Think for a moment about why you belong to a parent group. Maybe the answer seems obvious. The PTO provides services that enhance your child’s education. It gives you a more direct voice in what happens at the school. And you enjoy interacting with the kids, working with other parents, and accomplishing things that truly make a difference. The real question is why every parent isn’t involved.
Here’s one reason: They don’t understand. That’s right, most parents don’t fully understand what a parent group does and why it can be important to the children and to them. What’s so clear to members of the group isn’t obvious at all to people who don’t belong. Outsiders may have a general idea of what you do, but often that idea is incomplete or, worse, incorrect.
So you have to tell them.
"Marketing" can be an imposing word. But when you boil it down, it’s simply a matter of communication. You decide what message you want to communicate, and then you get the word out. You know why your organization is important, but if your parent group is like most, you have never clearly identified that information and shared it effectively. If you follow a few guidelines, you’ll be on your way to getting more parents involved.
Define the Benefits
People don’t get involved in an organization simply because they’re interested in it. They also are motivated, to a certain degree, by self-interest. They ask: What can this organization do for me? To attract parents to your group, and especially to get them to become active members, you have to answer that question for them. But first, you need to know the answer yourself.
Ask yourself and other members of your group these three questions: What does this parent group do for children? What does this group do for parents? Why do parents spend time working with this group as opposed to all of the other things they could be doing with their time?
This exercise is best done in a brainstorming session, and the answers form the basis of your message to potential new members. You’re identifying their needs and wants and how your group addresses them. (See “Brainstorming: How To Create a Meaningful Message” below.)
Get the Word Out
By answering these questions, your group has made clear its basic reason for being (how it helps kids and how it helps parents). You’ve also identified the ways your parent group is special and why parents should spend their time being involved with it. You’ve put together the most important information that potential members need to know to make a decision about their involvement in the organization. Now you need to communicate that information.
Every piece of marketing, such as flyers, handouts, and your website, should reiterate the information you collected. Don’t just share this information in your yearly efforts to bring in new parents. Include it on monthly meeting notices and in speeches whenever you talk about the organization. In particular, it should be front and center when doing fundraising. It can be your best fundraising tool, because it tells people exactly why the PTO exists and why they should support it. And don’t be afraid to say the same thing over and over. That’s how awareness is built and the message is conveyed.
As you put together your marketing, consider these questions to make sure you get your information in the hands of potential PTO parents:
- Where do parents go when they are being parents?
- What are parents doing when they are at these different locations?
- How can I catch the attention of parents at those times?
Once you answer these questions, you’ll need to develop messages that will fit into each situation. For example, if parents spend time at the public library looking for books while their children are at a reading hour, you can probably approach them with signs and written literature. They will have some free time, so they will probably be more open to processing a fair amount of information about the PTO.
Conversely, parents might be found in pickup lines at school. At that location, they probably don’t have a lot of time or energy for thinking about the PTO. The best thing you can do there might be to hand out bumper stickers calling attention to the parent group and raising awareness that the organization exists.
The key is to think creatively, getting the message to parents in a location where they are likely to see it. When they have a short amount of time available, the message has to be short and to the point. When they have more time, it can be more detailed. Know the occasion and tailor the message accordingly. Don’t try to jam a lot of information into an inappropriate situation. It never works. Generally, the parents will just shut down because they feel overwhelmed.
Spread It Around
Getting the message across doesn’t have to be expensive, nor does it require great marketing expertise. Here are some ideas to consider as simple ways of increasing awareness about the parent group.
Use public relations. Public relations is among the simplest, least-expensive ways for nonprofit groups to raise awareness about what they are doing. It’s also one of the least-used, because people believe it takes expertise. It doesn’t. All it requires is a good story with an interesting angle that catches the attention of local media. Most local newspapers are desperate for stories to fill up their pages, and local-interest topics are of particular note to them. There are many publications and articles on the Internet and in your library that can give you the basics of writing a press release. Check them out, and next time your group has an organizing event, make sure you send a press release to your local paper.
Talk it up. “Buzz” is a very effective way to spread the word. Basically, it means that when you find a good product or service, you tell a friend, who tells a friend, who tells a friend. What if each current member of the parent group agreed to tell at least five other parents about the organization and talk up all the ways it helps kids and parents? Even if only one of those five joins, that’s a pretty strong membership increase. And people who believe in an organization are always the best, most passionate speakers for it. They have tremendous power that just needs to be harnessed.
Partner with other groups. Look around the school. Is there another group that has a high success rate in getting parents involved? If so, meet with that group. Maybe you can organize a joint event that will appeal to both groups and help each pick up some new members. And if nothing else, it increases awareness of the parent group.
Don’t be afraid to do very simple activities. If parents walk their kids to bus stops, set up a parent group coffee station at the bus stop to share information. Have a parent at the public library once a week to answer questions. If your town has a local talk radio show (and most do), ask to get on to discuss what your parent group does.
Use the Internet. Send out questionnaires to parents via email. Ask them what they want from a parent group and what they aren’t getting. Then invite them to a meeting to discuss the results and how the group is going to use the information. Many more parents will participate if they feel involved in the process.
Make It Easy
Make sure you do the basics right.
Have a website. Find a student learning how to build websites, and ask him or her to build one for you. In return, give the student publicity on your site.
Have an email address where anyone can send questions about the PTO. Make sure that a PTO member responds to questions regularly.
When you have meetings, be certain you address the issues of time-constrained families. Commit to beginning and ending on time. Pool together to have baby sitters available. Make sure you are having meetings at times that are OK for working parents. Offer to car-pool to meeting locations.
Just remember two fundamental points: Have a clear message to share with others about what your PTO is and does, and be creative and smart about where you convey that message. If your group does these two things, you are guaranteed to improve parental involvement.
Marketing is communication, and effective communication starts with an effective message. Your message should speak directly to your target: other parents. It should say, essentially, “We know that you have needs and wants, and our group can address them. Here’s how.”
First, of course, you have to know what those needs and wants are and how your group addresses them.
How do you collect this information? It’s not complicated. The fastest and easiest way to start is with the parents who are already involved in the parent group. Get your current members together for about an hour.
This is a brainstorming session. Appoint one person to take notes. If someone in the group says something particularly interesting, write it down exactly as it was said. This will be helpful later. During this session, you will ask and discuss three questions:
What does this parent group do for children?
This might seem very apparent to you. However, it is probably something that parents who don’t participate really don’t understand. Try to think about both what you do (build a playground, for example) and what the result is (kids have a safe, fun place to play). People might not always be that interested in building a playground, but everyone is interested in giving their kids a safe place to play.
What does this parent group do for parents?
The answer to this question will be a key point in helping parents understand whether the PTO fits a need in their lives. Get direct quotes from parents whenever possible, and use those quotes when you convey this information to potential members. Real words from real people are always very powerful motivational tools. Don’t forget to include the social aspect of what your group does. In today’s stressed-out world, there’s nothing wrong with parents having fun.
Once the group has answered all of the questions, stop and review the information. Work on the answers until they are as short and simple as possible. Make sure the group agrees with the result.
Why do parents spend time working with this parent group versus all of the other things they could be doing with their time? What makes this organization special?
The answers to this question will help identify what makes your parent group unique. This will give you a meaningful, relevant rationale to share with potential members as to why the parent group is the place to spend their time.
Marketing consultant Elisabeth Doucett has worked with a client list ranging from Fortune 500 corporations to local nonprofits. She holds an MBA in marketing from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.