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Parents have limited time to devote to volunteering. Should you ask them to spend it attending meetings?

by Tim Sullivan


Raise your hand if your group has discussed or implemented any or all of the following in an effort to get parents to show up to your monthly meetings. (C’mon—be honest).

Bribe the kids. Some version of a pizza party or kids’ prize for the class that has the most parents at the meeting.

Baby-sit ’em. Free baby-sitting in the school gym while parents meet in the cafeteria.

Bribe the parents. Door prizes, gift certificates for those who attend.

Kids’ performances. Third-grade art show one month. Fifth-grade music performance the next. Rinse. Repeat.

And now raise your other hand if any of these solutions worked so well that you’re now searching for an extra room for all the parents who just can’t get enough of your meetings.

I suspect there may be a lot of people with just one hand up. And if you’re like a lot of parent group leaders I run into, this never-ending quest to get parents to your meetings is a source of consternation. You discuss it. You strategize over it. You commiserate and throw up your hands.

My advice: Stop worrying about it.

Too many groups measure their success by measuring attendance at their meetings. If that’s you, then you’re measuring the wrong things. How’s the involvement and spirit at your school? How’s the community? Do you have successful family events? Are the kids learning within a caring and supportive environment? These are the questions that determine your success.

I’d gladly take low meeting attendance all year long in exchange for a series of successful family events. Similarly, if a mom or dad told me they could attend only one event this month, our meeting or our spaghetti supper, I’d encourage that parent to come eat some pasta and enjoy.

Why don’t average parents come to meetings? (By "average parents," I mean those who haven’t yet taken their involvement caffeine pills like you.) Answer: Your meetings are boring. And there’s not much you can do to change that. Sure, shorten your meetings and add life where you can, but your meetings are never going to be more exciting than a ball game or a movie or the next episode of American Idol. And they don’t need to be.

We have to think differently about meetings. If you get eight to 10 regulars now and you somehow get to 16 to 20, then you have a 100 percent increase in regular, core-level leaders for your group. That can be powerful. Think of all you could do with twice as many core volunteers. Instead of lamenting the fact that 90 percent of your parents still never come to meetings, celebrate the fact that you have more key folks to help you do even better work.

You won’t increase your meeting attendance with gimmicks and ever-louder pleas to parents. (Bright-orange paper, anyone?) Meeting attendance creeps up slowly as your group starts connecting and seeing success in broad ways. If you host more successful family events, for example, some small percentage of the attendees of those events will grow closer to your group and—eventually—move up to the “meeting attender” level.

And all those folks who never make the leap from spaghetti-eater to spaghetti-cooker? That’s OK. They’re connecting with the school. They’re becoming part of your community. They’re involved with their kids. And that’s what your success as a group is all about. No matter how many—or few—parents attend your meetings.


# Ginks 2008-04-26 15:40
Meetings are the least liked and in reality the least important activity to the majority of parents, teachers, and students. People want to be engaged with others, they want to have a fun family event to go to, and they want to interact with other parents and teachers and students. If we can turn education or family together time into a fun activity, that is what is important and what will bring the crowds out.

Most parents also are willing to volunteer a few hours here and there, but they don't want it to become a second job. For "core" volunteers, there is a higher calling. Boy, I like that term "core" volunteer. Think I will use that in a few communications to our parents and staff.

The key is to think school spirit. The greater the school spirit, the greater connected everyone is to the school and the more likely you are to see an increase in the type of parent involvement that really matters and that is with their own child.

