Behind every successful school parent group is a circle of talented volunteers. To encourage parents to join, many PTOs and PTAs hold an annual membership drive, often coinciding with the start of the school year.

PTO Today recommends that PTOs automatically make all parents members of the group, then focus on building involvement. But PTAs, which must pay dues to state and national organizations, and many PTOs do hold membership drives as a way to raise money.

A membership drive can help your group build a broad base of support and volunteers willing to help throughout the year. At back-to-school events, having outgoing volunteers who are willing to ask people to join and can explain the membership benefits as well as what the PTO does can help ensure the success of your drive. Make sure you have membership forms at your school office, online, and at every event your group sponsors during the school year.

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Annual Parent Group Planning Calendar

The timeline below shows the steps involved in a typical membership drive. To find out what makes some drives more successful than others, we talked to parent groups that have increased their membership base. Here are their tips.

Communicate the Benefits

The first step in recruiting members is to communicate how joining the group benefits families and the school. The broad benefits include supporting or enriching your child’s education and the opportunity to become more involved and aware of decisions made at the school. In addition, supporting a parent group through membership (and fundraising) can also result in more tangible benefits for your child’s school, such as providing up-to-date technology or new playground equipment.

A membership drive is the perfect time to brag about your group’s accomplishments, like a tutoring program or a popular school carnival. While touting your achievements, be sure to send the message that any level of involvement is welcome, whether it’s heading up a committee or volunteering an hour a semester.

“Some people shy away from joining their school’s PTA because they are concerned they won’t have the time to raise funds or help out during the school year’s functions. You have to make it clear that they are different things,” says Josh McHugh, membership vice president for the Dixie Canyon Community Charter PTA in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

The Dixie Canyon PTA worked to differentiate all the aspects of PTA membership—and in the process, appealed to many new families.

“We made it clear that while fundraising is a part of the PTA, volunteerism is also an important part of our culture at Dixie; but they are both separate from being a member of the PTA,” says McHugh, who has been a volunteer for the past two years. In McHugh’s first year, the PTA recruited 500 members out of a membership base of 715.

To help explain the benefits of joining your group, you can write a “top 10 reasons to join” tip sheet or download one from ptotoday.com (search “10 reasons”). Post the list on your group’s website or social media pages, and send it home in student backpacks the first week of school. Consider making posters to hang around school or at drop-off and pickup areas. Don’t forget to include mentions of membership benefits in school newsletters or at back-to-school nights, too.

Offer Incentives

Many groups find that offering incentives can help boost their membership numbers. The Dixie Canyon PTA offered half-off membership fees during the first month of the drive, in September. The PTA entered new members in a raffle. The prizes, which included a one-year membership to a natural history museum and an iPad, definitely helped grow membership, according to McHugh.

To engage students in recruitment, the PTA threw a pizza party for the classroom with the most members. The child with the most memberships earned a $100 gift card to a local toy store.

By involving the kids in the membership drive and getting them excited about the contest, Dixie created “PTA ambassadors.” Your group can also do this by having creative incentives that are appealing to kids, such as offering a free recess for the class with the most new members or a karaoke lunchroom jam session. If the kids are excited, they will spread the word at home and encourage their parents to fill out a membership form.

Offering incentives doesn’t have to be expensive. The Henking Hoffman PTA in Glenview, Ill., offers a free school directory as an incentive to join and has seen membership increase. In Cranston, R.I., the Parents and Teachers of Glen Hills gives each family a free Scholastic book for joining.

Create a Sense of Community

Many parents want to know what type of group they are joining before they make the commitment. The Henking Hoffman PTA focused on creating more community events to attract members. With nearly 1,200 students at the K-5 school, the PTA membership traditionally hovered around 300 members. However, many of the same parents were volunteering for most of the events.

“To help attract new families to our PTA, we started focusing on community-building activities, such as a pancake breakfast held in the winter on a Saturday morning or a parents night out casual event at a local bar twice a year,” says president Mary Frese. “We’ve definitely had a lot of fun the past few years with the more social, community-focused events, and in the process have gained more members and interested current members in getting more involved.”

The Henking Hoffman PTA also tried something new by inviting incoming kindergarten families to the last meeting of the year, held at a local restaurant. “While we didn’t have a huge turnout, we did have a few first-timers, who were starting school in the fall, volunteer to take on committee chair positions, which is a definite plus for our PTA,” Frese says.

To create a sense of community, consider sending out an online poll to parents asking what types of activities they would like to see the parent group sponsor. Is it parents-only socials or more family-friendly events? Are they interested in one large fundraiser or more frequent, smaller fundraisers?

How often do they want you to communicate with them and how? By taking the time to ask these questions, you’ll get a better understanding of your parents’ needs and wishes.

Make It Personal

The Parents and Teachers of Glen Hills group is trying a more personal way to reach parents at open house this year: having members talk to parents one-on-one in each classroom. In the past, the president spoke at the welcome reception for all parents.

“A personal touch, like a phone call at the start of the year to welcome not only kindergarten parents but everyone, goes a long way,” says PTGH president Pleshette Vonner. “It’s a great way to let them know what’s going on and encourage them to join our group.” The PTGH divides the calls among executive board members, and each member calls 10 to 15 parents.

Don’t be afraid to ask, advises McHugh. He was surprised when the PTA president asked him to join the PTA, but once asked, he was glad to accept. You never know when your phone call or request could turn out to be just the nudge a volunteer needs.

This personal approach comes more easily if PTA leadership sets the tone of a friendly, open environment at meetings and through communications. Consider setting up a “did you know?” column in the school newsletter with a member profile each month or have an online suggestion box on your website. Post board members’ pictures so nonmembers know who to approach if they have a question. And keep a current listing of volunteer openings and remind all your members that it’s everyone’s job to help fill open spots. Suggest that they ask their neighbors or friends to get involved by recommending a specific job rather than proposing general membership.

Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way to run a membership drive. Do what works for the group and school community.


Membership Drive Timeline

Spring

  • Review what went well with the current year’s campaign and brainstorm new ideas.
  • Recruit a membership chair if needed.

Summer

  • Write a welcome letter to be given, along with a membership application, to new families who visit the school over the summer.
  • Update membership materials and the membership section of the website if needed.
  • Coordinate key back-to-school dates with the school, such as school supply pickup or open house.
  • Communicate with the principal about the parent group’s role at the main back-to-school event.

2 Weeks Before Main Event

  • Recruit volunteers to hand out membership information, mingle with guests, and handle new member sign-ups.
  • Double check that all materials are ready, make copies, and prepare signage.
  • Work with the school on setup, such as tables, chairs, sound system, etc.
  • Send out event invitations or reminders.
  • Prepare a speech or presentation, if appropriate.

Back-to-School Period

  • Welcome new families at event; have name tags for each volunteer.
  • Staff table with membership materials; answer questions and have members ready to sign up people on-site.
  • Follow up with those who had questions; take suggestions for new ideas.
  • Arrange for parent group ambassadors to talk about the group in classrooms, at the playground, or at school drop-off and pickup.
  • Send out emails, letters, or flyers in backpacks to all families, inviting them to join.

October-May

  • Keep communicating the membership benefits each month, either via email or school newsletter.
  • Continue to share news of parent group activities and fundraisers, and include membership and meeting information in messages throughout the school year.
  • Begin recruiting for a membership chair or committee for next school year.