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These common problems can undermine your parent group's success. Learn to identify and fix them early.

by Craig Bystrynski


Send in the Clones

The Mistake: Assuming all parents are alike—they’re just like me!

The Symptoms: Just trying to build involvement becomes a struggle. You get frustrated when people don’t respond to obvious needs. You wonder why people want to be recognized or thanked when they’ve given only an hour or two of volunteer time—and you’ve given 300.

The Cure: It’s important to recognize that not all parents are motivated by the same things. In particular, you and your core group are special; you’re involved because it’s the right thing to do. Other people need to be approached in a different way. Communication is key. You must tell people why it’s important they be involved and let them know what’s in it for them (and their children): a better school and a better educational environment. Other key messages: Your group accomplishes many things (people want to feel a sense of accomplishment), you have fun, and you won’t monopolize their time—even an hour or two is a big help.

Eyes on the (Wrong) Prize

The Mistake: Making fundraising the focus of your group.

The Symptoms: You have a hard time building involvement or finding new volunteers because not many people get excited about being salesmen. When most of the communications parents get from you are about fundraising, they think your group is only about sales.

The Cure: Don’t start the year with a fundraiser; start with a welcoming event. Make family events free or just charge cost, if possible. You’ll build more support that way and, in the end, achieve better fundraising results as well.

Principal, Shmincipal

The Mistake: Not keeping the lines of communication open with the principal; not recognizing and understanding the principal’s role and responsibilities.

The Symptoms: You’re frequently at odds with the principal and don’t feel supported. Even good ideas seem to get shot down for administrative reasons: no time, don’t want to bother the custodian, can’t spare the storage space, etc.

The Cure: Try to see things from the principal’s point of view, then address any concerns he might have up front. He has staff, facilities, budget, and a host of other items on his plate. Sometimes parent group issues aren’t at the top of that list.

The Burn Center

The Mistake: Trying to do too much too often, leaving everybody burned out—including yourself.

The Symptoms: A select few people accomplish a tremendous amount. But eventually it becomes a burden. You feel bitterness that others aren’t helping. Meanwhile, people who might become involved are turned off because it seems like so much time and trouble. Outsiders may come to see your core group as a clique, and in a way, you are—after all, you spend a lot of time together doing so much work.

The Cure: Evaluate projects not just on how much they cost but on how much effort and volunteer time they require. Is there something else you could accomplish that would be more worthwhile with that time? Sometimes canceling an activity because you don’t have enough help is the right thing to do.

Thinking Inside the Box

The Mistake: Doing things because they’ve “always been done that way.”

The Symptoms: You continue to run events and fundraisers long after they’ve ceased to be successful. You make small adjustments but steer away from big changes. Creative people with new ideas become frustrated because you’re still following a map that was drawn years ago.

The Cure: Evaluate each activity. Is it still successful, or is there a case of diminishing returns or dimming interest? Encourage creativity, and don’t be afraid to fail. Something new might inject new life not just into your activities but into your group as a whole.

Wheel Alignment

The Mistake: Not maintaining good records about projects and events.

The Symptoms: No one knows how things were done last time, so you’re constantly reinventing the wheel. Instead of moving forward, you do the same work again and again. You need a new site for the auction? Well, three years ago somebody called all of the places in the area and figured out which ones were large enough. But that person is gone, and there are no records. So someone will have to do it again.

The Cure: Make certain that committee chairpeople keep important documents and record their thoughts and decisions. A typical way to do this is with a binder system. Each officer and chair keeps a binder with all pertinent information for each project. Set up meetings between incoming officers and new chairs and those who are retiring. This way, you create institutional memory that can be passed down rather than losing that knowledge when someone leaves office.

All Trees, No Forest

The Mistake: No long-term planning, no budgeting, no vision for the future.

The Symptoms: You focus on the present, and you don’t look ahead until the current activity is out of the way. You choose activities based on how much is in the bank right now. You’re constantly fundraising to fill the gaps.

The Cure: Devoting time to long-term planning will help your group do more and smooth over the ups and downs. Brainstorm about what you want to achieve—not just events but also benefits you’ll provide for the school. Create a budget, then plan your fundraisers based on what you’ll need to accomplish those goals.

Prisoner of the PTO

The Mistake: Thinking of volunteers as simply a source of free labor.

The Symptoms: They feel unappreciated and unwanted. Recruiting new help becomes difficult, and people rarely return after they’ve volunteered once.

The Cure: For starters, don’t treat your volunteers like the chain gang. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment, they want social interaction, and they want to enjoy themselves. Always make sure you’re prepared for volunteers, give them work that matters, and let them exercise their own creativity in performing tasks and accomplishing goals. If you do, you’ll have a much easier time building involvement.

