Online Help for Parents Who Volunteer

It takes a lot to organize a classroom of 20 children. It can take even more to organize the kids’ busy parents—and that often means turning to technology to get everyone on the same page.

Over the past nine months, my first-grader’s school has seen that in spades. Like many elementary schools, ours relies on parent volunteers to help out with one-on-one reading with students and math exercises. In my 6-year-old’s class, at least two parent volunteers are needed a day. In the past, volunteers were organized the old-fashioned way on paper, with parents signing up for their preferred time slots for the month on a calendar sent home with their children.

But in recent years as more schools and families have gone digital, parents are opting for an online solution to organizing volunteer class time. And a host of volunteering and calendar services have popped up on the Web to oblige them. When I asked our school’s room parent which online sites people were using to organize volunteering, he blasted out an email to poll his network of room parents. The informal survey yielded one conclusion: Each classroom was using different services, each with their own perks and drawbacks. Among the hodge-podge of choices were well-known applications such as Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo Groups and Google Inc.’s Calendar, as well as less familiar names including VolunteerSpot Inc.’s VolunteerSpot and Doodle AG’s Doodle.com.

All are easily accessible on the Web and are free (though some charge a fee for premium users). All allow a central organizer to set up a master calendar or group online and invite other people to join, thereby getting everyone onto the same technological platform.

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VolunteerSpot lets an organizer create a calendar, with tasks parents could volunteer to do.

Each also has limitations. Some make it difficult to print a volunteer schedule. Others don’t have automatic reminders to notify a participant that their volunteer session is coming up, or they make it tough to export the calendar to be integrated with, say, your calendar at work.

Of all the technologies our school’s parents are using, Yahoo’s Groups has been around the longest. Launched in 1999, Yahoo says it now hosts more than 10 million groups that are accessed by some 120 million members. Signing up to create a Yahoo Group is a breeze—with a few clicks, people can name a group and invite others to join. Once set up, parents can post comments, send photos and other attachments to the group, and sign up for spots with an integrated calendar application. Over the years, Yahoo has added new features, including tools to help build an event and to gather RSVPs.

But some parents complain that using a Yahoo Group creates unnecessary spam when some people forget they’re communicating with a group instead of one on one. In addition, Groups’ calendar application is difficult to import and export. Yahoo says that later this year, it will roll out a refresh of Groups that will “enable smaller groups to do things more efficiently.”

Google Calendar, launched in 2007, got a fresh new look for the application last month. The application is also easy to create and to invite people to join. Other parents can share the calendar, see at a glance what volunteer spots are available and fill in the ones they want. Reminders are built in, and Google Calendar can sync with Microsoft Outlook or other calendaring systems.

One of our school’s first-grade classes, though, faced a hurdle when it came to joining their Google Calendar. Some parents said they couldn’t join because they didn’t have a Gmail email account and didn’t want to jump through the hoops of creating one. Google says people don’t have to have a Gmail account but adds there is often confusion between a Gmail account and a plain-vanilla Google account, which only requires people to enter a username and password.

No such puzzlement should exist with Doodle.com, which doesn’t ask users for their email. Launched in 2003 by a developer in Zurich, Doodle.com allows people to quickly get on a calendar, select dates and times for an event, then send out the link so people can fill in when they want to volunteer. But Doodle.com is designed primarily for setting up a business meeting, the company says. Organizing a month’s worth of classroom volunteers thus requires clicking each specific date to create a volunteer spot for it. In other services, you can bring up a month’s calendar. Printing out a Doodle.com calendar also entails someone first exporting the calendar to a PDF or an Excel spreadsheet.

One parent, who is a Doodle.com fan, says she finds the application is better used to organize one-off events such as a school field trip rather than maintaining an ongoing volunteer calendar.

VolunteerSpot was launched early last year by entrepreneur Karen Bantuveris, who says she was aggravated with the lack of tools to solve volunteer-coordinating problems at her child’s preschool. VolunteerSpot allows an organizer to create a calendar, use a tool called the planning wizard to choose tasks they need people to volunteer for, and then send the link out so people can chime in for what slots they can fill.

VolunteerSpot has gotten mixed reviews from our first-grade class. While our parent-volunteer coordinator said the website is very “usable”—with reminders automatically sent two days before a volunteer session, among other things—it was less smooth in some areas.

VolunteerSpot doesn’t allow people to see a month’s worth of volunteers at a glance; people have to click on each day to see who is volunteering, for instance. Printing a calendar isn’t easy. When I clicked on our class calendar, I could print out only my volunteer slots and not the entire class’s since I wasn’t the calendar’s administrator.

My first-grader’s teacher was particularly frustrated by those things since they prevented her from easily seeing who was volunteering when and from printing out a calendar to prompt laggards to volunteer. She says it meant she often had to bug our parent-volunteer coordinator for updates and to make changes to the calendar.

Ms. Bantuveris says the site is constantly adding features and that more than one person can be a calendar’s administrator, which allows them to make changes to a calendar’s settings. She adds that the site in February added an option allowing an administrator print out a master calendar.

Still, there’s one thing these technologies can’t overcome: parental resistance. One of our school’s first-grade classes started the academic year with VolunteerSpot—but quickly abandoned it. Instead, they switched to a paper calendar. “We just couldn’t get anyone to sign up online,” says the room parent for that class. With a paper calendar, she adds, the volunteering has gone much more smoothly.

Walter S. Mossberg will return June 10.

Write to Pui-Wing Tam at pui-wing.tam@wsj.com


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