Micro-volunteering

The biggest obstacle in getting people to commit to the PTA is a lack of time, so how do we get around the problem of diaries that are busier than ever? Nicola Bloom discovers the answer could be 'micro-volunteering'

What's a micro-volunteer, I hear you ask. Is it a very small helper? Well, no – it's someone who volunteers their services for a short time, in a small way, and without necessarily having a long-term commitment. Other than perhaps a short information session, no training is required and the completed tasks may form part of a larger project, and may even be done online.

You may well already be a micro-volunteer without knowing it. In 2000, the United Nations launched its Online Volunteering service, with the aim of providing a platform to support the activities of development organisations such as climate-change researchers, educational institutions and international charities. This initiative enabled organisations to assemble numbers of individuals from across the globe who would then carry out a 'micro-task', pooling their knowledge or resources to contribute to a much bigger undertaking. A good example of this approach in the UK is the Big Garden Birdwatch carried out by the RSPB, where the public is asked to watch and count the birds in their gardens for an hour over one weekend. Other tasks might be as simple as signing a petition, or putting a tin or two in your local foodbank.

Widen the pool

So how might a PTA recruit and make use of micro-volunteers? PTAs often rely on the same few people to do everything, and of course, many of the tasks do need ongoing commitment and regular input. Although micro-volunteering in a school might be a little different from micro-volunteering on a global scale, in a nutshell, it can be described as recruiting more people to do more things less often.

So, how to encourage your school community to get involved? One way is to start with a wish list: if you could wave a magic wand, what would you really like to see happen in your school that the PTA could support or even initiate? Is there anything that could be split into small tasks that could be done by a number of people for a short time rather than the usual stalwart supporters?

A school I once taught in had a tradition of building a Christmas Grotto (in the staff room – not the best way of keeping the staff on-side) every year to accompany the Christmas Fayre. One year a member of the PTA had the simple but brilliant idea of 'outsourcing' the endless decorations by sending home templates and materials to parents willing to spend an hour with scissors and glue, rather than relying on art lessons and teachers to do it (you try asking class of recalcitrant seven year olds with blunt scissors to make several hundred holly leaves) and the pre-Christmas tension was considerably lowered.

Assess the skills

Another important step is to create a skills register, though it might be more inclusive to call it a 'How I could help?' list. You probably already know who the best bakers are – a vital piece of knowledge in any school! But what other talents are your parents and carers hiding? Many people don't like to admit to a skill, either because they (probably rightly) think they will be roped into contributing their time on a regular basis, or, sadly, they don't think their skills (or they) are important enough. Getting the latter group to volunteer is a double boost, by the way – improving a parent's view of themselves has a hugely beneficial effect on the child. 

This is why it's important to add other elements to your 'Help list'. What other things do schools always need? How about transport? A local school I know is working with residents of a care home and members of a professional opera company to devise and present a cross-generational mini-opera. The PTA has assembled a small group of parents to provide transport from the home to the school, once a week for six weeks – not a huge commitment, but very valuable indeed.

The ability to provide storage might be another area worth looking at: for example, is there anyone with some spare, dry, space where goods for the summer fair could be stored as they come in?

Time to spare

Lastly, don't underestimate the importance of the most obvious element – time! Having craft or baking skills, or transport, or an empty space in your house is great, but just having an hour or so to make friends with a new family, having a chat with someone about the PTA and how they might help, manning a stall, taking tickets at the door for an event – all these things are at the heart of what a PTA does.

So how to do it? Start with a few pioneers and a direct approach. Ask existing members of the PTA to talk to other parents they know and encourage them to sign up to a specific project, for a specific amount of time. For example: 'The summer fair is coming up – do you think you could create a poster (or make signs for the toilets/refreshments, be the nominated first aider, help with the clean-up)?' Afterwards, ask for feedback. How did these possibly initially unwilling volunteers feel about being approached? Could it have been done differently? Would they volunteer again?

Hopefully, the answers to these questions will be positive and generally helpful, and you can ask for input on what your volunteers would like to see happening in school, and what skills and attributes would be useful. You can then refocus and refine your wish list and help list, and do an official 'launch' of your micro-volunteering initiative. Try and keep this personal if you can – a social occasion where your 'pioneers' can mingle and chat to others would be ideal.

Every little helps

One last idea that could be persuasive – making it clear that any request for support will be strictly time-limited. Ask your prospective volunteers to sign up to a 'time pledge'. In a bigger school, this could be as little as two hours of support a year – enough to cover running a stall or hiding eggs for an Easter egg hunt. In a smaller school, an hour or two a term would be a more appropriate request. Most people can find a couple of hours and the pledge serves as a reminder when the PTA makes a call out for help.

Recently, there was a request for micro-volunteers to contribute to a scientific study by counting walruses on Google Earth. Surely there must be a way of fitting that into the school curriculum, with the PTA's help...

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