"What are we supposed to do? What's the role of a PTO?" We get questions like these often via email and on our ptotoday.com message boards. They usually come from a brand-new leader or group, but we also get them often enough from established groups still trying to figure this out.

While it may sound simplistic, my short response is "What does your school need from you right now?" That should be your role.

Your answer today will almost certainly be different from your answer two years from now, and possibly very different from the answer of the PTO across town. That's perfectly OK.

Leaders with nearly every group I've worked with agree that some version of "We want to make our school a great place for our kids to thrive" is a good summary of their goal. To me, that's the essence of PTO work. If you can get a healthy (and growing) group of adults to help with that challenge, then you're on the right track.

The trick is that what each school needs and what each PTO is ready and able to provide are different. If your PTO is new and is struggling to get even the first few volunteers, then your PTO's key goal may be changing the school culture (making it more welcoming), broadening your base of volunteers, and increasing school-to-home and home-to-school communication. There's real value in that, and those early involvement steps are necessary before it becomes possible to reach bigger goals.

On the other hand, there are groups that are well-established and functioning well. For those PTOs, it may be time to go to the principal and faculty and find ways to bring even more to your school. Could you create a vibrant, yearlong after-school program that taps into the passions of all your parents and supplements the core curriculum? Or perhaps your school has the academic bases covered well but needs a more active social service component. Your PTO could take the lead on infusing your school with an ethic of sharing.

You'll notice that my examples don't include a laundry list of items that need to be purchased. There's nothing wrong with parent groups helping provide tangible resources for the school, but I find that groups that make purchases their core mission continually struggle to gain support. In fact, the groups that are able to raise the most dollars for their school are usually the ones that focus on involvement, community, and service first and fundraising second.

Then again, if there's no heat in the school or the kids are getting hurt on broken-down slides, then a new boiler or a new playground may be exactly what your school needs now.

I do find that most groups that really thrive list "grow parent involvement" somewhere within their goals. Research makes clear that increasing parent involvement is a huge positive for any school. You'll also notice that "increasing parent involvement" is general enough to still leave lots of room for your PTO to customize your goals based on your specific community. It might be getting lots more parents attending school events (creating community) or it might be getting lots more parents supporting the school financially or involved with supplementing the academic efforts or even learning English as a second language (serving parents themselves).

What's the role of a PTO? That role is to help transform your school from a pile of bricks with books inside into a community where the kids know that they're not alone. How you send that message—what you work on this year, what you work on next year, how you make the school a better place—is up to you and your membership. There's no better cause.