Three Common Parent Group Challenges


Involvement mistakes many groups don’t even know they’re making, and how to fix them.

by Tim Sullivan


I know you’re psyched for a great PTO year, right? Fun family events. Engaged teachers and parents. Fundraising success. And I know you and your fellow leaders have all the best intentions for making your group as effective as can be. To us, you’re heroes in both action and intention.

We know you’ll face challenges this year, too, of course. But what if I told you that many of the biggest challenges faced by PTOs and PTAs tend to be self-inflicted? It happens by accident—I’ve never met a volunteer leader who intended to decrease parent involvement or make her group less successful—but it happens more than it should. See whether any of these common mistakes sound familiar.

The Unwelcome Mat

What is the experience like for a new volunteer at your school—someone who isn’t well-known to existing leaders but who wants to get involved right away? When she walks in to your meeting, are your leaders in a group chatting and catching up with each other? How does the new volunteer feel? Do you share ideas and make decisions informally using texts and phone calls among the “regulars”? How does a new volunteer get in that loop?

Leaders always tell us they want new blood, but brand-new parents almost always report feeling like outsiders and like there is a clique that they aren’t part of. If new parents at your school feel that way (hint: they do!), then it’s up to your leadership to change that on the first day, first month, and every day.

Fundraising Fatigue

Most groups simply fundraise too much, sometimes way too much. And that’s a cause of many common PTO maladies.

Fundraising is the least warm and fuzzy of all the PTO volunteer jobs. If you’re constantly fundraising, then nearly all of your volunteers are forced to work on this toughest, least rewarding job. Not many parents are sitting at home looking for the tough, stressful volunteer tasks. If you have trouble finding or keeping volunteers, this may be a big reason.

Parents don’t warm up to a group that only seems to be interested in their money. Fundraising success, involvement success, and school success come when parents feel a strong, warm connection with your school. Fundraising doesn’t create that connection. In fact, too much fundraising actively damages that connection.

We fundraise to exist. We don’t exist to fundraise. Even many well-intentioned leaders don’t get this difference, so they add more fundraisers or charge for the popcorn at movie night or send out emails about every possible moneymaker. This just leads to a vicious circle of lower support, and then those same leaders feel like they need even more fundraisers to make up the difference. Ugh!

This year, pledge to find balance. Focus on events and community and serving parents, the kids, and the school, and limit the number of fundraisers you run. (Do fewer, but make them even better.) This is how healthy groups thrive.

Not Enough Bragging

They say young employees should dress for the job they want, not the job they have. In the PTO world, I say: Talk like the group you want to be, not the group you are. Too many groups forget that a big part of the job is selling your group and making it clear that volunteering is positive and fun and that supporting your group is worthwhile.

Your PTO Facebook page should have photos of families having a great time at your amazing event, even if that event was just average or had some hiccups. The same applies when you’re thanking volunteers—don’t only thank the chairperson or the best volunteers. Thank everyone, profusely and publicly.

You want to build momentum and change the story around your group. If you don’t start it by being boldly and frequently positive—and then remain that way—then no one else will.

We give so much time to our schools, and there are so many challenges. This year, let’s make sure we don’t add to those challenges with our own misses. Here at PTO Today, we can’t wait to help you do this important work more effectively than ever!

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