Keeping the PTO Momentum Going

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Focus on a few important traits to help your parent group avoid stalling out in the middle of the year.

by Tim Sullivan


Why is it that some PTOs seem to be production machines, some seem to be withering, and so many seem to meander along doing the same things year after year? The answer comes down to momentum—an indicator of parent group success that is difficult to quantify but is so important.

Positive momentum is a fundamental key to reaching many of your group goals. Actually, let me add one word: Perceived positive momentum is a fundamental key to reaching your goals. It’s essential that your school community look at your group and see progress and aspirations for more. The flip side—the perception that your group is just going through the motions or is tired—is a recipe for inevitable decline.

The fact is, people are attracted to success. The small, just-starting group that is making strides in the right ways will have a much easier time attracting volunteers and pulling off successful events than will the established group (even if it’s much bigger) that has lost its mojo.

How can you make sure your arrow is pointing in the right direction this year and beyond? That’s my challenge for you because, frankly, that momentum is almost entirely determined by the actions of your current leadership.

What are the traits of this kind of positive PTO momentum?

An overtly positive culture and communication style, led by and practiced by your officers. Even when you’re deservedly tired, there’s never a letup in appreciation and celebration. “What a great event! Let’s hear it for Kathy and Jim! How much fun was that?” How you speak about your group sets a tone one way or the other.

A commitment to quality. Groups on the upswing generally do fewer things, but they work hard to do those things well. Overworked volunteers at events that are just so-so are the gateways to declining interest and participation. Volunteers don’t stay (and new volunteers don’t clamor to join) when it’s obvious that too few people are trying to do too much. It’s more than OK to drop a few events or fundraisers to execute the remaining events more effectively. In fact, that’s the way to go.

A policy of actively welcoming newcomers and embracing their energy. This is often the toughest challenge for experienced leaders. Getting tired and losing some pep for the PTO or PTA challenge is almost inevitable for even the most committed volunteer. If you’re not bringing in new volunteers and letting them lead and being open to their perspectives, then loss of momentum is sure to follow—soon.

Of course, new volunteers aren’t always knocking down your door, right? That’s where the first two traits come in. When you are really positive and fun and when there is work to do on good, obviously successful events, you’ll have much more luck attracting that new energy. I’ll go even further—do you have one existing volunteer whose main job is actively finding and helping and encouraging new volunteers? You should.

A focus on keeping things lighthearted. Seriously. If the work feels like drudgery, if your PTO or PTA has that heavy feeling, then be the one to talk about that. Tell the joke. Adjourn the meeting and reconvene at the coffee shop or bar. Arrange the potluck. Ask Trixie Treasurer to email her report this month instead of spending 30 minutes talking about the budget.

People generally have more than enough work and stress in their lives without actively volunteering in a group that creates even more.

Not feeling welcoming? Not feeling sunny? Feeling like your group is struggling? It’s OK to fake it. Find a bubbly friend to make the welcome speech at your next event if you know you just can’t roar through another one. Work extra hard to find and recruit those one or two new volunteers who you know have the right spirit and skills to keep things moving ahead. And then help them thrive.

You can do this. You can make it. Fight as best you can to leave your group on an even more positive track than the one you inherited on your first day.

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