Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone not-for-profit organizations?
What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?
1. What does "PTO" mean?
"PTO" typically stands for "parent-teacher organization" and is the general acronym for the approximately 75 percent of parent-teacher groups that choose to remain independent of the National PTA. Many independent groups refer to themselves as a PTO; others have acronyms such as HSA (Home and School Association), PCC (Parent Communication Council), or the like. In the typical PTO vs. PTA discussion, all independent groups—those not affiliated with the National PTA—fall under the general PTO umbrella.
2. What’s the difference between “PTO” and “PTA”?
In a nutshell, PTAs are local groups that affiliate with the National PTA. These groups pay dues to their respective state PTAs and to the National PTA, and they receive benefits from those organizations. “PTO” is the general acronym for the many groups (PTOs, PCCs, HSAs, etc.) that choose to remain independent. PTOs are free to write their own bylaws, and they can either charge no dues at all—a nice touch to encourage involvement—or keep whatever dues they do charge at their school.
While “PTA” is the most well-recognized acronym to the general public, perhaps because of the Harper Valley song and movie, these days approximately 75 percent of K-8 parent-teacher groups are actually independent PTOs. Of the more than 112,000 K-12 schools in the United States, only about 25,000 of those still have formally affiliated PTA units.
3. What’s the benefit of changing from a PTA to a PTO?
It really depends on what fits your community best. A PTA is part of the National PTA network; these groups have access to additional resources and benefits but also have less flexibility to operate how they want to at the local level. A PTO is an independent organization, which comes with maximum flexibility; while you do have to build your own support network, PTO Today is here to help (and we support all parent groups, regardless of affiliation or acronym).
These articles give a good overview:
PTO vs. PTA: What’s the Difference?
PTO vs. PTA: Differences at a Glance
4. Is it true that PTOs don’t have access to resources and can’t be official, standalone, not-for-profit organizations?
No, not at all.
PTOs have always been eligible to get their own 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, and thousands of PTOs have already done so. This is exactly the same legal/tax designation that PTAs typically have.
Some PTOs do not take the step of officially establishing their independence with the IRS, which typically results in the group being basically a committee or organization of the school. This option is especially common at religious and private schools. It’s a structural choice that has worked for many groups for a long time and is acceptable, if that’s what your group wants.
For many years, being a PTO did mean being completely on your own, with little assistance or help available. If you wanted insurance as a PTO, for example, your only real option was going to your local broker and trying your luck. Similarly, there was really nowhere to turn for insight on something as innocuous as how to run a spaghetti supper or as essential as building parent involvement—and why involvement is so important.
Since 1999, however, PTO leaders as well as PTA leaders have had the many resources provided by PTO Today to help them do their work more effectively. The vast majority of PTO Today's resources—our 80,000-circulation print magazine, most of this ptotoday.com website, and our many kits and programs, for example—are provided free of charge to all parent-teacher groups, no matter the acronym.
As another example, whereas once PTOs really could only get insurance at a very high rate from a local broker, today PTOs can get very competitive group rates through a resource that PTO Today has put together.
5. What’s the relationship between PTO Today and local PTOs and PTAs?
PTO Today is a media and services company focused on the world of parent-teacher groups. Our print magazine is mailed to every K-8 school in the country (addressed to the PTO or PTA officers) seven times per year. Similarly, this website and our many services are used by tens of thousands of parent group leaders from both PTOs and PTAs every week.
That’s really the extent of it. Neither PTOs nor PTAs “belong” to PTO Today nor are they “members” of PTO Today, as PTO Today is not a membership organization. PTAs and PTOs can, however, join PTO Today Plus for a fee which provides parent groups an even higher level of service and benefits. Groups do not need to belong to Plus to make use of a majority of our services.
If you have ideas for how we can be of more service, please let us know.
6. Do PTOs lobby or get involved with politics?
Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. It’s really up to the local PTO.
That said, this really is one of the fundamental differences between PTOs and PTAs. The National PTA is very openly an advocacy organization with a lobbying office in Washington and similar efforts in several state capitals. Being a PTA ties you into that political effort. That’s a positive for some groups (those for whom state or national political advocacy is a goal) and a negative for others (often those who might disagree with a particular PTA position and not appreciate supporting that position with dues dollars).
PTOs usually take one of two directions when it comes to politics and lobbying. They either decide to stay completely out of it, usually because they choose to focus on involvement and community and feel that politics gets in the way of that, or they get active at the local level with at-school or in-district issues.
7. How do I start a PTO?
If you're just starting a parent group (or looking to button up your existing, fairly informal PTO), our best advice is to join PTO Today Plus. Among other benefits of membership—access to group insurance discounts, discounts on all PTO Today products and services, multiple subscriptions to our print magazine, etc.—is our expert PTO Startup Toolkit. It walks parent leaders through the key first steps in starting an independent parent group, including incorporation, bylaws, applying for nonprofit status, and group insurance.
