Small Parent Groups, Big Achievements

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Short on volunteers? Learn from others how to keep your PTO running smoothly with a small group.

by Shonne Fegan-Ehrhardt


All parent groups have the same ultimate goals—to make a difference in the lives of the children and the schools they serve. But parent groups vary in size and scope. How does a group with just a few volunteers, like three or four, have a significant impact on its school community? We talked to parent groups across the country who are leading the charge with a small group of volunteers and learned from them what it takes to make it work.

Get Creative With Your Board

Consider changing the board to meet the needs of your volunteering community. Susan Harrison is a parent group pro, having served on the executive board of her Parent Teacher Club at Winkelman Elementary and Field Middle School in Glenview, Ill., for three years. And while she enjoys it, she has had a harder time recently recruiting parents to jump on board. Sensing volunteer burnout from her small group of dedicated volunteers, Harrison recommended that her group revise its bylaws to allow for two people to fill each executive board position for a two-year term. “We have more parents working outside the home and feeling like they couldn’t do the job alone, but sharing it with another vice president has helped tremendously,” Harrison says. “In addition, we have a big year of transition coming up next year when many of us will step down from the board, but with our staggered terms, we hope this will ease the change in the guard.”

Enlist the Support of School Staff

Look inside the school to find volunteers when you are short on help. Morgan Hiles, president of Fairacres Elementary PTO in Las Cruces, N.M., attributes the success of her small group, which has four executive board members (up from two last year), to the tremendous support it gets from the principal. In fact, Fairacres principal Kathy Norris is an active contributor to the group.

“We have such a great feel of community that makes our school warm and inviting, but we couldn’t do it without our PTO’s passion to provide a great environment for our children,” Norris says. Harrison’s PTC recruits volunteers who serve as room parents for both schools in addition to planning and hosting teacher conference dinners and Teacher Appreciation Week celebrations. “We know the schools appreciate all we do for them, and working with the school administrative assistants and principals helps us get it all done,” she says.

Another way you can ask administrators and teachers to help is by spreading the word to their classes and parents about volunteer opportunities. This is helpful for parents who may be unsure how to get involved but are familiar and comfortable sending a quick email to their child’s teacher.

Make It Easy To Volunteer

Set up easy ways for volunteers to get involved. Crystal Epstein, secretary of the Ashby (Mass.) Elementary Parent Teacher Cooperative, says her group created flyers with tear-off sheets at the bottom asking for volunteers for the town’s annual Pumpkin Festival. “In the past we’ve had trouble filling all our volunteer slots, but when we identified specific jobs, in two-hour shifts, we saw a huge increase in parent volunteers!” she says.

Other groups have found success using online tools like VolunteerSpot and Both are free and allow organizers to plug their volunteer needs into a spreadsheet and then email the link to members. Each volunteer has to set up a free online profile (which takes seconds), and then they can fill in their availability. The service also sends reminders and links for online calendars, taking some of the stress out of recruiting and reminding volunteers.

Be Realistic

Keep in mind how much time and volunteer power you have and align your goals accordingly. The Fairacres Elementary PTO has many ideas it would like to implement but realizes some might need to be tabled until next year, “when (hopefully) the group will continue to grow,” Hiles says. Likewise, Ashby Elementary’s PTC focuses on involving parents in existing events such as its popular Santa shop or family dance rather than adding too many activities that they wouldn’t be able to support without more volunteer help.

Celebrate Strengths

Recognizing the strengths your parent community has to offer can also build interest and involvement. “Even though we don’t have lots of parent involvement, they do support our fundraisers,” says Fairacres’ Norris. Understanding that their families like to support turnkey fundraisers, the Fairacres PTO leaders use established collection programs as well as a newer online program. The new fundraiser has stirred up friendly competition among parents and has been a great way to reach tech-savvy parents and teachers, Hiles says. Taking the time to ask volunteers what they enjoy doing helps you find a job that suits their skills and interests. “We have one volunteer who is great at getting a good deal, and she helps us get donations from local businesses,” Hiles says.

Stay Organized

Find a system that works for you and your board to help keep all the wheels in motion. Harrison jokes that she isn’t organized but says that other members of the PTC board are. Striking a balance with organizational and management styles helps her board run smoothly.

The Ashby PTC uses binders or accordion folders for board members to keep track of paperwork and Google Drive for all flyers and forms (including a prewritten donation letter), so they don’t waste time starting from scratch. They also have one board member who visits the school during the day to sort and send home relevant mail with the other board members’ children in a special PTC folder. The school secretary helps make sure it is delivered and returned.

Delegate, Delegate, Delegate

You’ve heard “location, location, location” in real estate, and delegation is just as important in your parent group. Epstein and her fellow board members took on every activity and fundraiser their first year on the Ashby PTC and, while successful, quickly realized they couldn’t do it all themselves. “This year, we are delegating more, in little ways, like asking the 4th graders in our school to help out with school events and earn their community service hours, which has really helped us all,” she says.

Look to the Future

Bring in younger families to keep your parent group thriving. Harrison uses every PTC event, such as school supply pickup, parents night out, or bingo night, as an opportunity to talk about the PTC and recruit new volunteers. “Our schools have students in K through 8 and it is a diverse community, so we work hard at each school event to meet new families and explain what the PTC does,” she says. They set up a PTC table with membership forms and information about the group, which has been beneficial in recruiting new volunteers. They also work hand in hand with school planning. “Our principal planned a 3rd grade iPad integration program for parents and we followed it with an evening PTC meeting,” she says. “It was great, and we signed up many new volunteers that night!”

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