Parent perspectives on volunteering: An interview with two Kinkaid School trustees

What inspires parents to volunteer? Keeps them engaged? Makes them feel supported in their roles? Ensures they will continue volunteering in the future? Motivates them to give generously of their treasure, in addition to their time?

Recently I talked with two parent volunteers at The Kinkaid School, a PreK-12 coed independent school in Houston for 1,450 students, to learn more:

  • Caroline Mitchell is a longtime volunteer at The Kinkaid School. As an alumna, her involvement began not as a parent volunteer but as an alumni phonathon class captain, member of the School’s alumni board, and eventually President of the alumni association. When her first of three children enrolled at Kinkaid, she began volunteering for a range of activities, including as room mom and treasurer of her son’s grade, before being asked to join the School’s board of trustees in 2012. She chairs the advancement committee.
  • Steve Mach has had a different and shorter path to volunteering at Kinkaid, where his three children entered in the 9th grade. Having been on the board of trustees at his kids’ elementary school, where he also chaired that school’s $22 million endowment campaign, it wasn’t long after he became a parent at Kinkaid that Steve was identified by the director of advancement as a potential candidate for Kinkaid’s board. He joined the board in 2019, and he now chairs the Kinkaid Fund, the School’s nearly $3 million annual giving campaign.

EKF: Why did you begin volunteering for Kinkaid? What has sustained your interest and willingness to volunteer?

CM: The school has done a lot for me and my children, so volunteering is my way to give back. As a working mom, I always felt a little bit of guilt about not being able to do midday volunteering. My kids spend more time at school than they do at home, so I wanted to be involved and participate—and help. When you’re a parent volunteer, you get to interact with other parents as well as your child’s peers and friends, and I like getting to meet some of the other parents I might not get to know otherwise. Doing things at the grade level, it was very rewarding to be the boy mom for the 6th grade. I was the touchpoint person for all the new families and got to help them. It was important to me that when I joined the Board, I continued volunteering as just a regular mom; I feel good about being a “regular” volunteer.

EKF: How do you expect to be supported in your work as a volunteer?

SM: I don’t like the word “can’t,” particularly in development. The organizations I’ve been involved with that were hobbled were the ones where the staff wasn’t empowered. The most important thing for me is what I don’t want: I don’t want a staff to tell me that they can’t or don’t do something.

CM: Volunteers and trustees are empowered to make better decisions when we have more information. The staff is very supportive in giving us what we need, which is mostly data.

EKF: What makes you feel good about serving as a trustee for Kinkaid? What frustrates you?

SM: I enjoy it. If I didn’t feel like I was bringing something to the table, I wouldn’t be there. I feel valued and engaged. Being involved at my kids’ school, I always feel like I’m being listened to. I don’t feel like I’m being roped in just so the School can get a bigger gift. I think it’s one of the most important things we do as volunteers—to volunteer at our kids’ school. Volunteering for the school is going to make my kids’ experience at the school better.

CM: Being on the board of trustees can be a bit of a roller coaster ride. Sometimes it feels frustrating to volunteer if the rest of the group wants to go in a different direction from what I want to do. And there is some frustration when other parents don’t understand that I can’t use my influence as a trustee to address their complaints or issues about some area of the School. I do have parents who try to engage me in a discussion and I frequently have to tell them that the topic is not something I’m involved in and suggest they talk with the appropriate administrator.

EKF: How has volunteering made an impact on your giving to Kinkaid?

CM: Being on the Board, there’s an expectation that you’re going to give at a certain level. But we had always participated in the Kinkaid Fund and had given to capital campaigns. What affected my giving more than volunteering was knowing the volunteer who was in charge—for example, if my good friend is chairing the book fair, I might give more. I participate in a lot. So I don’t feel like I need to give to all the events. My contributions follow where I volunteer.

SM: When you’re on the Board, you support more than you would if you’re just a parent. And maybe you stretch more. I come from a background of being philanthropic. It’s not a question of if I’m going to give but how I can spread my resources around all the places I want to support. If I’m not on the Board somewhere, I give less.

EKF: How is serving as a volunteer at your kids’ school different from service on the board of another type or institution or organization?

SM: The most important thing as a parent trustee is to wear the trustee hat. Anytime I get into a lane where I feel like saying, “I’m coming to you as a parent, not as a trustee,” I need to remember I’m really not a dad first. I have to be an independent trustee. I take the role so seriously that I constantly remind myself I’m wearing the trustee hat.

CM: Having served on other types of boards, I found that often those organizations want your gift but no opinions. At a school, they welcome both, and there’s always quite a bit of work that we need to address. It’s been rewarding to help the School think about building our endowment. I feel proud to be part of the group that is making decisions for the future of the School.

EKF: Lessons learned from my conversation with Caroline and Steve weren’t new, but they were good reminders of the steps institutions should take to make the most of parent volunteers: give them both small and large tasks, because they enjoy and feel fulfilled by both; support them with the information and data they need—and do it quickly; train parent volunteers to deal with the potential conflicts of serving as volunteers at their children’s school; and recognize that volunteers are likely to give more broadly and deeply when they feel good about their roles.

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About the author

Elizabeth Kolb Farr

Senior Vice President and Independent Schools Practice Leader

Elizabeth Kolb Farr, Senior Vice President, joined GG+A in 2017 and, in 2021, assumed leadership of the firm’s Independent Schools Practice Area. Liz serves the firm’s independent school and higher education clients, supporting them in identifying and seizing opportunities for fundraising growth. She holds particular expertise in instituting and orchestrating…