Even without PTO Today Plus membership, groups can still form PTOs. You'll want to incorporate (check with your state), and we also recommend filing for nonprofit status with the federal government. Another important first step is to write bylaws that will govern your group. We've compiled a wide variety of sample bylaws from groups around the country in the bylaws/policies File Exchange.
8. How do we change from a PTA to a PTO?
This is really a two-part question because the process for disbanding an existing PTA is independent of the process to start a PTO. You're not really turning your PTA into a PTO. Technically, you're winding down your PTA and starting a completely separate entity—your new PTO. In fact, it's perfectly all right to have the new PTO start up before the PTA is completely disbanded. We recommend this timing, in fact, because it helps ensure that there is no gap between the end of the PTA and the beginning of the PTO. Read “Switching From PTA to PTO” for more information.
Some thoughts if you’re considering dissolving your PTA:
To dissolve your existing PTA, you'll want to refer to the procedures in your existing PTA bylaws. Each state PTA has slightly different dissolution requirements involving notice to the state PTA, notice and discussion among your local unit’s members, and what type of vote is required for dissolution. One question that comes up frequently is dealing with the remaining PTA funds at the time of dissolution. The simplest recommendation is to have as few dollars as possible in your treasury before taking a formal disband-or-don’t-disband vote. In that way, if your group votes to disband, then there is very little to worry about financially (one less complication)—and if you vote not to disband, then you can just return to business as usual.
For most groups, spending the treasury down to near zero is a matter of spending dollars on items that you typically support (teacher stipends or field trips or purchases for school, etc.) while perhaps postponing one fundraiser until after your vote. It’s also allowable for 501(c)(3) groups to donate funds to other tax-exempt organizations.
After that, most state PTA bylaws require that you announce a meeting X number of days in advance (often 30), and—after debate—the dissolution vote usually needs to pass by a 60 percent or 66 percent super-majority. In a few states, bylaws require that you invite a state PTA representative to your dissolution meeting and allow that person floor time to speak. This can often lead to testy moments. If your bylaws don't specifically require that kind of visit, then you are not required to allow it. If you do invite the state representative to your meeting, remember that the guest speaker is just that: a guest. He or she is not a voting member of your group, and your presiding officer (presumably the president) should control the meeting—who speaks, when they speak, how long they speak, etc.—just as they would at any other meeting of your PTA.
We've heard from many former PTA leaders that state PTA officials made the dissolution process seem very difficult and that the relationship between the dissolving unit and the state PTA became confrontational. While that’s regrettable—if your group has done its homework on all the pros and cons and still wants to make the switch—the important things to remember are: 1) you just need to follow your bylaws as best you can; and 2) many thousands of groups have successfully dissolved before you. Remain professional and buttoned up (and focused on the good work you want to do for your school and the kids), and things will work fine.
In terms of transition, it’s actually perfectly OK to start the process of creating a PTO before your formal vote is taken on dissolving your PTA. That might include getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS and even applying for tax-exempt status (though you have 27 months to actually file this paperwork and your approval will be retroactive to your PTO’s start-up or incorporation date). In this way, you can avoid any “gap” between the formal end of your PTA and the formal start of your PTO.
There is nothing at all wrong with having both a PTO and a PTA in existence at the same time, especially if that helps make a transition smoother and helps parents continue to do good work for your school and kids. It’s equivalent to having a “football boosters” club and a “pigskin parents” club in existence at the same time at the same school. It might be odd or confusing for parents if both were to operate for the long-term, but there’s certainly nothing legally or ethically wrong with having more than one organization with the mission of helping your school and your kids in existence at the same time. And creating that overlap can help with the transition. If the PTA disband vote doesn’t pass, it’s a very simple matter to let the new PTO go dormant.
9. How do we join/contact the National PTO?
There is no "National PTO" in the traditional sense. Even though PTOs are the most common type of parent group, each PTO is independent.
That said, many folks consider PTO Today to be the closest equivalent to a national PTO. With our national magazine, national website, events across the country, and PTO Today Plus package of benefits, PTO Today is providing key services to a broad spectrum of parent groups in all 50 states. You can reach us directly through this site.
10. More questions? We're here to help.
If you have questions on a parent group issue, odds are it's been discussed in our Facebook group for PTO and PTA leaders and volunteers.
For questions about your budget or finances, try a free trial of PTO Today Finance Manager, web-based software that can help you organize and manage your parent group's finances all in one place.
If you have a question for a specific PTO Today department, you can contact us by email.
Originally posted in 2008 and updated regularly.
The leader of PTO Today?? That's me. I don't think we've met, but I like to think that I'm a fairly nice person and that we do a lot to help schools and parent groups and kids. Respect your right to feel otherwise.
And, yes, PTO Today is a (hopefully) for-profit company. Not sure exactly why that's bad. Kind of like Time and Scholastic and hundreds of other media companies (minus about 6 zeros in the profit column, darn it!).
