“How can we get more people to attend our meetings?” It’s a question asked year after year by both veteran and new parent group leaders. While meetings are not the best measure of success or even necessarily of parent involvement, it can be beneficial to improve attendance at meetings. An engaged group of attendees can spark healthy debate, generate new ideas, encourage more volunteerism, and create positive energy around the work of the PTO.
Some complaints about meetings are that they are too long and boring. You can manage the length of the meeting with an agenda and a skilled moderator, but how do you deal with the boring factor?
With a little creativity, a fair amount of determination, and a healthy dose of fun, you can easily increase both attendance and involvement at your meetings. Here are some strategies for adding a bit of a spark to your PTO meetings.
Start With an Icebreaker
It can be hard to have fun and let loose when you don’t know the other attendees at a meeting. Kick off your meetings with a fun icebreaker. A simple game can make a meeting feel less like work and more like a time to engage with the school community.
To introduce new groups of people, give every attendee the name of a celebrity or historical figure when they come to the meeting and ask them not to reveal the identity. Once everyone has arrived, invite guests to mingle and ask each other questions until they guess the “secret” identity of everyone in the room. To build teamwork among large groups, create a competition. Break the attendees into two groups and then play team trivia or your own local version of Family Feud. Create questions related to your school and community and have the teams compete for free school sweatshirts or small prizes.
Consider Combo Meetings
The Brooklyn (N.Y.) Prospect Charter School parent organization often has short book club gatherings before its meetings. By hosting a book club, knitting circle, or even a trunk show for a local jeweler or artist, parents can get out of the house to pursue an interest, socialize, and still conduct important school business. For today’s working families who are strapped for time and balancing competing priorities, the ability to accomplish several things at once can be a real win-win.
Invite a Guest Speaker
Guest speakers can also be a draw for meetings. Alison Kenney from the Bell School PTO in Marblehead, Mass., says, “We have guest speakers at just about every meeting.” Don’t limit speakers to the superintendent or curriculum director; invite a local motivational speaker, for example, or another appropriate community member who might be willing to donate his time. Local improv troupes are usually inexpensive to hire. In addition to entertaining your group, they often teach valuable lessons about how to work together as a team. Get your group laughing and inspired, and watch the creativity flow and the energy rise.
Give Stuff Away
Some PTOs partner with local businesses for donations of items to raffle off as door prizes at monthly meetings. After all, who doesn’t love free stuff? Meeting attendees can stay involved with their children’s schools and win a gift certificate to a salon, ice cream parlor, or coffee shop.
Make It a Meal
If your PTO meetings start at 7 p.m., a popular time for volunteer groups to meet, know that busy parents are often rushing at that hour. They may have just fed their children dinner, or just arrived home from work and probably haven’t had time to eat their own dinner. If they don’t have to choose between eating and participating, you’ve removed another barrier to attendance. Why not turn your PTO meeting into a dinner? Check with local grocery stores or restaurants to see whether they will provide food at a discount in exchange for recognition at the meeting and a note of thanks in your newsletter. Dress up the school auditorium with tablecloths and a few flower arrangements, and gather your group to break bread together.
Change Up Your Meeting Time and Location
This can be a very simple fix. Many parent organizations fall into a routine, holding meetings in the evening or right after school starts in the morning. And they follow the same agenda every month—treasurer’s report, followed by committee updates. By changing up the times and the days of the week, you can better accommodate working parents, parents who work overnight shifts, or those who may have babysitting challenges. The Austin (Texas) Discovery School PTO holds business meetings on Saturdays. Weekends often mean two parents are home, so attendance at the PTO meeting doesn’t require a babysitter.
The Bell School PTO takes advantage of Marblehead’s seaside location and occasionally holds meetings at the local yacht club, Kenney says. The change of scenery and casual setting appeals to parents. Perhaps there is a community room in your town library or even a local restaurant willing to donate function space. Meetings outside of the school auditorium can feel more inviting and less like a chore.
Make It More Informal
By varying the format, you can keep people engaged. The Discovery School PTO invites parents to a laid-back discussion about PTO business at a First Friday Coffee Chat. Informal meetings outside of the school, whether they’re held over coffee in the morning or wine in the evening, can make meetings feel more social in nature and therefore attract a whole new audience. Keep the agenda for these meetings more fluid. Invite parents to have roundtable discussions about what’s on their minds or to ask questions they may not want to ask in a larger, more formal group.
These tips might help increase the number of parents who come to your meetings and make meetings more enjoyable for everyone. However, if you don’t pack the room, don’t worry too much. Meetings are not the best indicator of a healthy PTO. As long as you’re achieving your goals and making a difference in your school community, you’re on the right track.
Keep Meetings on Track
Speakers and door prizes can make your meetings more entertaining, but ultimately, busy parents are looking for efficiency and productivity. Perhaps the best way to increase attendance at PTO meetings is to run an effective meeting. Follow these simple guidelines to keep your meetings on track.
Make introductions. Start the meeting by introducing the board members and if you have fewer than 20 attendees, have them introduce themselves, as well. Don’t assume parents know who you are.
Have an agenda and stick to it. Share the agenda before or at the start of the meeting and don’t let new discussions derail you. If needed, have committees look into difficult topics or continue the discussion until the next meeting.
Keep the meetings to 60 minutes or less. After one hour, people’s attention starts to diminish. And if you promise an hour, stick to an hour. Don’t routinely run over the time limit.
Take minutes and publish them. By keeping accurate records of your meetings, you can avoid rehashing the same issues month after month. Group members want to feel a sense of accomplishment after a meeting.