Parent Volunteering: FAQs and Phobias

If you have kids, chances are you’ve already been asked to Volunteer. And if you haven’t been asked to Volunteer yet, chances are you will be.

Should you? Could you? Why would you?

Listen to me. I’ve been a Girl Scout leader, an elementary school room parent, a Soccer Mom, a Lunch Bunch monitor, a Book Buddy, and I’m currently the Test Chair for a local skating club. (The duties of Test Chair are similar to those of a military commander planning the invasion and occupation of a small country, except with more sequins and tango music.)

And I’m going to answer the most pressing questions parents have when it comes to volunteering. 

You’re welcome.


Let’s roll!

1. What is volunteering? A lot of my friends are doing it and tell me I should try it, I’ll have a good time. But other friends who volunteer just look tired and paranoid. Is volunteering like smoking pot?

Volunteering as a parent generally means performing some kind of task which directly or tangentially promotes and assists in educating children in the arts, math and sciences, social sciences, or athletics. Parent volunteering may also support and enable kids’ own volunteer endeavors, e.g. a scouting troop collecting personal care items to donate to a homeless shelter, or a skating club hosting an event for a local charity. There are several reasons why adults might be needed to volunteer in support of children’s activities. Like so:
· Mrs. Murray, the first grade teacher, listens to different groups of children read out loud each day for ten minutes. However, this year Mrs. Murray has thirty kids in her first grade class instead of twenty. Until Mrs. Murray wins the lottery and hires her own full-time aide –because she’s not getting one from the district this year - she’s asked a few parents to come in for a half hour each day to sit in the hallway and listen to children read out loud from simple texts. Just sit there. Maybe nod and say, “Hmmm!” or “Wow!” or help sound out the word though, which is a tricky word when you’re in first grade. 
· The scouting troop wants to go to Washington, DC to visit the Air and Space Museum where the boys will suddenly envision themselves finishing their algebra homework every night so that they, too, can become fighter pilots. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – it’s too expensive for everyone to take the train to DC. The leader asks parents with big, honking minivans to help transport scouts. 
· A parent of one of the girls on the U11 soccer team is ill, and the family can’t make soccer even a third-tier priority right now. The coach asks if another parent or two could help keep the ill parent's daughter involved by offering rides and reminders and game day snacks -not only because the soccer team needs another player, but because right now this child could really use the soccer team.

You kinda feel good already just imagining the hypothetical people who will raise their hands and say, “Sure! Sign me up!”

And just think – that hypothetical person’s hand could be your factual hand!

However, I have to be entirely truthful and admit that there’s a gently sloping and slippery downside to raising your hand that first time, and it is this: once you volunteer, you will be forever branded as “the type who volunteers”. Even if you never want to volunteer again. Even if you explicitly say, “No thank you, not this time, thanks, I’m in traction from a skiing accident and can’t leave the hospital for six weeks.” Like an unknowing soul wandering into a cattle auction, volunteer organizers will take any slight signal – a sneeze, waving away a stink bug, a facial tick – that you are ready to help out again. And before you can begin to wonder what part of “No” didn’t they understand, you own a Holstein.

2. I’ve heard I can volunteer for fun and profit! Is this true?


And No!

Meaning, Yes! You might have fun…probably.

But No! Volunteering will not directly put cash in your pocket. Oh sure, volunteering at the hot dog stand or bake sale might help defray band or team costs overall, and in that way save you a penny. But no, since most volunteering is done for children’s organizations with 501(c) (3) IRS tax exemption status (fancy talk for “the whole point of volunteering is so that it benefits the kids, and we mean all the kids equally, not just your own kid mostly”), there are very few occasions – if any – when you would be getting fee-for-service without the IRS getting a tingle in its butt. So to speak.

If you want to work to financially benefit only your own kid's participation, that's called A Part-time Job.

However, if by profit you take a more poetic meaning - as in “benefiting all kids through enrichment ” - when then, by golly, in the words of Tiny Tim, God Bless us, every one.

3. Do I need a certain hair style to volunteer?

This unfortunate typecast of volunteers with charity-ball hairdos, threaded eyebrows, and the correct modest-come-hither hem length is a notion which began with Jeannie C. Riley’s infamous song about a certain parent’s group in Harper Valley and hasn’t let up since. 

And to be sure, there are some volunteer groups which conduct themselves like an exclusive club of estrous-Napoleons posing as Talbot's ads. Or – more rare, but not unheard of – groups of anti-establishment, cowboy-coffee non-conformists who guffaw when you unpack your collapsible French press and celadon bean grinder 1,500 feet into the Appalachian Trail youth backpacking tour. 

