Without question, the single biggest challenge facing PTOs today is getting more parents involved in school activities. While this has been a concern of schools and parent groups for many, many years, it seems to be getting worse. Fewer parents attend meetings, participate in activities, or support the parents who do want to get involved. Why does it seem to get harder and harder each year?
Maybe we're dealing in the wrong currency.
Normally, when you think of currency, you think of dollars and cents. How much does it cost? Can I get it cheaper somewhere else? What do I get in return for my dollars?
So organizations spent time telling supporters what they could get for their money.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, we entered the information age. All of a sudden, the cost was secondary to the information. I need the information. no matter what it costs. Information is power, information is a competitive advantage, information is what helps me get ahead. Information had become the new currency.
Here's the challenge of today. Information "inflation" has set in. Parents and other supporters are overwhelmed by information from every imaginable source. They get information from the Internet, from their email, from the media, and from their various professional organizations. It's getting to the point where people are throwing up their hands and yelling, "Enough already!" When there is an oversupply of any currency, its value drops.
So what's the new currency?
Time has replaced money and information as the thing people value most. How much time will it take to get involved? How much time will it take to go to the meeting? How much time do I have to put in before I (or my children) start getting something out of this organization? I don't have the time to participate. How much time did I waste the last time I did try to get involved?
It's gotten to the point where people would rather make a financial contribution than commit their precious time. Communications technology and computers have created the 24-hour workday for many people. Instead of coming home and spending the evening with their families, millions of people now come home and, after a short break, turn on their home computers or laptops and go back to work!
In this work environment, family time and leisure time become even more valued. Think about it. People have three choices now: I can spend some quality time with my family; I can get a couple of hours of work done after dinner; or I can get in my car and spend a couple of hours going to that meeting for my PTO.
Guess which choice is last on the list?
What are we to do about this situation? Giving up isn't an option, so let's look at some opportunities.
1. Get with the program, and deal in the appropriate currency.
Start off by showing some empathy for your parents. If everything of value in your PTO requires a big time commitment, you're in trouble. Let members know you understand how busy they are and talk to them about some of the benefits of PTO involvement that don't require physical time away from their jobs and families. Highlight publications, websites, and activities they can do at home with their children. If we constantly preach the old "You only get out of an organization what you put into it," we're just reinforcing what they already are worried about—they don't have enough time to get something worthwhile out of their PTO.
2. Find some way to break down the big jobs.
Of course we want our parents to "get active" in the PTO, but to many people getting active means taking on a big, time-consuming job. Try to break down some of these larger tasks into smaller jobs. Consider job-sharing or co-chairs. Ask people to take on part of a job or event instead of the whole project. Put definite time limits on how long a person needs to commit, so they can plan.
3. Try to give parents options on how they can participate.
One way to get more parents involved is to ask the right question. "Who wants to be our fundraising chair?" is the wrong question. You already know the answer to that one. Nobody wants to be your fundraising chair. Besides, "Do you want to be our fundraising chair?" is a yes or no question. Instead, tell parents, "We have several places where we could use someone like yourself. For example, we need some help with our fundraising activities, we are looking for some new committee members, and we also have a school night for a science program that we're putting together. Given your time constraints, which of these would be the best way to get you started in our PTO?"
That's a different question. It gives the parent the option to choose where and how to be involved, rather than whether to participate at all.
There are several other ways to deal with this issue of time, but the important thing is to communicate empathy. Let parents know that you (and your PTO) fully understand their daily challenge of making the best use of their valuable time. They want to know if their PTO really comprehends their concerns. It's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity.
You can probably get parents to buy in to just about anything in your PTO. You just have to be sure you're dealing in the right currency.