Which school do you want to support?
If you can get things without paying for them, are they less valuable?
Of course not. Value is value, whether paid for in cash, barter or psychic rewards.
The "wealth" of a school depends deeply on the skills, energy and time that moms, dads, students, and community members can bring to bear. From athletic events to school committees and tax campaigns, volunteers are essential to the fabric of their schools. Contributions of time and expertise are sometimes celebrated, but rarely if ever systematically recorded on a school's financial statements.
Volunteers are stealth wealth
Volunteers are stealth wealth. The California State PTA estimates that in a single year PTA volunteers alone donated more than 20 million volunteer hours. Using IRS guidelines, in California alone this is roughly equivalent to half a billion dollars.
To elevate and amplify the value of volunteerism in California, in 2019 California Governor Newsom appointed Josh Fryday to the role of Chief Service Officer for the state, drawing on a precedent set a decade earlier in New York City by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In schools that do a good job of corralling free talent, parents provide all manner of assistance to their schools, including financial and legal help, organizational and technical consulting, and more.
They help arrange community events for the school, like running fundraisers or converting local goodwill into dollars. As "room parents," they amplify teachers' and administrators' ability to communicate effectively with the whole school community, setting up complex lines of communication. They arrange school partnerships with local businesses as well as organizing local bond campaigns or parcel tax measures. At elementary schools, volunteers also often help out in classrooms, often reducing the ratio of students to adults in a significant (but unmeasured) way.
Like all wealth, volunteer value is unequally distributed.
In California's wealthiest communities, schools are blessed with the help of college-educated parents with the ability to commit significant time in support of their children's education.
Parents in lower-income communities, by contrast, are far less able to help their schools. Volunteering in support of the school is a luxury when more basic needs, like keeping a roof over one's head, food on the table, and shoes on your children's feet are not met.
How big is the difference? An annual survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on differences in volunteering activity by ethnicity, marital status, and educational attainment, all correlated with income. Some communities and schools are in a better position than others to recruit parents and put their skills to work for kids. Addressing this disadvantage is part of the reason why California established the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which allocates extra funds to schools where there are higher concentrations of students in poverty and with limited English skills.
Not everyone volunteers. According to the US Census Bureau, there are big regional differences in how generous people are with their time. We examined these patterns in a post on our blog for National Volunteer Week in 2022. Californians aren't quite as stingy with their time as Floridians, but it's close.
There is nothing easy about corralling parent volunteers. It's hard to know what to ask of them. People come with different skills, time constraints, and commitments. Language barriers can be an obstacle. Even with the best intentions, some do not follow through because…well… life gets in the way, doesn't it?
Some of the highest-value volunteers in education are parent leaders. The PTA and other parent organizations help school leaders make the most of the available volunteer time. They convert goodwill and good intentions into action, and mitigate the flakiness that threatens any volunteer endeavor.
Oh, and they also learn, and teach. It is not an accident that Ed100 was, itself, substantially built by volunteers!
Schools can do a lot to boost their volunteer recruitment — first and foremost through outreach. While a school's volunteers can come from all corners of the community, most will have children in the district. Some recruiters make use of materials like flyers and posters to attract potential volunteers. Some schools dedicate a faculty member to work with parent leaders, which can aid in the formation of a local parent teacher association.
Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) play an integral role in bringing volunteer work to schools. They often help organize school events, and recruit volunteers to help them. Community members interested in forming or joining PTAs can check out the California State PTA here.
Recruiting volunteers is only half the battle. Event organizers should also make it as easy as possible for volunteers to sign up. Online services like the popular SignUpGenius can be enormously useful in setting up an organized sign-up forum.
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