In reality, most parent-run organizations are made up of a few folks who are large and in charge, and a majority of underlings who all personally feel as if they are somehow mismatched and bumbling their way from one event to the next even when they are, in fact, being efficient and Very Useful. Somehow, it all works out and the bake sales run on time and no one comes to fisticuffs. Most people even make new friends.

Normally, if a group has asked for volunteers, it’s because the group actually needs volunteers and not because they’ve run out of people to sneer at. Even in a worst case scenario, there might be a ritual hazing – when during the first project you take on, you are made to feel like a failure, an unwelcome threat, and an oddball - after which the group will wondrously and inexplicably welcome you whole-heartedly and possibly even make you a chairperson of something or other.

If they don’t make you feel welcome even while still asking you to volunteer, you could try chanting, “It’s for the children, it’s for the children.”

If that doesn’t work, tell them to stuff it. You can find somewhere else to help out.

4. Do I need a certain kind of car to volunteer?

No. Although, if you own a minivan, pick-up truck, or retired school bus, you will be on several people’s speed dial.

5. What will I be asked to do as a volunteer? 

Everything and anything, included but not limited to shuttling kids, hauling equipment, baking brownies (or buying homemade facsimiles), cutting construction paper shapes, taping art work to walls, chaperoning field trips, donating good used copies of Bud,Not Buddy or My Brother Sam Is Dead for fifth graders who can’t afford a paperback for class (for real), monitoring kids at recess, tracking funds for the softball team, organizing a fundraiser, organizing volunteers for a duck pond booth at the fun fair, talking to a group of girls about your career as woman in the engineering field, discussing care of sheep with 4H kids, mentoring an Eagle Scout blazing a new trail, copying papers, stapling things, making sure kids cross the street safely, encouraging a child to try reach for the next grip on the rock climbing wall, bringing twenty-four juice boxes, tutoring a young piano player, and sitting with preschoolers coloring while their parents attend teacher meetings for their older kids. And more. It’s like choose your own adventure!

6. My kids are in school and sports and all these freaking activities, and each one wants me to volunteer. What the hell?

What the hell, indeed!

Try not to feel pressured. Do what you can, when you can. And if you can’t right now, maybe you can later.

If you have any You Must Volunteer To Participate obligations that you can’t fulfill, perhaps you can bribe ask a grandparent or auntie to show up in your stead. Or maybe you share your home with an older teen who can exchange mowing the lawn this week for running the ticket booth at the middle school play. (Bonus! If your older teen is moderately willing and able to take part in activities with much younger kids, your teen will be treated not unlike a rock star or minor goddess by the little ones. It’s actually very sweet. Ignore your teen’s eye rolls. They love the adoration.)

If people are still attempting to make you feel bad after you’ve offered to fulfill your volunteer duties to the best of your ability, screw ‘em. That’s not playing nice.

On the other hand, it’s probably prudent to get clear on the expectations before you commit your child to participating in an activity. If you anticipate conflicts, discuss them with the organizers before you start signing papers and writing checks. There may be alternatives to the hourly requirements (e.g. your work schedule better accommodates volunteering one day for six hours instead of two days for three hours) or even a cash buy out. Inquiring beforehand whether or not there is flexibility in fulfilling your share of the load might extend you some goodwill and willingness to negotiate.

7. Other grown ups can be scary and intimidating, what with their gung-ho attitudes and organizer apps that they actually use. I want to help, really, I do! But how can I ever measure up?

Be friendly. Ask questions. Take on the odd jobs that others might not want. Ask to shadow another volunteer to get to know the job better.

Don’t go in all gangbusters with new ideas for process improvement and threaten any delicate status quo – there will be time for making your mark after people get to know you and become fairly certain you aren't recording all their quirks and idiosyncrasies for a Facebook ramble.

And remember: as much bad press as some volunteer run groups get, there are exponentially more people out there who are friendly, devoted to working with kids, helpful, grateful for your time and talent, and who will also genuinely like you.


You’re pretty darn likeable.

Short skirt and all.



MommyTime said...

This is thoughtful and helpful and makes me feel slightly bad about my plan to write a tell-all book about elementary school volunteering. I already have a tentative title: Dating the PTA. said...

Dear MommyTime,

This is a city with many stories. And Dating The PTA is a title that should not be wasted! DO IT! :-D

Jennifer Denise Ouellette said...

As a volunteer who was once mistaken (by more than one person) as a full-time employee at the elementary school, I give this post two thumbs up.

I'm not currently volunteering for anything (well, I am a line leader for tomorrow night's graduation ceremony at the school where I teach), but when my daughter leaves for college in August I am doing the training to become a court-appointed special advocate. said...

"I am doing the training to become a court-appointed special advocate"

THAT sounds like a Ph.D. in volunteering! Brava!

