Why Volunteers Are Running From Your PTO

The number one almost universal problem  for PTOs is having enough volunteers.  Some days, it seems like they’re rarer than walking out of Target with only what’s on your list.  Well there may be very good reason for that!  Today we’re diving into why parents are running away from your PTO and how to get more PTO volunteers.

Parent engagement tips from PTO Answers on desk of brightly colored office supplies


Your Group is a Hot Mess

Fact: Parent volunters will run away, wildly screaming from PTOs that are a disorganized mess. 

Is your group on the same page with what’s happening, when events are happening and who’s in charge?  Do PTO members beyond the executive board know all of this information?

No?!?!?!   Then your group might be a hot mess.

Listen, I’m going to give it to you straight.  Parents are not going to get involved with your group if it is a disorganized mess.  People are busy these days and they want to do things that are easy.  Disorganized groups aren’t easy.  Not all people have the patience to deal with groups that aren’t well run.

I’ve had direct experience with this situation and I bet you have too.  Have you ever gone to a meeting on a topic you were really interested in, but once you were there, you could sense that things were off in some way?  Maybe people were talking over each other.  Maybe there was no agenda and only the leader of the group seemed to know what was going on.  Maybe there was no pre-planning of the meeting and all of the event planing was takng place at this meeting? These are all indicators of a group that’s not functioning well.  Maybe not complete dysfunction, but getting there…

Now, I’m not saying that every group has to be perfectly organized with things “just so.”  But they certainly can’t be anywhere close to what I’ve described!  Parents won’t keep showing up for that kind of a group.

Bad Timing

If your PTO is doing everything last minute, that’s also another reason why pareents won’t get involved with your PTO and you’re missing out on more PTO volunteers.

If you are working on a just-in-time strategy with your volunteers, then that is going to cause you to fail big time.  You need to be planning well in advance.  In fact, your PTO really need to know what is going on for the year and when it’s happening with a master plan.  And in addition to planning well in advance, the PR for the events should be happening well in advance also.

Plus, being Last Minute Lucy with volunteer requests isn’t only a sign of being super disorganized, but also it’s not respectful of parents’ time.  The vasy majority of busy parents can’t accommodate last minute requests.  But with advance warning, parents can totally make things happen. 

Your PTO should be respectful of parents’ time by giving them an opportunity to pitch in as they have time.  Avoid having everything be a last minute, gotta-happen-right-now sort of help request.

Your PTO is Doing too Much

Now this point might be a little controversial, but you’re here for the straight talk, right?  I’ll get to it then: Your PTO could be scaring off parents by doing too much. 

I get to see what’s going on with hundreds of PTAs and PTOs inside my community for PTA/PTO leaders.  And I gotta say, too many are focused on the minutia and not the larger, overarching goals of the group.  I always advocate for doing larger goal setting at the beginning of the year, and then planning everything based on those goals.  It’s really how you move the ball don the field towards to goal line.

For example, take a common fundraising plan I’ve seen.  First, they’re planning to write grants. And then hold a pie sale.  And have restaurant nights.  And then hold a bake sale. And then have a candy fundraiser in the Spring…  and, and, and…  the list of fundraisers goes on and on!

What this group is missing out on is that all of these fundraisers consume a lot of time, but don’t produce a lot of money.  And parents see members and leaders of the PTO stressed out from the never ending schedule of fundraisers. The end result is that your PTO isn’t going ti increase PTO volunteer like that.

You’re Always There

They also see that you’re at the school all the time. Even if you’re actually not, even the impression that you are can be a huge turn off to parents. 

All of this will lead them to think that they wouldn’t be able to do as much as you.  And that belief can be enough for some parents to totally opt out of the entire process.  This is a sad realization, but one that I’ve heard so many times.  The words super star leaders will hear are “I don’t know how you do it all” or “When do you find time to sleep.”

