Margie thought she would give the PTO a try when she and her son, Gus, a second-grader, moved to Greenville. The members greeted her warmly and seemed eager for help. Margie liked the supporting roles—taking notes, running errands, stuffing envelopes. She tackled each task enthusiastically, offering to do a little more with each new project and then exceeding what she had promised to do.

By the time Gus was in fourth grade, Margie’s fellow PTO members viewed her as “the rock,” the reliable one you could always count on to pitch right in. They didn’t seem to notice as Margie’s enthusiasm gradually faltered. Her hand went up less frequently when volunteers were needed. Then she started missing meetings. She believed in the work of the PTO and wanted to support Gus’ school, but she felt unappreciated. Not one person seemed to notice all the ways she contributed. Other members just assumed she would keep on doing the endless nitty-gritty jobs. By the end of the year, Margie had decided to see if there was another group she might join.

Does Margie’s story make you wonder how a simple thank-you might have impacted her decision to move her energy and dedication to another organization? How could a person’s hard work get overlooked so flagrantly? Easy! We’re all busy. Without a high-priority plan for noticing and recognizing member contributions, all that any one person does can become obscured in the day-to-day noise of leading an organization like a PTO.

Filling a Need

There are a couple of questions to consider here. Why do people join groups, and what energizes them to continue to participate? In his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, Abraham Maslow theorizes that people do something because they need to fill basic human requirements. He places these requirements on a pyramid shape labeled “hierarchy of needs.” He explains that to move up the pyramid, people first must meet the needs on the lower levels. Only then are they motivated by the needs at the next level.

Physiological needs such as food and water form the base of the pyramid. If one of those elements is missing, humans become highly motivated to meet that need, as they must to survive.

Safety lies at the heart of the next layer of needs. The desire to feel secure and out of harm’s way could have been part of the reason Margie moved in the first place and why she chose to join a PTO. For example, escaping an abusive relationship or finding a better-paying job, thus ensuring that physiological needs would be met, possibly could have explained Margie’s move to Greenville. The PTO may have seemed like a safe, nonthreatening choice to a woman concerned with the welfare and safety of herself and her son.

While safety may have been a factor, more likely the next step up the pyramid goes further to explain Margie’s decision to participate in the PTO. The need to belong, to feel accepted in a group, even loved, comes into play when needs at lower levels have been met. We all tend to seek a sense of community. Margie needed to find friends in her new community who shared her interest in children and education. She needed to belong. She hoped that she might even develop some close friends with whom she could share affection.

The fourth level of the pyramid is what most concerns us when we consider recognition. “Esteem needs” become important at this level. They include our drive for achievement, competency, approval, and recognition. Once we belong to a group, we seek status. We establish a reputation, and most of us need to feel a sense of our own power or a sense of importance among our peers. Without some external evidence of appreciation, we may question our own internal sense of self-worth. When we don’t find respect and appreciation in a particular group such as the PTO, we may decide to seek it elsewhere.

Saying Thanks

Most PTOs understand the need for recognition better than the group in Greenville did. Still, in a recent survey in Illinois, cited by Jeanne Bradner in her book Leading Volunteers for Results: Building Communities Today, 44 percent of the leaders responding said they don’t think they do a good enough job with volunteer recognition.

What those leaders may not understand is that recognition and positive feedback for members and volunteers begins the first time a potential member walks in the door. We start by getting to know people. We treat every person as a unique individual with talents and interests who needs to be matched appropriately to the jobs that need doing. From that point, recognition needs to be continuous and ongoing, done both privately and publicly, formally and informally.

Here are some tips and ideas to think about when recognizing your members’ contributions:

Know your members well. The more individual the recognition, the more appropriate it will be. Some people appreciate a banquet recognition, and others would rather have a personal note.

Preferences and ideas for thank-you gifts also can vary widely. Asking your members how they want to be recognized is always a good idea. A short survey may be helpful. The survey could then become part of each new member’s orientation or welcome packet. The responses could guide choices for individual thank-yous and group recognition events.

Recognition must be built into the overall, everyday plan for your PTO, receiving as high a priority as planning the next meeting agenda. In fact, a good question for you as the leader may be “Who do I need to thank today?” Recognition needs to be continuous, rather than a one-time public event.

Dig deep if you have to, but find a way to express yourself that you really mean. For example, perhaps Margie continually made errors on all the envelopes she addressed and the leader then had to backtrack to correct them. So the leader didn’t feel particularly grateful for the help. She chose to say nothing at all instead of finding a way both to give corrective feedback and to say thanks for the effort.

Recognition needs to be timely and specific. If thanks don’t come until almost a year later at the annual dinner or picnic, they lose their meaning. And as Sue Vineyard points out in her book Recognizing Volunteers and Paid Staff: The Art, the Science, and a Gazillion Ideas! a detached “whoever you are, whatever you did, thanks a lot for everything” turns people off. The more specific you can be about what that person actually contributed, the better, whether the forum is public or private.

There is a huge difference between “Thanks for all you do, Jim” and “We need to let everyone know that Jim has racked up the most volunteer hours in our reading program for second-graders. He has spent more than 20 hours in the classroom reading with each small group of second-graders at least twice. The children look forward with relish to his dramatic visits when he makes the storybooks come alive! Thank you on behalf of the kids and the PTO for your huge contribution to the success of this program.”

Adjust recognition to the changing needs and diversity of individuals, families, and communities. In some communities, a family-style picnic is a much better choice than a formal awards dinner for public recognition. In addition to the fact that many PTOs can’t afford a glitzy affair, a picnic offers an opportunity to spend family time, which is so often at a premium for today’s working families. A potluck on a weekend may suit other families’ needs better, providing a way to socialize and be less formal with recognition.

Also pay attention to the appropriateness of gifts for particular individuals. The last thing some folks want or need is a plaque for the wall. Especially in lower-income areas, coupons for groceries, movies, auto repair, home heating oil, or even health care are more practical and appreciated.

Do include a plan for public recognition. Private is fine and needed. However, there comes a time when public acknowledgment of contributions is appropriate and necessary. Even if it happens at a regularly scheduled meeting and not a special event, the point is to do it in front of everyone. Not only does this make a person’s contributions widely known and thus valued even more, but it also helps create a culture in which contributions are noticed and appreciated.

Don’t overlook the value of a simple “thank you,” verbal or written. Sometimes a sincere “thanks” with a smile or a handwritten note is all that’s needed to let an individual know how much her work means to you. Simple is always good and goes a long way.

Be creative. There are tons of ideas for recognition, gifts, events, and more. From luncheons to school assemblies, from coupons to chocolate bars, the only limits are your budget and your imagination. One of the best websites to get your imagination jump-started is Energize Inc. You’ll find lots of ideas there, and all of the books mentioned here are available, as well.

Sincerity and honesty count when conveying thanks. People know when gratitude is genuine and when you are just following a format. Insincere thanks can do more harm than good.

Recognizing members and matching how you offer thanks to each person or situation can help keep members interested and energized. When people feel appreciated, they tend to feel more connected to the goals of the group and offer even more of themselves toward achieving those goals. Meeting members’ needs for belonging and esteem forms a good foundation for a healthy organization. Including recognition as part of your leadership plan makes good sense.