Recruiting new parents challenges many PTOs. The benefits of membership seem so obvious to most of us. Why others aren’t begging to join mystifies us!

So many groups compete for the limited attention that adults have to give, from local government to political campaigns to the many worthy service organizations, that unless the current members of your PTO can clearly explain the value of belonging and actually do so at every opportunity, your group may remain smaller than you would like. It doesn’t have to be that way! Many members may shy away from the kind of arm-twisting that the word recruitment implies, but if you work together to create some simple “talking points” about the tremendous value in belonging to PTO and a plan for weaving those talking points into every event or activity you do, your group will soon start to grow.

A discussion and brainstorming session with your members may prove a good place to start. Why did the people attending this particular meeting decide to participate? Why do they keep attending? Talk about it in terms of what they get out of it. Why do they choose to spend their time with the PTO as opposed to other community groups? Record every idea, no matter how big or small it may seem. The point is to get as long a list as possible of every benefit of membership that your group can think of that is true for them.

One group came up with a list that looked like this:

  • I can contribute to the school.
  • Shows my kids that school is important, worth my time.
  • The research about parent involvement in schools and how it relates to student achievement—this is a way to be involved.
  • My kids are proud when they see me at school.
  • I like to have a voice in the decisions that affect my children.
  • A group of parents has more input than one parent alone.
  • I get the chance to meet the other parents this way and compare notes.
  • I feel like this is a good way to keep updated with information for me and my kids.
  • We bring opportunities for the students that they couldn’t otherwise have.
  • I like the refreshments.
  • We have a good time.
  • We get to know the teachers, and it’s easier to talk when there are concerns or questions.
  • I learn about how to support my child as she goes through school, from homework help to other information about how to help her through the choices she will face.
  • It was a way for me to meet people when I moved to town.

Using the List

The next step is to take the list and condense it into talking points in words that your members feel comfortable using. The points should be clear, concise, compelling, and speak to the core values people have identified. They should also be consistent with the mission statement for your group. In fact, viewed in another light, the talking points grow out of the mission in many ways, especially if you have gone through a group process in writing your mission. The talking points for the list above might look like this: What do parents get when they join the PTO?

  • Children succeed in school at higher levels when parents are involved.
  • Together, parents and teachers can create a bigger voice for children’s interests in the community.
  • Relationships that develop with other parents through PTO form a basis for consistent, healthier messages to children, both in and out of school.

Specific examples for each bullet can be drawn from the original list. This abbreviated version gives people only three strong, persuasive points to remember when they speak with others. Of course there are a number of ways to look at any list, and deciding on the main points may be best addressed by a group.

It is important to take the time to create a list that people can agree about and really remember. After I created these main points from the first list, I noticed that if I rearranged one word from the second bullet, moving the word “together” and starting with the word “parents” (“Parents and teachers together...”) I would have the mnemonic CPR. This could be used as an easy memory tool for folks and even included on handouts or a PTO brochure. In fact, with a little imagination, CPR might be used in a number of ways in public relations materials and could serve as a reminder to members about the value of belonging when they’re knee deep in books for the book fair or some other project!

If you give your members a way to share their enthusiasm for PTO in every possible venue, they will be more likely to invite others, and that’s the point. The job of growing the membership doesn’t belong to only one person in the PTO; it is everyone’s job. Brainstorm ways that members can use the talking points. What other groups do they belong to? A church? A service organization? Can they think of a way to share the PTO message in those venues? Is there a church bulletin or a time for sharing joys and concerns in their church service? Many Rotary Clubs, for example, begin meetings with a chance for people to donate a dollar in order to share a brief bit of news. Encourage members to take advantage of those opportunities. No matter where they are, offering a positive comment about PTO can influence others’ perceptions of the organization.

Another strategy for employing talking points is to use them in the one-on-one situations with friends that happen in our lives every day. It takes a more personal approach to get through to some folks. So when those friends ask what you’ve been up to lately, you can respond, “PTO! And let me tell you why!” You can wind up your conversation with a friendly invitation to participate in the next event or meeting.

Your group will probably think of many more avenues for expressing the value of belonging. The more often we talk about the good things we get out of our PTO experience, the more likely others will want to take part.

Tips for Building Involvement

Focus on fun family events. These events get parents connected to the school. They have tremendous benefits for your school, the children, and your group.

Grow involvement from the ground up. People naturally increase involvement in a group when they’ve had a series of positive experiences. The parent who attends several family nights volunteers to help. The parent who volunteers several times becomes a regular meeting attendee. The regular meeting attendee and volunteer becomes a likely candidate for a leadership position.

Reach out personally. The number one reason people say they don’t volunteer is because they weren’t asked. And people are more likely to participate in a group when they know others who already take part.

Talk up the PTO. Trumpet your accomplishments and let people know you have fun.

Celebrate your volunteers. Make sure the people who are involved enjoy themselves and know they are appreciated.

Confront the black hole. People are afraid that if they help out, they’ll get sucked into a black hole of never-ending time demands. Tell them up front that your group is not a black hole, that you will honor their time constraints. Then, make sure that you do!