I’m totally guilty of doing too much myself and there have been times when I’ve been able to successfully scale back and other times when that wasn’t possible.  But if you’re always doing everything, you’re ultimately going to dissuade others from even giving it a shot.  The volunteer role will look too overwhelming and unapproachable.

Maybe you’re not even at school all the time.  Maybe you’re there like every day for a couple hours or three times a week for an hour so. But that is more than the average person can handle!  For your personal sanity, that’s even a bit much!

What to do instead?   Read this.

Stay in Your PTO lane

If the school cannot function without you, that’s also something you’re doing wrong as a PTO.  You’re supposed to be an extension of the school, but not a direct part of your school.  Be careful that you’re not blurring that line too much.  And I have a feeling that if you’re at school everyday, that line has been crossed big time.

Bottom line, when there’s always something to be done and always some help that you need for your PTO, that drives people away.   Volunteers really do feel like they’re gonna get sucked into the black hole of volunteering and never get out.  Make sure what you’re doing as a PTO aligns with your PTO goals.  Don’t have goals?  You need this.

It’s Mean Girl City

PTOs get a really bad wrap about being cliquey, Mean Girl scenes.  And your group is going to actively have to dispell this myth by being super open and welcoming.  Make sure new people feel warmly invited and included.  Don’t talk about other PTO members negatively in public. Go out of your way to ensure volunteers have a good experience.  Or else they won’t be back.  And they’ll tell their friends!  Read more on how to deal with mean girls in PTOs here.

Even More on this Topic

Watch this video to learn more about how your PTO is (unintentionally, I’m sure) driving potential volunteers away!

Posted in PTO Officers and Leaders, Volunteers + Parent Involvement.


  1. I really enjoyed your video on why parents might be running from my PTO. I do have a couple follow up questions:
    What if we just don’t have a population of parents that are available to volunteer during the school day? Is there a way to encourage taking time off work to volunteer at the school?

    Our school has a very high population of families that speak spanish only, don’t understand what a PTO is since they have come from countries that don’t have something like that, work jobs that don’t allow them to take time off to volunteer during school hours and if they do have the time they lack transportation to the school and live far enough away that their options are limited.

    This was my first year as President and I am still learning. I am concerned that the PTO will not continue if I can’t find parents to take the time to volunteer for the executive board as well as just be parent volunteers for our events.

    I would love to hear your words of wisdom on this matter.
    Thank you for your time!
    PTO President in need of a few good Parent Volunteers

    • Hi! Great questions! With regard to daytime volunteers, I wouldn’t encourage parents taking time off to volunteer. There’s enough demands on parents with limited paid time off, so I would look for other ways to get them involved. I’d encourage parents to volunteer for evening and weekend programs and events instead, and have more opportunities during those times than those during traditional work hours. If they’re interested in helping in the classroom, but can’t physically be there, then teachers can make up packets of “work” to send home to the parents. But that part should be the teachers’ responsibility and not that of the PTO.

      I’d suggest getting a parent volunteer whose focus is on outreach to the Spanish speaking parents who are unfamiliar with what your PTO does and how it can benefit their families. The ideal volunteer should speak Spanish, be super passionate about the PTO and look for ways to get these families connected and involved (for starters, translating all PTO communication into Spanish). This is a fantastic opportunity to grow a dedicated group of PTO members! As their knowledge and understanding of the benefits of the PTO grows and they realize what support and help the PTO can be to their family, their dedication and involvement will grow!

      Also, if you’re planning events, but this segment of families isn’t coming, then you may need to survey those families to see what the roadblocks to their involved are. For example, maybe there’s a different time/day that would work for them. If transportation is an issue, maybe find a different location to hold events (a community center or library). Once you have the outreach volunteer in place, you’ll be able to figure out what’s needed.

      I have a bunch of other posts on getting parents involved. Here’s one that’s a good read: https://ptoanswers.com/more-volunteers/

      Thanks for stopping by!


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