Making Smart Decisions as PTO Leaders

Fear of controversy often pushes us to the status quo. But you can make good decisions for your PTO or PTA without alienating members.

by Tim Sullivan


It's time to talk about one of the ever-present internal conflicts of the parent group world: How businesslike should we be?

While I'm not at all one who feels that parent groups should be run exclusively like miniature Fortune 500 companies, I do think there's a role for analytical decisionmaking and even debate. There are definitely choices you make that have quite impactful business consequences—which fundraiser to choose, how to maximize profit on our auction, whether we need insurance—that too often get short shrift in PTAs and PTOs.

The wrong choice can mean lower profits, dissatisfied parents, overtaxed volunteers, or even worse. And yet we sometimes spend more time debating ziti vs. pizza for the upcoming family night than we do discussing which fundraising company we'll be relying on to help us fund our entire year's work. Not good.

What I've learned working here at PTO Today and then in my own time as a PTO officer is that parent groups are usually led by folks with all kinds of business skills, folks who are extremely careful shoppers in their own lives and really smart decisionmakers. (Example: How much research did you do when buying your last car or choosing a summer camp for your child?) And yet those same people often put away those skills in their PTO roles. I've done it myself.

Sometimes we put away those skills because we're afraid of investing even more volunteer time. More often we do it because in our PTO lives, we desire peace more than anything else. Rather than undertaking the careful review of options that we might take in our work or our personal lives—the more careful the review, the more differing opinions that will emerge—we tend toward the least controversial decision and the way things have always been done. Change, especially any radical change, is usually not even proposed and almost always difficult to get through. Smarter choices don't always win, and that costs your group greatly in the long term.

The trick is to inject some decisionmaking processes into your group without creating the kind of atmosphere that will tear down the community spirit that is also important to your success. Make sure you put some of your most businesslike volunteers at the head of your fundraising committee or your playground committee or your auction committee, and then empower those volunteers to research carefully and even to make decisions. As a leader, make sure your general meeting doesn't overturn in 15 minutes what your empowered committee leaders spent two months working on.

At the same time, make sure your discussions and debates (and your newly empowered business-types) maintain the collegial, respectful tone that is required for a well-working PTO—and which sometimes is forgotten by us type A's. Yours is a volunteer group that welcomes all parents at your school, and that means you'll have to listen to all kinds of ideas and be respectful. Good decisions will take longer than the hard-chargers will like. But good, smart decisions can still be made.

All of your volunteers work too hard, and the work you do is too important, to make bad decisions just because you've always worked that way or you don't want to hurt feelings or because you're "just a PTO." The best PTOs can make smart decisions and still be warm, welcoming, fun places. That's the best combination.

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