Community Relations: using volunteers to stretch your resources

Who organises special events? Who runs the alumni association? Who updates the website? Who prepares your Open Day? Is it you?

If so, you are probably overworked and trying to juggle too many balls.

You need some help.  A good place to start is with a band of volunteers in the marketing office. If managed the right way, volunteer parents will contribute endless hours in unpaid work
To keep a team of volunteers returning week after week by choice, is not done by chance, You have to understand the dynamics of the volunteer workforce.

As a research project, I talked to more than 160 school volunteers - parents and non-parents, working in government and non-government schools, representing all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, aged from early 20s to 80s.

I asked them what turned volunteers on and what turned them off, what degree of satisfaction they felt and what must schools do to get the best out of the volunteer’s gift of time. 

The message was clear. Volunteers are eager to improve the outcomes of the school but they are turned off when they arrive to find doors locked, poor information on what they should do, broken equipment, unproductive meetings, lack of coordination and too much standing around.

Most of all, volunteers want to know that their efforts are appreciated. Some volunteers told me they never see the principal. Others said, “Staff don’t seem to realise that a thank you and a pat on the back are powerful motivators.”

Most schools have no idea of the valuable resource they have in their unpaid workforce. Schools rarely keep a register of volunteers or the number of hours they work.

When marketing manager David Durante developed a volunteer register for his small school of 285 students he calculated that 75 families gave a total of 140 volunteer hours a week. That added up to a staggering 5,600 hours per school year. If you calculate a helper’s time at say $20 per hour the volunteer contribution worked out at a notional value of $112,000 per year.

But dollars alone cannot measure the volunteers’ contribution. At one school, a widely acclaimed artist and parent painted a mural on a school wall to celebrate Book Week. Her efforts encouraged other talented parents to paint murals on other walls, and now the foyers and corridors of the school are resplendent with characters from books and other imaginings.

The myth that the volunteer is a bored middle-class housewife is out dated. More recently, volunteers comes from the ranks of the fully employed or part-time employed. 

In years gone by parents had little involvement with schools. They only went when summonsed by the principal to discuss their child’s misdemeanours. By contrast, today’s parents feel a strong sense of responsibility for raising funds to provide resources for their child’s school. 

Another trend relates to collaborative decision making. Today’s parents believe that policy making should be shared within the community. Where parents are bypassed, a feeling of resentment surfaces. Good community relations requires that parents are engaged with the school at many different levels.

Different parents are suited to different jobs. In the marketing office, you have an array of tasks to offer, from a simple job like cutting clippings about the school from the newspapers, to running a major function, such as an art show which draws the community together in a big way.

A volunteer committee of former students could run an association of former students. and be engaged  in tasks such as managing a database, writing a newsletter and arranging functions. 

Then there are parents who may be suited to fundraising, career guidance and running parenting seminars.

A marketing manager who knows the occupations of the parent body can often find a parent to make a banner, produce memorabilia, design publications and provide other assistance.

Parent volunteers can be particularly helpful at expos. A roster of helpers will relive you of answering constant enquiries. It can save the school a huge amount in terms of staff on duty. Volunteers can also help you transport gear and provide assistance for the setup.

The trick is to find the right job for each volunteer job. 

Volunteers who work in instructional roles say it helps them understand the education system and keep in touch with teachers.

David Fry who runs a Learning Together Program at his school has developed a volunteer program to assist his students with learning disabilities. David has a loyal troop of about 20 volunteers. He says that students who suffer learning difficulties commonly lack a positive home life so the volunteers are priceless, not only as reading tutors, but as caring role models.

“Giving feedback to volunteers is vitally important to keep them motivated. So too are written instructions and a handbook,” he believes. 

Volunteers agree. Eighty six per cent of volunteers in my survey said they would like to see schools use a more business like approach to the management of their unpaid workforce. They voted for job descriptions that state the hours the school requires their help, better instructions, training for helpers and a school coordinator to turn to if there’s a problem.

A parent who co-ordinates the canteen at her school said that many people will not volunteer to help because they think the task is beyond them and they are afraid of failing or looking stupid, particularly when they have to add up money quickly in the school’s canteen and give the correct change. 

People can also find the time demands of voluntary work too long and difficult to fit into a busy working life. 

When a school asks a parent to work from 10 am to 2 pm, the school takes most of the day. Shorter shifts are needed and a clear outline of expectations.

Professional people who cannot help during working hours will often be available to speak at a careers evening or give time to a weekend function. 

The promise of doing something meaningful for a school is an attractive use of a volunteer’s time.

There are lots of jobs for volunteers at a school, and there are lots of parents willing to give up their precious time, but there needs to be management structures in place to retain and motivate a volunteer workforce.

About the author
Dr Linda Vining was the Director of the Centre for Marketing Schools (CMS).  For more advice on managing volunteers get a copy of her book Working With Volunteers In Schools