Congratulations! You have made the commitment to set up a PTO at your child’s school. There are certain organizational steps to follow (read “How To Start a PTO” for the details in depth), but beyond those basics, how do you get your PTO off the ground and put this grand idea into practice? What do you actually do this month, this week, today? Here are some practical recommendations that will move your PTO from concept to action.
Meet With the Principal
Sometimes the motivation to start a PTO comes strictly from the parents themselves. The enthusiasm boils up at dance class or in the pickup line outside the school. Like-minded parents pool their energy, ready to organize a PTO. But before you can move forward, you need to engage the school’s principal. By its nature, a PTO is tightly integrated with the school. You really can’t do much without the support of the building principal.
Depending on the dynamics, the principal might take the role of PTO ally, dictator, partner, or even obstacle. Your goal should be to develop a mutual respect between the PTO and the administration so that your PTO is a welcome partner for the school, not viewed as a nuisance. The best way to establish a strong relationship is to talk early and openly about what the PTO founders and the principal want this new group to be.
Ask about past experiences the principal has had with other PTOs and PTAs, good or bad.
Gauge the principal’s expectations. What would the principal list as the top priorities for the PTO?
How much influence and level of involvement does the principal desire?
How much access can you have to teachers and students? What guidelines apply to things like sending notes home in students’ backpacks or asking teachers to volunteer at an event?
Can your PTO have permission for day-to-day access to things like the school’s photocopier and storage files?
Would your principal/school be willing to donate some startup funding for the PTO?
Execute a Simple Event
With the principal’s blessing secured, your PTO is ready to plan its first event. Start simple so you can be assured of a successful outcome. At this point, you probably don’t have any funds and your list of volunteers may consist of just a few charter members. Most parents may not even know who or what the PTO is. So don’t be overzealous with your first project. Plan something that can be done for free or nearly free, by a few people, in a short period of time. Select something that taps into the shared passions of your core parents and your principal so the effort feels like fun, not work.
Enhance something that already happens at your school. For example, organize a simple dinner for the teachers and a healthy snack sale during parent-teacher conferences.
Consider what made you want to start a PTO in the first place:
What needs were you trying to fulfill?
What problems were you hoping to address?
For example, if access to age-appropriate reading books was a motivator for your PTO’s founding, then organize a book drive under the PTO banner. Follow up with a program to invite “celebrity” readers (the mayor, firefighters, or high school football players, for example) to visit the classrooms.
Talk to Parents and Teachers
You’ve established the foundation of a core group of parents and a supportive principal. Next you need to reach out to the parent community at large and to the teachers at the school. Let them know their school is now the beneficiary of a new and enthusiastic parent group.
Even though you’ve laid the groundwork, the PTO won’t grow without the support of parents and teachers. So, as you did with the principal, you need to ask and listen.
Distribute a simple survey to parents and teachers asking what they’d like to see from the new PTO.
Ask parents and teachers about past experiences they’ve had with other school parent groups.
Actively, informally chat with other parents and teachers about the new PTO. Take every opportunity to promote the group and to solicit input.
Introduce yourself and your founding team through the school’s usual communication tools: newsletter, website, bulletin board, and even a note to each teacher. Let everyone know who you are and what you hope to do by establishing the PTO. Don’t be afraid to share your photographs, email addresses, and phone numbers. You want people to feel comfortable approaching you and to recognize the PTO leadership team.
Give Your Group an Identity
An important step in establishing a new group is to define its public persona. Even if your new PTO consists of only two or three founding members, you want to look like you’re serious about this endeavor. By attaching a name and identity to the PTO, you make the group seem more official and real. People are more likely to listen to and ultimately support a group that has a professional presence rather than one that drifts in and out week to week.
Your PTO needs a formal name. Pick one and stick with it. [Name of Your School] PTO is most common, but you’re not limited to that.
Develop a logo and use it on everything your PTO does, from T-shirts to newsletters to flyers.
Consider developing a slogan.
Be sure the PTO gets public credit for everything it does. This isn’t about personal kudos, it’s about demonstrating that this new group earns the support of the community because of the benefit it brings to the school.
Ask for a page on the school’s website. Even if you don’t have the expertise (yet) for ongoing website maintenance, at least add the PTO’s name, logo, mission, and contact information for your officers.
Plan Activities for the Future
Now the fun begins. With a basic foundation in place, you and your PTO leaders can start looking ahead. Take into consideration all you’ve learned so far, and lay out a plan for the rest of the school year. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, but set some clear goals that will stretch your group a bit. As the PTO makes a positive difference at the school, more and more parents will be willing to join in. Consider:
Family fun events
Classroom enrichment activities
Physical enhancements for the school
Parent education and fellowship
Community involvement and service
As your PTO evolves and matures, you’ll be able to plan bigger events, manage more complex projects, and set more ambitious goals.
Raise Some Funds
Some people mistakenly assume that a PTO is essentially the fundraising arm of a school. Don’t fall into that trap. While fundraising is important, it shouldn’t be the primary focus of your PTO. You can do far more good for your school by making parental involvement your priority. Put your energy into developing a great relationship between parent and school. Then, when your PTO asks for financial support, your community will understand. Folks are far more likely to donate to the group when they feel connected, when they believe the group is benefiting their children, and when they are confident the organization is handling the funds responsibly. The funds will come if you do the other things right first.
When it does come time to fundraise, be prepared to select from dozens of options. There are sales fundraisers, event-oriented fundraisers, do-it-yourself programs, and professional turnkey programs. With so many choices, you might be tempted to run several fundraising programs back-to-back. But be careful not to overload your parent community with the constant “ask.”
Select one or two ideas and run them well. Communicate the reason for your fundraising appeal and set a realistic goal. Keep your community up to date on the progress of your fundraising efforts, and be sure to thank them for their support. Add up the results, then work within your means. It’s often better in the long run to refine your plans to match the available funds than to add another fundraiser to the calendar.
For the long-term viability of your PTO, you’ll need to set up some basic organizational structures. By the end of your PTO’s first school year, you should have most of these pieces in place. Your PTO should look and feel like a real organization so it survives the downtime of summer. That way, when the new school year starts in the fall, the PTO will be perceived as an integral part of the school community. Areas to work on include:
Communication tools like email newsletters, bulletin boards, email, and website
Financial accounting systems, banking, financial controls, and budgeting (check out PTO Today's Finance Manager software)
Organizational meetings and meeting management techniques
Bylaws and policies
Committee structure and recruitment
Officer elections and new officer training
Volunteer management tools for finding and recruiting interested volunteers and tracking their hours quickly and easily
Your group's insurance coverage