Five Ways to Establish a Healthy School Volunteer Culture
By: Brian Jensen January 27, 2020
My wife, beautiful Sara, has always made it a priority to volunteer at our kids’ schools. It usually involves games and food at holiday parties, classroom assistance, or simply making copies for teachers. With four kids of our own, why does she add the extra work to our already busy schedule? Because she loves to be a part of our kids’ schools, interact with who they interact with, and she finds great joy in it.
If your school is like most, you love the Sara’s of the world -- nay, you need the Sara’s of the world. Schools not only need the extra help that volunteers provide, but healthy schools also thrive because of committed volunteers. The best schools recognize this and use teams of volunteers for what I think are four primary reasons.
One, it is an incredible opportunity to engage multiple constituents in the ongoing mission of the school. When you have parents, community members, college students, and retirees within your four walls working with you, it lets them see first-hand what you are doing and it raises their excitement level.
Two, it provides much needed intergenerational engagement. Your students like and need, to see multiple age demographics interacting. This will have numerous positive effects on their lives.
Three, because it accomplishes needed work. Usually, there are more tasks in a day than your streamlined staff can typically handle. Volunteers provide those extra hands on deck to get stuff done.
Four, because volunteers want to help! You might be surprised by how many parents want to interact with their kid’s classmates, help accomplish the tasks at hand, and contribute to the mission of your school.
Using your volunteer teams should be more than just finding cheap labor to make up staffing shortfalls. You need to have a larger vision when it comes to recruiting and sustaining great volunteers. I know, easier said than done. But it is imperative that you intentionally connect the people that want to serve with the needs your school has -- and get them passionately excited about it.
Try starting with these steps to successfully establish a volunteer structure that fits your culture and supports your mission.
1. Recruit well.
You will have some habitual volunteers who just keep showing up and asking how to help. These folks will not come in droves, however. You need to be intentional about getting the help you need. I’m amazed at how many schools simply don’t ask for volunteers. Make a plan for your recruitment efforts, encourage teachers to make personal asks, utilize the PTO or your Parent Council. Just make sure you are diligent in asking for the help you need.
2. Communicate well.
This should go without saying for my previous point. It is also essential to make sure the volunteers you are using stay informed. Remember, volunteers are sacrificing time to serve, nothing will frustrate them quite like having misinformation, wrong dates, wrong times, or just a general lack of awareness. Make sure they know the simple what, where, when, why, and hows of your needs. A school volunteer point person will go a long way in this effort.
3. Connect passions to tasks.
Again, you’ll have the volunteers who will show up, ask to do whatever you need, and whistle while they work. But you’ll see volunteer numbers increase if you can also find ways for people to serve where they have specific gifts and passions. Try not to always do the square peg round hole routine. Is there an artist in your community who would love to come in and work in the art room? Is there a retired teacher who would find great joy in just being a classroom presence from time to time? Is there a part-time nurse who would excitedly give the school nurse a lunch reprieve a couple of times a week?
4. Provide meaningful work.
This is somewhat related to the previous suggestion. Yes, the tasks are many and some things just need to get done. Remember, however, volunteers are not your cheap labor replacement, so don’t just give volunteers all of the tasks nobody else wants to do. This is also related to communication. Even just simply letting volunteers know how much the task means can be helpful. There were days when Sara would show up at our kids’ school and spend three hours making photocopies, but she knew it was freeing up countless hours for teachers. Help volunteers connect their work to your mission.
5. Reward well.
This can be a very simple but often-overlooked task. Most volunteers are not looking for great recognition, but doing nothing hurts volunteer morale and prohibits recurring and ongoing help. Make sure you are expressing genuine gratitude for the work they are doing. Celebrate their accomplishments when it was a larger task. Host an annual volunteer appreciation event. Send simple thank you cards. Reminding your volunteers how much they mean to your school will have them coming back time and again to serve.
Volunteers are priceless. Your school needs them. Done right, your school can thrive with a healthy and helpful volunteer culture. One that not only helps you get stuff done but one that meaningfully contributes to your mission and furthers the vision you have for your students.