Each fall, tens of thousands of parent groups spend a great deal of time focusing on membership drives. Announcements, letters, newsletters, emails, flyers, all centered on getting five bucks out of as many families as possible.

There are all kinds of creative ways to separate parents from those $5. Contests—the homeroom with highest percentage of members gets a pizza party. Incentives—every member gets a free school directory. Not to mention membership themes, posters, and even 100 percent teacher-participation membership efforts.

My question: Why?

For many groups, I’m thinking the answer is “Because we’ve always done it that way.” And I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be so. In fact, I think you can see more long-term success by doing away with dues altogether.

If you’ve had dues seemingly forever, and if you’re used to that revenue helping fill your bank account early in the school year, this may seem radical or risky. But the fact is there can be terrific engagement and marketing benefits to eliminating the dues barrier, and the financial sacrifice is easily overcome.

I’ve always found it funny that PTO and PTA leaders tell us, in every survey we do here at PTO Today, that increasing parent involvement and growing the volunteer base is the number one challenge and goal of their group. And yet many of those same leaders tell parents they have to pay $5 to have a vote or volunteer in the parent group at their own children’s school.

To me, it’s the equivalent of Target—which always wants to see more shoppers in its stores—charging customers $5 just to browse. Target would never do it, and neither should you.

It’s much better to let everyone know (widely, loudly, and repeatedly) that “parents and guardians of students at our school are all automatically members of our PTO.” It sends a powerful message of community, eliminates a fairly artificial barrier between parents, and opens up your time to focus on trying to truly engage parents with the work of your group and your mission of supporting the school.

I absolutely realize that calling all parents members doesn’t suddenly yield a wholesale increase in actual volunteers. Similarly, though, many of those folks who just pay their $5 out of habit are not really connected to your group, either. I strongly prefer the former model. I can’t imagine a parent attending a meeting at her own child’s school and then being told she can’t vote or have a say unless she pays up.

Check out Finance Manager—accounting software built just for PTO leaders

There are plenty of ways to make up the membership dollars you do away with. Membership drives aren’t all that effective as fundraisers in the first place. If your membership drive were a gift-wrap sale, you’d be hunting for a new fundraiser. Way too much work and way too long a window for the actual bottom-line profit.

If you really want to reach out to individual families for support early in the year, call it an appeal or a family fund or an annual campaign—but stay away from the “membership dues” idea. You can also make up the dollars by using the time and focus you save to make your big fall fundraiser that much more effective. Worried about start-up funds? Plan to carry over funds to help you for the first month or two next year.

The best groups we see spend a lot of time thinking about (and working on) how they are perceived by the general parent population and making sure they appear welcoming and open. Starting your year with an “entrance fee” is the opposite of those goals. Membership dues are for country clubs, which benefit from the appearance of elitism—not for parent groups, which benefit from the appearance and the reality of openness and inclusion.