Alexandra said...

I hate to say it, but I *will* judge you if you don't volunteer for your child's school and activities. Every parent in a school, youth sport, kids bible group, dance class, you name it, is benefiting from the efforts of volunteers. There is no "my kid isn't that involved." There is no "my kid is the star." There is no "I'm too busy." Everyone's busy. If you are in any child activity and you are not offering your services you are stealing other people's efforts, not to say their karma. I absolutely rank people based on their willingness to volunteer; I don't care if they're annoying volunteers, sit on their asses volunteers, get in your face volunteers or once-in-awhile volunteers. Sometimes people ask me something like "what about Zoe's mom?" (TOTALLY made up name, ahem), and I'll say, leadingly, well she never volunteers....

If you are not volunteering, I have no respect for you. /soapbox said...

Xan and I have a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine that we can do. You can hire us at your next membership meeting for a very reasonable rate. We are also available to pepper your club Facebook and Web sites with simultaneous pleas and reprimands for not volunteering.


Xan, your comment is most likely the post I would have written on another day and with exactly the same gusto and heart.

Alexandra said...

I'm lots of fun at parties, too. said...

I'd put you in charge of the pinata line, for sure. :-)

notlikeacat said...
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Julia Magnusson (It's not like a cat...) said...

I'm dying to know how your talk about your career as woman in the engineering field went. ;)

I appreciate this kind of warning post. My 3-yr-old is in a cooperative preschool and I find the amount of mandatory involvement hellish and outrageous. Granted, it is a parent-run coop, but I know of other ones that have actual staffers. I'm so over the school involvement thing and WE'VE ONLY JUST BEGUN. I cannot believe I face years and years and endless endless years of it.

And my hairdo....oy.

What about an overseas boarding school? Could I get out of volunteering that way?

MommyTime said...

I agree with Xan that volunteering is important. But I also agree with Josette that sometimes it's just not possible. The amount of volunteer "opportunities" that exist at our kids' elementary school is huge -- but if you are a parent with a full-time job, it's pretty hard to show up weekly between 9am and 3:30pm. On the other hand, there are monthly choices, or movie nights, or take-it-home-and-glue-it opportunities. I pick those, but I always feel a little guilty that I can't do more, even though it's not really possible for me to show up during school hours routinely.

On the other hand, I know someone who is a lawyer and really can't get away AT ALL (far less than I can). She showed up a few times during the school year for events that she could make -- and then she sent the loveliest, detailed thank you note to the parents who'd put together the kindergarten scrapbooks, mentioning how much she appreciated the time they put in to ensuring there were pictures of HER child at events too, so that he would also have a memory book, even though his working mother couldn't be at every school party. It was such a wonderful gesture that it really made it okay that she couldn't volunteer more often.

I guess my point is that if you are doing SOMETHING to volunteer where you can (choosing the evening or weekend events, for example), people ought to recognize that not everyone has daytime hours to show up at school events. And if you are thoughtful enough to send thank-yous to those who pick up where you cannot be, then you are doing the most you possibly can. said...

More and more schools need help these days because teachers are pushed to the limits with class size and the "must-dos". I know our PTO does a lot to get class supplies and help pay for class field trips.

On the other hand, school is more of a non-negotiable than other extracurricular activities - as close to "don't have a choice" as one can get. So while I understand that there is a lot to do, a lot of ways to help, I also understand as well if parents can't be "boots on the ground" as much as activities that happen in the evenings or weekends. (Not saying everyone has a 9-5 job, but in general.)

For "choice" activities, I do think people need to find a balance between what their kids are doing with respect to how much they can help out. There are always kids who need more charity than others, but the activities will cease to exist without some help, somewhere. Some of these youth boards and organizations take as much experience and work as a full time for profit to keep running.

I do think that there is something to be said for the parent who does just take off an entire weekend and devote it to The Cause, as the parent who gives an hour or two each month. If work or other obligations mean that you have to do it all in one shot, I say go completely gung ho, bring cookies and coffee for the other volunteers, do all the unloved jobs, compliment other volunteers out the wazoo, and all should be well. After all, Santa Claus gets to do his good deed once every 365 days, and he's pretty well-liked.

What is this? said...

This is the first year that I have really been able to volunteer at the school and I do not feel guilty for the previous years where I was not in the classroom. I am really enjoying working with the kids in the 3 different classrooms I see through out the day, the teachers are happy to have the help and even if all I do is make eye contact with my own children they are glad that I'm there. I know that I may not have the same time to give later on so I'm enjoying the time I have to give now. It makes me appreciate the parents that have already done much for my kids in the years past and who undoubtedly will in the future.

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