The Advice Booth: Cultivating Volunteers: The ABCs

Ilisa Cappell

We are a small school in a small community with limited staff. We rely heavily on our volunteers for support. It seems like the same people keep showing up, and I am afraid we are wearing out our volunteers and their goodwill. What should we do?

You are not alone, and the issue of effectively engaging volunteers is not unique to small schools, though perhaps felt most acutely, especially in small communities. The good news is that there are successful strategies you can use. You can keep the current volunteers you have excited about their commitment. At the same time, you can cultivate a cadre of new volunteers to join the force and ensure that you and your staff are supported in your work. A little planning and effort can go a long way.

First, follow the simple rule of ABC: always be cultivating. Don’t wait until you need a new PTO president or someone to lead your school’s fundraiser to start the search. Always be on the lookout for new talent and train your current volunteers to talent spot. We learn about the hidden talents of our parent body by engaging our families and broader community in conversation about their passions and in meaningful work. This is also one of the ways we make people feel a part of our community.

Understanding why your volunteers are choosing to dedicate their time, and knowing their talents and areas of expertise so you can use their time well, are critical to developing long-term commitment and ensuring you can place them in positions that will engage them.

Provide new volunteers with a smooth transition. Make sure there is a simple process to onboard volunteers and that they have the tools they need to do their job well. Do they know whom to go to if they have a question? Do they have the names of the people they will work with? Are they aware of the tools and resources that are at their disposal? Investing the time to explain procedures upfront will pay dividends in the future. Consider implementing a shadow opportunity to learn how to run events.

Next, consider the variety and flexibility of volunteer positions. Do you have multiple ways for volunteers to engage? Your parent body likely includes both people available during traditional working hours as well as those with less flexible schedules. Offering opportunities for both groups of parents is an important way to communicate that you understand their needs and that everyone’s contributions matter.

Sweat the small stuff. Asking volunteers about their family, paying attention to detail and following up remind volunteers that you care about them and their commitment. When they feel acknowledged and part of a community, volunteers sense the positive impact they are making on the organization.

Volunteering is often a social experience. Think about the ways you can help veteran and new volunteers get to know one another and share social interactions outside of school events.

Volunteers want to feel they have contributed meaningfully, and that they are accomplishing and finding success with their work. Think about what you can do in advance to ensure their time is used well. Their satisfaction at a job well done is one way to build opportunities for future engagement.

Encourage volunteers to seek support when needed. The idea isn’t for volunteers to have all the answers when they start. Volunteers should feel welcome to ask questions, seek clarity and request assistance when needed.

And finally, think about how you show appreciation to your volunteers and check in regularly with them. We all benefit most from feedback and gratitude that is specific and genuine, and not a general thank you. Make sure there is an opportunity for volunteers to give their feedback as well, and engage them in the evaluation process after an event.

Volunteers are critical to the success of our schools; their contributions make all the difference. We engage volunteers to support the work, but the real reason we rely so heavily on our volunteers is to ensure we are building community one person, one program, one event at a time.

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