In my seat, I hear every day from parent group leaders desperately trying to get more parents involved in their groups. Parent involvement is the most searched term on our PTOtoday.com Web site. Our involvement seminars are the most well attended talks at our PTO Today conferences. Clearly, parent group leaders want more parents involved. You’d love help. You’d gladly allow someone else a turn counting gift wrap receipts.

Why is it, then, that so many parents feel closed out of and unwelcome in parent groups? Why is “the PTO is a clique” the most whispered criticism of parent groups across the country?

The answer: Your group is a clique. The critics have a point.

The problem is that in matters of membership and involvement, impressions matter far more than reality. If even one parent thinks of your group as a clique, then you are a clique. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is clique-ism. And the sooner you realize that, the more effective your involvement efforts will become.

When it comes to this discussion, I always think back to a mom who was sitting in the middle of the pack during an involvement seminar at our Dallas conference last year. At first glance, she was quiet and unassuming, but when she spoke her words made the entire room sit up and take notice.

She spoke with passion about the very first PTO meeting she attended at her school three years earlier. She was new to the town, and her oldest child had just entered the school. She knew no one at the meeting and little about how parent groups work. But she knew she wanted to get involved. And she found the courage—she used the word courage; it’s how she felt—to attend the meeting as a stranger in a strange place.

When she arrived at the meeting, there were about 15 moms in attendance. One group of about eight—she later learned they were the officers and a couple of chairpeople—were at the front of the room talking together.

The meeting went off without a hitch: minutes, treasurer’s report, old business, new business. Officers sat at a head table, and several times inside jokes were passed about past PTO events and school activities. Building membership and increasing meeting attendance were mentioned several times, though this newcomer never did raise her hand to volunteer. She also wasn’t asked personally. She didn’t introduce herself to the officers, nor did the officers introduce themselves to her or to the group.

She went home and vowed never to go back to a PTO meeting. She felt like an outsider and hated that feeling. To her, the PTO was a clique and she wasn’t part of it. At our conference, she compared the feeling to her high school days and not being part of the cool crowd. She was near tears at the end of her story.

Amazingly enough, her story concludes with her now as president of that same PTO, and she makes it her everyday mission to be sure her group is as welcoming as it can be. It’s an amazing turnabout, and she’s truly a rare volunteer. Just a very few parents would jump back in after that initial experience. Most would chalk it up to a lesson learned and never go back.

What are new parents experiencing when they first interact with your group?

The funny thing is that I’d almost guarantee that the leaders of that Texas group didn’t see themselves as a clique. And I know that they didn’t mean to shut people out. But impressions are so powerful.

It’s up to you to institute policies and procedures and habits that create an atmosphere of openness to newcomers. Even if it’s awkward or feels a bit goofy, you—at every meeting and every event—need to look proactively for new faces and personally welcome them. At every meeting, all of your officers should introduce themselves, and every newcomer should be recognized. Deliberately avoid the circles of friends or leaders that naturally develop in every group. Have your leaders sit out in the crowd, not together and certainly not at a head table.

A few more tips:

  • Have a greeter at the door of your meetings and events, someone specifically assigned to make newcomers feel welcome.
  • Use nametags to level the playing field between newcomers and well-known veterans.
  • Always explain business items, even if they’re held over from previous meetings. Don’t assume “everybody knows.”
  • Make people raise their hands and be recognized before they speak. Otherwise meetings can devolve into chit-chat, almost always among the “regulars.”

You can’t eliminate all criticism, but you can choose whether to listen to critics to see whether there may be a grain of truth or to dismiss them out of hand. In the clique case, you’ll do well to err on the side of the critics. Greater involvement will be the result.