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It’s Volunteer Season for Families

6 Tips for Staying on Top of Things

Once that calendar flips to September, it’s not just classes that get going. The start of a new school year also marks the start to a variety of other sports and activities. Even once we decide on a few activities for each of my boys, they come home with new ideas and programs and flyers that are oh-so-tempting. It’s wonderful that there are so many interesting opportunities, but we need to continually prioritize and figure out which activities can really work into our already-complicated schedule.

As we all look at these activities, it can be hard to get a clear picture of the expectations for both kids and parents. More than once, we have discovered after we have already committed that parents are expected to be more than spectators. Whether you are spearheading the volunteer wrangling or just trying to figure out what questions to ask before signing up, here are some pointers.

Be clear from the start.

If you’re coordinating a program that absolutely needs four parent helpers each week, or a certain number of volunteers to make a trip or a tournament possible, identify those needs from the outset. If possible, provide that information before the sign-up occurs. If there are details still unknown, at least provide a heads-up about what is anticipated. I have heard project managers voice concern that they don’t want to discourage participation by scaring off families with a lot of commitments. However, it’s problematic to get kids excited about something, sign up, and pay to register, and then get surprised with further expectations. This is a part of life where surprises are generally unwelcome, and that will have an impact on whether families sign up for subsequent sessions. Be as clear as possible as soon as possible. If you’re thinking about signing up for something new, try to connect with the person in charge and ask for specifics.

Plan ahead.

Remember this saying: A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part? Many parents use personal email addresses to get updates about activities, and they may not check those email accounts during the day. And busy families usually establish calendars and action plans days or even weeks ahead of time. If you are sending a notice out that volunteers are needed with very short lead-time, realize that communication and logistics challenges are going to keep many potential helpers out of the picture. There certainly can be true emergencies or last-minute changes, but the default position should be planning ahead. If the season is a short one, handle the volunteer scheduling all at once. For an activity that might last for the whole school year, plan at least a couple of months at a time.

Re-do the volunteer math.

How many times have you been part of a conversation like this? “Well, since we have twenty-five kids participating, we’ll have twenty-five spots on the parent sign-up sheet.” Right now and forever more, keep in mind that one hundred percent participation will not happen. Ever. If you have ever been part of a program where every possible participant signed up, you have seen the Haley’s Comet of volunteerism and won’t see it again in your lifetime. If you can, build a plan that takes care of your needs with about 50 percent parent participation. That will prevent you from having to send out repeated emails that say, usually in all caps, something like: THE TEAM CAN’T GO UNLESS FIVE MORE PARENTS CHAPERONE.

Stuff happens.

The reason that it’s impossible to get full participation isn’t because some parents don’t care about their kid or that anyone is lazy. The reason is that life throws us all curve balls. With a group of any size, someone is going to have a sick family member that needs extra care. Someone is going to be in the throes of a big business deal or a graduate program. Someone is going to be having a baby. Or maybe they are spearheading an activity for another child in the family. Let’s be kind to one another and make it okay for any parent who says “I just can’t” this time. There will be another time for them. As parents, let’s help each other out by assuming that it will all even out over time, although it might not be even for any particular season or activity.

Keep good track.

There is no bigger buzz-kill than showing up for volunteer duty and being told that all the spots are covered already. If a volunteer has cleared part of her day, maybe taken time off work, or gotten a babysitter for another child and then arrives to find out that she is not needed, what should have been a positive experience can turn into a long-lasting negative one. If you need to secure extra volunteers to cover for any last minute no-shows or problems, you can still give them an assignment. An officially-designated relief team can allow other parent volunteers to take a break, or a triage-team can move across the various volunteer duties to help spot any problem areas. An extra person can also be a great shadow, learning the ropes from a knowledgeable volunteer who might be finishing up time with your organization. However you designate the role, don’t let any volunteer be told that he isn’t really needed.

If you are a truly organized person yourself, you can use a trusty spreadsheet to keep track of your needs and assignments. Or you can use one of the free online tools like or If you have kids, you probably already have an account with at least one of these. When you’re in charge of managing the duties, be as specific as possible in providing time slots and the duty assigned. Don’t forget to add helpers for set-up and clean-up. It’s a very welcome addition when you can provide details that make sure volunteers find the right role and plan their wardrobe accordingly, such as, Spirit captain is a fun duty that involves getting the kids warmed up, so you’ll be running and jumping. 

Don’t forget to say thank you.

Unfortunately, the fear of inadvertently leaving someone off the list sometimes means that no one gets thanked personally. Again, the organizational tools listed above are a great way to capture all the names. If there’s still a fear that someone might be left out, you can thank all the folks by name and then add a note like this: I’m afraid that I might have missed a few of our volunteers, especially those who dropped off treats at the food station. If I didn’t list your name here, please respond to me so that I can thank you properly. Or if you know there are particular people that you missed, you can add a note like this: Mom in the red sweatshirt, sorry that I didn’t get your name but you rocked the registration table! 

Being a volunteer gives us a chance to support our own kids and others. It models the sense of citizenship, team-spirit, dedication, and selflessness that we want our kids to learn. Let’s make sure we’re using the best organizational skills and attitudes to make it as easy, fun, and rewarding as possible.

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