“How do we get more parents to come to our meetings?”
It's among the most common question we get here at PTO Today, and one of the most frustrating challenges for parent group leaders everywhere. In schools of 300 or 500 families, some groups are lucky to get 12 or 15 parents to a meeting. Wouldn’t you love to have to find more chairs or move your meeting to a larger room because of high turnout? But that’s almost never the case, and might never be—at least for your average monthly PTO meeting.
So what’s the real deal? Do you really need to worry about meetings? Do they even matter?
Yes—but not quite as much as you might think.
Meetings Are for Making Decisions
There’s no getting around holding parent group meetings. They’re where you discuss new business, approve minutes, hear committee and treasurer reports, and more. That kind of organizational business is hard to get through efficiently any other way. By keeping meetings focused on business matters, you’ll be much more successful at keeping them short and productive.
When they’re run well, and when the business that’s discussed is communicated afterward, meetings help parents feel that they have a stake in your group and a voice in its decisionmaking—even if they never show up in person.
Share Information Outside of Meetings
On the other hand, many leaders fall into the trap of thinking of meetings as the place to share plans and updates. With that mindset, it can be disappointing when meetings aren’t exactly packing people in. Executive board members might feel like other parents don’t care about the PTO or PTA.
The truth is, meetings shouldn’t be the main way your group communicates with members. Your parent group should continually be sharing information with (and getting input from) school parents through a variety of other methods, such as emails, group texting, social media, and informal conversations. These other ways of communicating lead to stronger relationships and more open dialog between families and the parent group board.
If you try to make your meetings a forum for this kind of information-sharing, you’ll end up with meetings that last hours—and frazzled, burned-out attendees (even officers) who won’t want to come back.
Keep Meetings in Perspective
Think of your meeting strategy in two parts. The first part is publicizing when they happen and the planned topics of discussion on a given date. All of your members should be invited to attend, welcomed when they come, and included in the decisionmaking. After the meeting, the minutes should be posted so that anyone who couldn’t attend can catch up on the group’s progress.
The second part is to put aside meeting attendance as a measure of success and think about the big picture instead. Are your events well-attended? Do parents have a positive view of your PTO? If so, it’s fine to try to boost attendance, but don’t make it your main focus. Overall your group is doing well; keep up the outreach and let meetings take a back seat.
Low Turnout Isn’t a Problem
If your group is communicating well with families, don’t worry if you never get 50 regular attendees at meetings (most groups don’t). Parents have limited time; given the choice, it’s better for your group to have a well-staffed holiday shop or fall festival than full meetings.
If poor meeting attendance is just one of several negative trends (your group is seen as a clique, for example), it’s a sign that you might have some bigger issues to work on. In other words: Low turnout at meetings isn’t the main problem, it’s probably the result of other challenges your group is facing. Meeting attendance really grows only when you grow the number of people who get truly connected to your group and want to become highly involved. And your best chance to cultivate volunteers like that is to put on the kinds of events that draw newcomers out of their homes for fun and camaraderie. When you work on those other challenges, it’ll pay off in bigger ways than simply improved meeting attendance—Your group will have more volunteers, better events and activities, and most important, parents committed to making a difference at school.
Make Meetings More Appealing
If you want to increase the number of regular attendees at meetings, think of ways to make them more enticing and easier to attend.
Keep them to an hour (and publicize it). There’s simple logic behind the one-hour meeting rule: If people know it isn’t going to drag on, they’ll be more likely to show up.
Provide a light meal or some snacks. Many groups say they see an uptick in attendance when they eliminate the dinner hassle for potential attendees. Keep it simple—a few pizzas or a simple potluck is sufficient.
Try a different time. Ask parents what days and times work best. You could even schedule two in a short time frame to accommodate both working and stay-at-home parents.
Put students on the agenda. Invite kids to share short presentations or performances from school events, such as assemblies, musical performances, and school plays.
Originally published in 2008 and updated regularly.