The parents at Uthoff Valley Elementary in Fenton, Mo., aren’t afraid to speak their minds. In anonymous surveys conducted by the PTO, they’ve 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 issuing more frequent budget reports.
“We value the comments,” copresident Margo McIlroy says. “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 share what your PTO is doing, and to show your members that you’re open to suggestions. But it takes some thoughtful planning to get the kind of responses that will be useful to your group. Use the points below to help you create the right kind of survey for your needs.
Writing the Survey
Define the purpose. Is your PTO looking for a frank assessment of its performance? If so, then an anonymous survey is best. Are you compiling a list of volunteers with certain skills? In this case, your respondents will need to provide names and contact information.
If you decide to combine the two, keep in mind that people might not express their opinions as freely as they would in an anonymous survey.
Think about timing. Conducting a fall survey can help your PTO set priorities for the year. It’s also good timing to build a detailed volunteer list that you can use all year long.
When it comes to event feedback, it’s best to ask for it within the same 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 complete an evaluation form at the end of an event or soon after. This is a useful practice for new or revamped activities—but if you push a full-length evaluation survey for every event, parents will get burned out fast on filling them out.
Ask what parents want. 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.
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 was surprised to learn how little they knew about the group and as a result of the survey considered 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,” she says.
Ask good questions. Write questions that will draw out 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?” Leave plenty of space for comments. For multiple-choice questions, consider adding an “other” choice and a line for respondents to write in their own answers.
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’s essential to know. Combine questions when you can to make it easier both to fill out the survey and to analyze the results. For example, instead of asking whether people attended an event and then 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 freeform answers can provide valuable information, it takes longer for people to write in their own comments than to pick from a list. Before distributing the survey, ask a few people to fill it out and tell you whether it seems too long. You might be able to change questions from open-ended answers to multiple choice or eliminate some questions altogether. (Don’t forget to clear out their responses when you’re done testing.)
Check out the sample surveys in our File Exchange for ideas of questions to ask or as a template to make your group’s survey.
Building and Sending Your Survey
Decide how the survey will be distributed. How and when you share your parent survey will have a big effect on the number of responses you receive. These days, you’ll get much higher participation if you have a survey that can be filled out electronically. An online survey also makes it a lot simpler to compile the responses, analyze the results, and share what you learn (see “After the Survey,” below, for more about sharing results).
It’s not hard to find a free online survey tool, but the most well-known is Google Forms; it’s pretty easy to set up, and a free account still offers a lot of features that are useful. (By contrast, some other free service providers limit the number of times the survey can be completed within a month—not helpful if you want to get feedback from as many people as possible.) If your group has a budget to put toward surveys, then SurveyMonkey is worth a look, too. Whatever system you use, make sure it’s mobile-friendly and, at minimum, provides a shareable link to complete the survey.
Use your network. With an online survey, you can include a link in your email newsletters, share it on Facebook and other social channels, and possibly even embed the survey directly on your website. Ask your school principal to include the link in a schoolwide email and to share your posts on the school’s social media accounts, too.
Don’t forget that online survey links can be sent via text message, too. If your school uses a messaging app to communicate with parents, coordinate with the principal to send it out a couple of times during your survey period.
Improve your response rate.
Work with the school secretary or the principal to identify families who don’t have reliable Internet access and send them a printed survey instead; consider including a self-addressed, stamped envelope to make it super easy to return the survey.
Offer prizes as an incentive for non-anonymous surveys; some schools hold drawings for student prizes to encourage parent participation.
After the Survey Is Done
Be ready to listen. When you ask people for their opinions, their responses might include suggestions for change as well as generous helpings of criticism (constructive or otherwise). Try not to take the complaints personally. Instead, focus on what you can learn to make the PTO better.
It’s not necessary to respond to every criticism. If a complaint is isolated, it might be that someone used the survey to vent frustrations. But if the same complaint is expressed often, it’s in your group’s best interest to address it. Use the opportunity to clear up confusion about what the PTO does, and invite participation rather than going on the defensive.
Share the results. When the survey results are in, share them with PTO officers and event chairs and also with the larger school community—even if the results are negative. If you follow a suggestion from the 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. And it’s the absolute best way to prove to your community that your group cares about their opinions.
Originally posted in 2007 and updated regularly.