups for the many parents who can't be on the playground after school but want to be in contact with other parents. Use online tools to reach out. Embrace technology but balance it by following up personally (see next suggestion).

3) Many people will not volunteer via email or sign up forms. Email is impersonal, overwhelming, and easy to ignore. A personal call or text, especially from a teacher, administrator, or fellow parent, is more likely to result in finding the help that is needed.

4) Show people how they can volunteer in bite-sized chunks rather than taking on big projects. People will generally say yes to “one-and-done” volunteer jobs, and these can be a gateway to larger commitments once people get their feet wet.

5) Give parents opportunities to volunteer with their kids. Family time is limited for many, but if they can work on something with their children or help out in a child’s classroom or activity, most are happy to oblige.

6) Acknowledge that people have busier lives and trouble making ends meet. Let them know you understand that it's not because they don't want to participate, but rather that they have legitimate reasons why they can't.

7) Define what tasks need doing and what skills you need. Try to place people in appropriate jobs where they can use their skills and talents. State your needs, create a list of people who might be able to help, and then personally ask them if they would be willing to do it.

8) Show people why they are needed. Make them feel part of the community first so they don’t feel that these tasks are someone else’s responsibility.

9) Ask parents what would make them more likely to volunteer. Try focus groups and surveys to discover what the obstacles are in your school community and solicit input from parents about how to get them more involved.

10) Thank people. Put their names in newsletters, send them personal notes, and thank them publicly and privately. Too often schools take volunteers for granted. There can never be too much gratitude expressed.

Clearly, schools can’t keep doing things like they have always done them and expect the same results. Times have changed. But I still believe parents want to be part of their children’s school community. The solution will be different for every community, but schools need to be open to new ways to attract the next generation of volunteers.

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