If you have volunteered to lead a committee, thank you! You are one of the workhorses of the PTO. Without you and other committee leaders, your group would never be able to sponsor the carnival, oversee the reading incentive program, manage the character education awards, set up the family movie night, or run the holiday shop.

The most successful parent groups have strong committees led by competent and dedicated chairpeople. Strong officers might keep the group on track, but strong committees get the work done along the way. To be the best committee leader possible—and to get the most out of the experience—follow these suggestions.

Getting Started

Do you know just what your committee is supposed to do? Are you sure? It’s not unusual to volunteer to run a committee with only a vague notion of its scope. Maybe the committee name sounds interesting, or you know someone who worked on the committee in the past, or your family attended the event last year. Whatever your motivation for selecting this particular responsibility, be sure, first of all, that you know what the committee is supposed to do, how it’s supposed to be done, and the resources available to do it.

Confirm scope. Before you tackle any substantive committee work, confirm the scope of your committee’s responsibilities with the PTO’s executive board. For example, if you’re in charge of hospitality, you know you provide snacks for the monthly PTO meetings. But what about the annual school board meeting or teacher in-service days at your school? Maybe you volunteered to be field trip coordinator. You might assume your job includes selecting field trip destinations when in fact the staff selects the trips and you are expected to handle only the paperwork and payments.

If you assume incorrectly, you run the risk of doing things already assigned to someone else or overlooking some important function of your committee. Ideally, you’ll be given specific information about the committee’s scope by the executive board or prior chairwoman. But if not, avoid frustration and confusion by asking!

Confirm expectations. Now that you know what you’re supposed to do, you need to know how you’re expected to do it. You may think you have a pretty good idea of the steps involved in doing your committee’s job. If you’re really lucky, you got training and files from the past chairwoman. But just to be safe, it’s always a good idea to run your plans by the executive board.

This advice is especially important if you haven’t worked on the committee before—and it’s essential if you’re completely unfamiliar with the committee’s past work. Conflicts tend to arise when someone takes off in a direction different from what others expect. You can still be creative and innovative, but you’ll meet with far less resistance if you pave the way with a little communication early on. And if more experienced PTO leaders have valid concerns about your approach, you won’t waste time on avoidable mistakes.

Confirm financial parameters. Depending on the committee, you may be expected to spend money or make money—or perhaps not spend any money at all. Do you know the financial plan for your committee? Don’t assume; get specific information from your group’s treasurer. Your committee must manage its finances carefully so as not to “steal” from another project or fall short of profit plans, which might mean cuts in parent group programming. It’s also important as a committee chair to know how to get reimbursed or to request that a check be prepared on the committee’s behalf. If you’re not especially comfortable with money management, find someone on your committee who is. Financial responsibility is an essential element of your role as leader.

More on Committees

Committee Chair Success Tips

Chairing a Committee: The Basics

A simple way to oversee your committee’s financial activity is to prepare a spreadsheet of all the anticipated expenses compared with the anticipated income sources (if any). As always, information from the former chairperson is invaluable in helping you anticipate the types and levels of expenses for your committee.

Start with the history, even if you’re trying something a bit different, and tweak it to match this year’s plans. With the financial plan in place, you can update the spreadsheet as actual expenses and income are realized. Throughout the course of your committee work, watch for activity that might indicate you’re deviating from the original financial plan, and take corrective action as needed.

As the committee chairwoman, be sure your committee members are not spending money without your authorization. It’s your responsibility to stay on top of finances for your committee. If you see that you need an increase in budget or risk falling short of your profit goals, meet with the executive board as soon as possible. With their broad view of parent group operations, the officers can decide the best way to adjust the financial master plan. In many ways, the parent group is a business, and you are one of its managers.

Engaging Volunteers

In a thriving parent group, there will be members eager to volunteer for the various opportunities. But even the most active group can lose support if volunteers are left to flounder. It’s not enough to capture a long list of names on a committee sign-up sheet.

As chairwoman, you must engage volunteers in meaningful, challenging, and rewarding work. If your group has few volunteers in general, it’s especially important to make parents on the sidelines feel welcome and needed. Most people want to contribute substantive work, not just “busy” work. They may not be able to commit the time you can, but they want to feel their role has value. And they want to have fun, too.

Your challenge is to balance all those needs while still accomplishing the work of the group. Delegate the good jobs among your committee members, run efficient and purposeful meetings, and sincerely listen to the ideas and input of your parent group colleagues. At the same time, you’re the leader, and sometimes you’ll need to make tough decisions. Don’t alienate your volunteers, but don’t be afraid to lead, either. Leadership is usually a balancing act, even in the humblest of parent group committees.

This story is excerpted from the PTO Today Leader's Toolkit.