Thanks for another great article Tim. Keep up the great work. - Ginks
# Penny Hamlett 2008-09-03 14:56
Thank you so much for this article. As a new president, I have to say I saw myself in all of your points. I am going to focus on just adding a couple of "core" volunteers and stop worrying about meeting attendance. Thanks for the perspective.
# April 2008-09-24 21:12
I may not agree with a bribe to get parents to meetings but babysitting is not a bribe by any means. With out babysitting I would never hae been able to make it to any meetings. I am a single mom of two and enjoy the girl time that the meetings provide I love being up to date and my kids love playing in the gym. No you shouldn't put pressure on the children or the parents to attend but if you are able to offer babysitting you may get alot of eager volenteers that you may not have seen otherwise.
# chrisy clay 2008-11-06 06:28
I really enjoyed this article. It was exactly what I needed to read. It is fun to express school spirit and I am going to start encouraging more of it within my family and school. Thank You
# Kim 2008-11-12 04:45
At my school, I have sat through many uneventful, boring, and even frustrating monthly meetings Improving meeting particpation and content were front and center on the radar screen. We gained parent feedback and found that 1) the knashing of the "bits and bytes" over PTO activities & events were a major turn off 2) Parents did not want to feel obligated to sign up for volunteer opportunities 3) there was no other meaningful content 4) Parents genuinely want to feel vested in the school. We re-engineered the PTO meeting and actually broke the meeting into 2 separate meetings: 1) An Operations Meeting (done via conference call) for the general business 2) A PTO & Parent Forum Meeting where the first 15 mins of the meeting is devoted to a brief recap of PTO business and then 45 mins of the meeting is devoted to a Parent Forum school related topic. The vote is still out, but PTO meeting turnout is up, parent feedback is positive, and we are starting to see new faces actually return.
# Wayne TAhara 2008-11-25 20:45
Working with volunteer groups in Erie and Niagara County I have found that the most successfully attended are those involving food. Families have to feed their children. Combining food and fun is a winning combination. Making it easier for the parents to attend as well making sure that they feel they were "listened to" will add to the degree of commitment your group receives. I encourage every group to get "feedback' on every activity they conduct. The evaluation does not have to be an elaborate form or time consuming. It can be three simple questions: what did you like? (Would like to see us continue or expand?) What didn't you like? Why? What can we do to improve future meetings? Responding to this feedback will guarantee those who attend felt listened to and appreciated.
# Kellye Jeansonne 2008-12-03 15:13
I am a brand new president to an almost non-existant parents group. For our first meeting, I prepared notes and brought every motivational article off of this site just to be completely alone...NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON CAME! I was extremely discouraged until I read this article. People are busy and they don't want to be bothered on a school night with some boring meeting. As we began our first event of the year we broke our meetings in to 2 segments like a comment suggested and the parent turnout has been amazing. Instead of doing all of our planning at our regular monthly meetings we began event planning on Monday mornings at a local coffee shop right after we dropped off our kids. One by one 7 moms have become involved at extraordinary levels. Our event was a huge success and we are already planning a Family Night for early February. Don't be discouraged over meetings, just get parents involved with volunteering and having fun!
# Katie Leary 2009-02-17 04:52
I agree. Meetings are the needed rehashing of business. Hard core people will attend- great!!! But, what you really want are volunteers for ALL of your events and people to attend. Don't worry about meeting attedance. Try to organize an "after meeting" place such as a resturant. Moms want ot socialize and feel part of a group.
# Doll Clothes Lady 2009-10-28 18:55
This was a great article! I just became the Co-President at my daughter's middle school and there were just a handful of parents in attendance. Needless to say, all of us joined the PTSC Board! I agree that there are a lot of parents that want to participate, but just don't do meetings.
# Rebecca 2010-03-17 15:57
We have a few strategies for increasing attendance that have worked well at our NYC public elem. school. We hold meetings every month but alternate between morning meetings right after drop off in the cafeteria (with bagels, muffins and coffee all donated by local places) and evening meetings which are also catered with light sandwiches and drinks. In other words, providing some food not only entices people to come, but creates a really welcoming environment.

Every class in our school has at least two class parents and while its not mandatory it is VERY encouraged that one rep from each class attend to report back to their class.

We also have our Principal speak at every meeting and give the parent body updates on school events and political issues facing the school. She's a big draw!

But, really never underestimate the power of food and good timing. Getting parents when they're already there - i.e. drop off, works wonders!
# Beth Malicki Papendick 2011-08-15 02:56
Huh, I had both hands up. After offering free baby-sitting and promoting agenda topics we had so many parents attending our PTO meetings that we had to move to a bigger venue this year. I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that low meeting turnout is an acceptable, or even good thing. It shows parents and staff feel time is wasted by attending the meetings- which is a reflection on your mission and what you do during meetings, in my opinion. Do what matters, and the support will follow! If you're consistently getting low turnout, non-existant staff support and few, if any, new volunteers- there is a critical problem with the organization. Do a survey, run focus groups, ask around, "Why don't you come to meetings, what do you think of our PTO/PTA, what do you want?" Then do what your parents and staff say- then watch your chairs fill up at your next meeting.
# JayMac 2011-09-02 03:21
I have to admit, the fact that you bribe parents is always a key plus. But adding pressure on the children who's parents can't come to the meetings? To me it's really heart breaking only because most of the parents are working parents, and can't attend. As president of the PTA, I tend to see alot of parents who wish to volunteer but can't because of schedule conflicts. I don't hold a grudge, but I do mention that donations are also greatly appreciated. Let's face it, volunteering is not for everyone, you just have to appreciate greatly on the very few that you do have.

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