Also not sure what "total non-profit organization" means? Are these folks: http://www.pta.org/ap_staff.html ... not getting paid? Or the hundred of so employees at various state PTAs?
If there was a non-profit car company and Ford, would it be better to buy a car from the non-profit, no matter which firm's car fit your needs better?
Those are just a couple of questions. This discussion is probably better had on our message boards (www.ptotoday.com/boards). Thanks for your input.
I'm sorry if that wasn't clear. The "hundreds" was cumulative. I don't have an exact count, but I believe national PTA has roughly 80 employees and I believe the various state PTAs (in total) have another 130+ employees. Many states, like yours, have one employee. But a good number more (TX, CA, WA, more) have 5-10+ employees.
Tons of nonprofits have employees. Just as tons of for-profits do good work for people. Are the employees who are getting paid somehow bad? I certainly don't think so. How about when they negotiate for a raise each year? Are they not "for kids" then? Again, I don't think so. But the analogy is there based on what PTA folks say about PTO Today.
Of course, we do plenty wrong. But we try to get better every day. Being a for-profit company, by the way, isn't one of those things I feel is wrong. Worth mentioning that not a single PTO or PTA pays us a penny for a service, unless they actively want and utilize that service.
Thank you for the informative discussion.
I think the article gives good info EXCEPT really skims over the 501c3 status.
Yes, a PTO can apply for, and probably recieve, non-profit status, but the IRS form (and making sure you do the correct state forms) is a lot of work and it takes time and it costs money (last I checked it was a minimum of $500).
Having the 501c3 already in place for us as a PTA, plus having the state office sending us reminders to make sure we do everything we have to to keep our non-profit status valid is worth the approx. $300/year we send them.
When I became Treasurer of a PTO, I learned that they had been "borrowing" the school district's tax id number when we did fundraisers. They didn't know they weren't supposed to, in fact that number was on our bank account.
These days it seems like were playing tug of war on who's the best organzation and what we should do is work together to make things possible for a better education.
We need to go for the impossible and make it possible
We've been seriously considering disbaning the PTA and starting a PTO, since, from what I've been reading, seems we've been basically functioning as if we were a PTO. the members(LOL) and I were kind of thrown into the PTA leadership positions with NO DIRECTION OR INSTRUCTION so I'm pretty much ignorant in all aspects, other than running fundraisers and the end of year party.
In everything I've read, I've not come across anything pertaining to a PTO being a FOR PROFIT org. What EXACTLY does that mean?
Can someone help, please?
I think you'll find this site a Godsend in your new job. Our messgae boards are also a great resource (the archives) and tool (ask questions you have) for a new leader.
RE: for-profit. Both local PTOs and local PTAs are nonprofits. Nothing for you to worry about there. What you have likely seen are references to "PTO Today" (our company, the owners of this website and the free magazine, etc.) as a for-profit company. That's got nothing to do with your decision whether to be a PTA or PTO.
My hat is off to you, I have been able to deal with PTO Today at another school before we moved and am now working with a PTA, if I could only put into words how much I miss everything associated with PTO Today! Great program, great system, idea's, etc........ KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK! From a Mom on the Board that misses all of your great benefits!!!
While PTA supported those issues, I'm not sure it's fair to say they wouldn't have occurred (even 90 years later) without PTA. Seems like a bit of a stretch.
What have PTOs done? Tons. Are you really downplaying the good work of tens of thousands of independent parent groups over decades? I don't have the space to list all the good work.
Finally, when making that financial comparison, remember that re: 501c3 1) it's not required; and 2) for those PTOs that go that route, the $750 fee is one time compared to PTA dues which $1000+ every year, forever.
I cannot find out much about HSA, but I know enough about PTO to think that this is the route for us. I find little benefit to being a PTA member. The conventions are informational, but you do not need to be an active PTA member to attend a conference. Just sign up and pay your 5.00 or whatever to the school district of your choice and you can attend. I applaud you for addressing all the misinformed folks of this forum.
I feel stuck in the middle...I appreciate the structure and guidelines of the PTA, but am stifled by them at the same time...
I absolutely appreaciate PTO Today, an all the information and ideas provided, and all the people that freely express their opinions and experiences! Thank you.
PTO Today Plus is primarily a "leader resource" as opposed to a "parent" resource, so it''s more of a resource for the folks who will be leading that start process. At this time, no, it does not come in Spanish.
New to PTO! Can any help me! Thanks
If you think there's been wrongdoing (vs. mismanagement), you should go to the police and ask them to investigate. If it turns out to be a matter of poor recordkeeping and money management, performing the audit and inventory will give you a baseline to start with a clean slate.
I'd also recommend the article 5 Smart Financial Controls:
As your kids grow up and move out of the house, you will have more time to serve on your college board, the local symphony board... PTA will have trained you well and you will be valuable to any organization.