Fight Night

The Mistake: No good way to resolve disagreements.

The Symptoms: When strong-willed people get together, there are bound to be clashes. But at some point, disagreements become disputes and passion becomes acrimony. Fights can split a group, seriously reduce its effectiveness, and even kill involvement entirely.

The Cure: Keep your bylaws up to date and run your group using Robert’s Rules of Order. These are the impartial authorities that will help you during difficult times. Insist that discussions focus on the issues, not on people and personalities. And when a particular issue becomes too divisive, be aware that sometimes it’s best to move on to other topics you can agree on.

Trust Funds

The Mistake: Too much trust regarding cash.

The Symptoms: Money is stolen from dozens, even hundreds, of groups each year. Without proper safeguards in place, your group could become one of them.

The Cure: Theft doesn’t occur because a criminal infiltrates your group. It occurs when need meets opportunity. People who take money from parent groups usually say they intended to pay it back. When no one noticed, they took more. Over time, things got out of hand. Your job is to take opportunity out of the equation. Have at least two people review bank statements. Audit your books every year. Always have at least two people present when counting cash. And get bonding insurance for officers. Check out PTO Today's affordable insurance packages for PTOs and PTAs.


# Brown 2008-02-04 23:26
Loved it-straight to the point. Just what's needed.
# mami 1978 2008-03-24 23:24
I have a concern about the counting money. The traasurer and president are close friends and when asked who was the witness always the president. I do not feel comfortable with this because althought they are not bad people i cannot help them if something goes wrong with money.I feel that they two of them feel that because they are 2 main parts of pto thye should keep one head and they always decide on decision and then tell me and vice president when they are already in the process of the activity. and they do not see what they did is not professional. what should i do.
# Kathryn Lagden from PTO Today 2008-03-25 11:48
Hi Mami - your question is a good one for our message boards, lots of knowledgeable and experienced folks who can help with questions that are specific to your group. Our PTO Today experts regularly jump in with their insight as well.
# Brandy 2008-09-23 19:43
Our school is really very small, and when I say small I mean that our school is pre-k through 8th grade and we have about 176 students in all. And a lot of them are brother and sisters. And I understand that we have a lot of parents that work long hours away from home but, we really need to get our attendance up. During a regular meeting we will have a the max. 6 but usually it is just 3 of the 4 officers. We serve refreshments, and give away a door prize that is donated and we usually announce the meetings way in advance, we really don't know what else to do. This is my first year as PTO pres. and I have made this issue one of my goals this year is to fix this problem. If you have any ideas, please help. Thank You Brandy
# Craig Bystrynski from PTO Today 2008-09-23 20:03
Hi Brandy -- I strongly urge you to read the article "Put Meetings In Perspective." If parents have limited time to devote to your group, coming to meetings might not be the way you want them to spend that time. You'll find some tips in the story "Boost Meeting Attendance." And if you post your question on the message boards, I'm sure you'll find lots of people willing to offer tips. Good luck! -- Craig
# Denise 2009-02-01 13:41
I am a new President everyone on the PTO are new and the treasure and I did not feel comfortable with a lot of people hands on the cash,the previous by laws stated that the Pres,V.P,treas and the sec have acess to it.The treas and I fought tooth and nail just to have our signitures and the handling of the cash. We feel that the by laws should be changed to only two people handle the money.
# Debra Lockard 2010-06-09 11:47
I intended to rate the article a with a five star. It provided the problems with a solution!
# Southern Cal Mom 2010-12-01 07:03
I have been part of the PTO at my daughters school for the past 5 years. I am a Chair of several committees. This year we have a new Board and they are running things to the ground. They have driven most of us away, but I am trying to stand strong. They want to remove certain members to put their friends in place. Many of us are frustrated and have been disrespected. We have spoken to the Principal who has known the rest of us for years. He tries to be impartial, but he is afraid to take sides. What would you suggest? Should we overthrow the PTO President>
Thank you!
# pto president 2012-12-19 18:40
I am a PTO Pres and we just ended a fundraiser and there was a mishap with an order--it never got turned in and check was never cashed..but the family had turned it in--it just "disappeared' and now will be upset when they don't have an order to pick up. How can this be handled in a good way?
# Rose Hamilton 2012-12-20 15:18
Hi pto president,
This stuff does happen. Would suggest the best way to handle it is to get in touch with the family as soon as possible and just be honest. Sincerely apologize, explain what happened. It sounds like the check was never cashed, so there are no funds lost. So sorry this happened.

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