What does a successful PTO year look like?

That answer is as varied as thousands of parent groups across the country, but in my experience a successful year is built one success at a time. And the most effective groups carefully gauge their abilities—how much help they have and how talented and experienced that help is—before making their plans for success.

A common mistake groups make is pushing through an agenda of events and efforts they must execute without considering whether they have enough volunteers (or the right volunteers) to pull it off. Inevitably, this leads to several of the must-do events being executed poorly and the best volunteers feeling burnt out or even taken advantage of.

A year where several events aren’t executed well and your volunteers aren’t happy? That is definitely not the kind of success we are all looking for.

It’s more effective to start each year anew and only green-light those events you can confidently execute well with the volunteer assets you have—without two or three supervolunteers giving up any semblance of free time to make things happen.

If you have only two or three core leaders and a few more regular volunteers, a big new school auction, with its heavy volunteer needs, may not be for you. Starting small? I recommend focusing on parent-school communications (improve them, create community), maybe one or two manageable family events, and teacher appreciation. If you need a fundraiser, look for one that is proven and that doesn’t take eight or nine volunteers to execute well.

Tackle those things and make all of them—and only them—better than ever. A great side-benefit is that a series of three or four positives and no misses builds momentum. Parents are drawn far more to clear success—and volunteer sanity—than they are to groups that are overextended. Three or four successes this year can lead to four or five next year. That’s how PTOs take root. That’s a successful year for sure, even if you feel like you didn’t take on as much as you should have.

Even if you are in the enviable position of having lots of help, the goal is the same: to finish the year with several successes, few or no misses, and an energized, appreciated, growing volunteer base. 

I’ve seen thriving groups slowly wither because they used a must-do calendar year after year without thinking of the particular strengths, weaknesses, and interests of that year’s volunteers. Volunteers find other outlets if they are continually asked to do what they don’t like to do or if their time isn’t valued. And events that are run without passion or quality can actually turn off potential volunteers.

There are lots of great program and fundraising options that are working well for groups, and could be great choices for yours. But don’t just pick all your favorites and then hope you can execute them. Instead, figure out how much you can do really well and make great choices from there. Do that, and I know you’ll have a successful year.