The parents at Uthoff Valley Elementary in Fenton, Mo., aren’t afraid to speak their minds. In anonymous surveys conducted by the PTO, they complained about bossy volunteers, asked how the PTO was spending its money, and even weighed in on non-PTO issues like the themes chosen for classroom parties. As a result, PTO leaders began delegating more work and will issue more frequent budget reports this year.

“We value the comments,” says copresident Margo McIlroy. “There are people that don’t have time to be leaders, but they have opinions, and we value that, too.”

Surveying members is a great way to stay in tune with the school community, to educate people about what your PTO is doing, and to show that you’re open to suggestions. Careful planning is needed, however, to get the kind of thoughtful responses that will be useful to the group.

Define the purpose. The form of the survey should be determined by its function. If the PTO is looking for a frank assessment of its performance, an anonymous survey is best, but if the purpose is to compile a list of volunteers with certain skills, respondents will need to provide names and contact information. If questions about last year’s events are tacked on to a volunteer survey, keep in mind that people may not express their opinions as freely as they would in an anonymous survey.

Think about timing. Conducting a survey in the fall can help your PTO set priorities for the year. It’s also a good way to build a detailed volunteer list that you can use all year long.

It’s best to ask for feedback on events sooner than the following school year. Many parent groups ask moms and dads to evaluate programs before classes let out for summer.

Another option is to ask parents to fill out evaluation forms at the end of an event. Such evaluations can be useful for new or revamped activities, but beware of overdoing it. The last thing a parent wants to do after a night at the school carnival is fill out a form.

Don't make it all about the group. Even if the purpose of a survey is to find volunteers for specific tasks, don’t make the survey all about what other people can do for the PTO. Ask parents what they would like the PTO to do for them, what they think of past activities, and what they think has been missing. Use the survey to send the message that everyone’s contributions are valued.

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

When group leader Cathy Crim surveyed teachers at Eugene Field Elementary in Hannibal, Mo., she wanted to find out what they thought about the PTO. She knew that the evening meeting times were inconvenient for teachers, but she was surprised to learn how little they knew about the group. She’s considering having a parent representative go to the monthly teachers’ meetings to provide updates on the PTO.

“We still need to work on getting the word out about our group and what our mission is,” Crim says.

Ask good questions. Write questions that will elicit specific answers, not just generic information. While it’s great to hear that the PTO is doing a good job, it’s even better to be told that, in particular, parents like the flexibility of the new volunteer program.

Instead of asking “What type of fundraiser would you prefer?” ask parents to explain what they like about their preferred fundraiser and what they dislike about the others. Encourage respondents to expand upon yes-or-no answers by asking “Why or why not?”—and leave plenty of space for comments. For multiple-choice questions, consider adding an “other” choice and a line for respondents to write in an answer.

Keep it short. The longer the survey, the less likely people will be to complete it thoughtfully and thoroughly. Keep yours short by asking only what is essential to know.

Combine questions when possible to save time in filling out the surveys and compiling the results. Instead of asking whether people attended an event and having a separate question for them to evaluate it, McIlroy suggests a single question, such as “If you attended the back-to-school barbecue, what was your impression of the event?”

Although written answers can provide valuable information, it takes longer for people to write comments than to pick answers from lists. Before distributing the survey, ask a few people to fill it out and ask them if it seems too long. You may be able to change questions from written answers to multiple choice or eliminate some questions altogether.

Determine how the survey will be distributed and collected. How and when you distribute your parent survey has a big effect on the number of responses you will receive. Surveys sent home for parents to return later typically have low response rates. Although you may get more responses by conducting an online survey, this method limits the survey to parents with regular Internet access. Whether you conduct the survey online or on paper, you can improve the response rate with the following strategies:

  • Give parents the survey at a school event, such as a back-to-school night or open house, and make sure the program allows time for filling it out. Have parents return the survey before the event ends.
  • Offer prizes as an incentive. Some schools hold drawings for student prizes to encourage kids to return their parents’ surveys. Drawings can also be held in conjunction with anonymous surveys. Just ask teachers or office staff to keep a list of who has turned in a survey.
  • If you send home a paper survey to parents, consider including a self-addressed, stamped envelope to make it easier for them to return the survey.

Share the results. When the survey results are in, it’s important to share them not only with PTO officers and event chairs but also with the larger school community. If you do follow a suggestion from a survey, let people know where you got the idea. If the survey results will be used to justify a group decision, sharing the results can help people understand how the decision was made. Even if you don’t like some of the answers, sharing survey results with the school community will promote better communication and transparency in running the PTO.

Dealing With Negative Feedback

When you ask people for their opinions, be prepared to listen. Responses to surveys may include suggestions for change as well as generous helpings of criticism, constructive or otherwise. Try not to take complaints personally. Instead, focus on what you can learn to make the PTO better.

At Uthoff Valley Elementary, a parent wrote on a survey that the PTO was not suited to working parents. Instead of getting defensive, working mom McIlroy says the group will use the opportunity to educate parents about the PTO. It will respond to that and other concerns voiced in the survey in a letter to the group email list.

It’s not necessary to respond to every criticism. If a complaint is isolated, it may be that someone used the survey to vent their frustrations. But if the same complaint is expressed numerous times, it may be in the best interest of the group to address it. Use the opportunity to clear up confusion about what the PTO does and invite participation rather than going on the defensive.