Every year as we pore over hundreds of outstanding entries for our Parent Group of the Year search, I’m struck by two observations: first, there’s an amazing amount of great work being done by school volunteers across the country; and second, this great work takes on so many different forms.

Those same thoughts come to mind when we receive an email or have one of our PTO Expo attendees asking what her group can do for the school. These questioners want a step-by-step instruction manual to greatness that I honestly can’t provide.

I can provide the first step: Gather together two or more parents with a passion for helping.

I can provide the key question to ask: What does our school need that we can realistically provide?

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And I can even provide the hoped-for result: a school full of kids and families whose school years were made better by the work of the PTO.

Everything else, though, is completely variable. There is no recipe. There are no must-do steps. Just read this month’s Parent Group of the Year profiles and you’ll see groups big and small, groups that have taken on huge challenges, and groups working on the most basic of basics. And they are all great groups.

There’s a concept getting some attention in edu­cation these days around evaluating teachers called value-added assessment. The general concept is to measure teachers based on how far they take their students from August to June. Where were the kids when the year started? What obstacles did they face? How far ahead or behind were they? And where did the kids wind up?

In value-added terms, the AP teacher who gets her A students reading Shakespeare may actually be achieving less than the special ed teacher who gets her class finally mastering some basic comprehension topics.

When I think of the best PTOs, I use the same type of thinking. Where did the PTO start? What are the advantages or disadvantages this PTO had at the beginning of the year? What school challenge could this PTO help address, and how did they do on that?

By those measures, I’ve seen great PTO leaders whose main accomplishment was creating a regular, positive communication channel connecting school and home where one didn’t exist before, overcoming a stubborn principal in the process. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was the first step in changing a whole school culture, and it led to more volunteers and even more accomplishments in future years.

Similarly, I’ve seen groups with lots of activities and raising a sizable pile of money that I’d call far from great. Maybe you’ve been part of one of those years when all the activities seem kind of middling, when there’s a general malaise around the group and the cause, where parent engagement goes down rather than up between August and June.

In fact, if you’re leading a group with a long tradition of activities and parents sign up each year almost by habit, it’s kind of easy to just let things slide along passably well. To the outside observer, your group may seem more accomplished than the new group just getting off its feet, but who accomplished more this year? Which group is the achiever?

So what makes a PTO or PTA great? As with great teachers, it comes down to people and passion. Are you working selflessly for your school and the kids? Is there a spirit that says, “It’s not about the credit or the money or the hours—it’s about how we can help make this school a great place for our kids to thrive”? If so, then I know yours is a great group, no matter what you’ve done or what your group looks like today.