Stories about past PTO presidents are so frightening they could easily be found in the horror section of your kids’ elementary school library.
There’s The President Who Wouldn’t Let Go, a chilling account of last year’s leader who wouldn’t step aside to let her successor run the show.
There’s The President Who Moved Away, a scary legend in which files, contacts, and records all disappear.
There’s The President Who Gossiped, an eerie tale about a past president from another social circle who lights up the phones after each PTO meeting with whisperings about the new president.
And there’s The President Who Quit Midterm, a terrifying saga that leaves the board and the officers completely unprepared for the mayhem to come.
Perhaps scariest of all, the stories are true.
Although most PTOs install a new officer each and every year and many make the transition smoothly, the process is often fraught with struggles. Weary leaders find themselves spending more time sorting out power clashes and personality conflicts than planning fundraisers and family events. Veteran PTO presidents have learned, however, that there are steps PTOs can take to minimize the turmoil that sometimes accompanies the annual changing of the guard. Although every PTO president probably believes at some point that her struggle is unique, there are similar patterns of problems—and common types of solutions—that surface in PTOs from coast to coast.
It may come as some consolation that PTOs are not alone among volunteer groups in facing transition troubles. “These problems are not uncommon in a wide range of volunteer organizations,” says James C. Fisher, who writes about volunteer organizations and teaches administrative leadership at the University of Wisconsin. “However, in PTOs, you also have a lot of people who are participating in a community-based organization for the first time.” Add to that, says Fisher, the idea that PTOs are by their very nature transient organizations. Just as leaders start to get the hang of it, their children leave grade school and the parents move on, replaced by a new crop of unseasoned recruits.
“Founder’s syndrome” is also a problem that cuts across all kinds of volunteer groups. Steve McCurley, an author and consultant to volunteer organizations based in Olympia, Washington, uses this term to describe the leader who just doesn’t want to let go. “Often, volunteers have worked hard, they believe they’ve made an organization what it is, and they don’t want it to be any less than that,” he says. “It can reach the point when it’s not really a group anymore. It’s one person’s organization.”
Even if the president herself isn’t outwardly clinging to the job, others in the organization may be growing very comfortable with having one person at the top. “The people who rise to the top tend to be highly motivated and pretty competent. That means that other people have a tendency to trust them to do all the work,” says McCurley.
That describes what Barbara Flynn’s life has been like over the past few years. For two years, she had been president of the Hartford Heights Elementary PTO in Hartford Heights, Pennsylvania. But as her term was winding down last spring, no one stepped up to run for president, so, by default, Flynn stayed on. After elections were held for the other offices, however, one parent did express an interest, and interim elections were held. After a rocky stretch as president, the newcomer resigned in December, and the PTO has been scrambling yet again for a new president. “It’s aggravating,” says Flynn. “It is awfully hard to transition, and we don’t get paid for this!”
Easing the Transitions
Experts in volunteer management and veteran volunteers have found tried-and-true solutions to ease this aggravation. Here are strategies to help PTO presidents pass the gavel with speed and grace.
1. Share the load. A system of copresidents and cochairs has simplified transitions at the Northwoods Elementary School PTO in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Each office and committee chair position is held by two people for staggered two-year terms. That means that while one copresident is serving the second year of her term, the other copresident is serving her first. So one president is continually training her successor.
“You follow one year and lead the next,” says Julie O’Brien, who helped create the system six years ago. “We’ve found that we developed more consistency and we were even more efficient with how we spent our money.” Having two people share offices turned out to have an unexpected benefit: Cochairs often know different people or belong to different social groups, so they are able to reach out to a wider pool of potential volunteers.
2. Plan for your successor. From the day a president steps into office, it’s important to begin “succession planning,” says Fisher. McCurley concurs. “There has to be a culture of succession,” he says. “The longer you have the same people in charge, the easier it is for an organization to petrify. There has to be a notion that no one person should be locked into the job forever.”
3. Recruit, recruit, recruit. To plan adequately for their replacements, presidents should be recruiting potential candidates actively. “It’s incumbent upon the president to make sure the next generation of talent is developing,” says McCurley. Presidents should stress early and often that good candidates are needed for next year’s positions.
“The common excuse people use for not recruiting for positions is ‘Nobody wants the job,’ ” says McCurley. “But that’s often not true. Usually it’s that nobody wants to fight the current president to the death for the office.”
4. Set term limits. Term limits aren’t just for congressmen. McCurley suggests incorporating term limits into PTO bylaws to prevent presidents from overstaying their welcome.
Although presidents who repeat terms have valuable experience to offer the group, there’s a downside to all their seasoning: It discourages new volunteers from coming forward. “People look at the insiders and say, ‘It’s their thing, so we’ll let them run it,’ ” says McCurley. The first people to notice the cliques at the top tend to be those from different ethnic, cultural, or economic groups, he stresses.
“One person, or even a small group of people, can do things quickly and efficiently, but there’s only so much they can do,” says McCurley. “If you pull more people in, it’s a little messier, but you can achieve larger success.”
5. Create a position for past presidents. Sometimes the easiest way to get a president to move out is to designate a way that he or she can move up. Some PTOs achieve this by creating president-emeritus positions. The formal title gives past leaders a feeling of legitimacy and connection. And at the same time it ensures that past presidents will be accessible to newcomers seeking the voice of experience. Says McCurley: “When really good people have been at the top, you don’t want to lose them. So it’s nice to have a sort of ‘emeritus’ position where they can go and still have some status.”
Other PTOs stop short of creating an office of president-emeritus but instead have a well-worn path from the presidency to the board. Another option is to encourage former presidents to chair special projects or significant committees. “The key is to find a place for these people where they can keep doing good things but not look like they’re blocking the line of succession for other people,” says McCurley.
6. Have a brain dump. If knowledge is power, then to have a smooth transfer of power, PTOs must have a smooth transfer of knowledge. A tremendous obstacle for new presidents is hidden information or poor record-keeping that leaves new leaders feeling like they have to reinvent the wheel each year.
O’Brien, the past president from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, developed a binder system for each committee. The notebooks hold details on what has and hasn’t worked in past years, how much money was spent, and lists of contacts, donors, and volunteers. The binders are kept in a PTO room at the school, where volunteers have easy access to them.
Flynn, of Hartford Heights, Pennsylvania, recommends that presidents at the very least keep a log of what activities need to be completed in each month.
And, most important, outgoing presidents need to talk to their successors. “Every outgoing president should take his or her successor out to coffee and do an information dump,” says McCurley. “Most of the good stuff is never written down.”
7. Keep it in perspective. Many presidents have trouble avoiding the words “cat fight” when describing tense transitions. Disputes quickly turn personal, and different social groups turn into warring factions. “Some women don’t have the ability to not take this all personally,” says Mary Lieb, president of the Margaret M. Pierce Elementary School PTO in Remington, Virginia. “I’ve told each of my officers, ‘We may never be close friends, but I need you to do the job you were elected to do.’ ”
Officers can lose sight of their purpose—to help their children and their schools. “It’s important that everyone work together,” says O’Brien. “The end result should be that we are all partners in our students’ success.
8. Seek professional help. There are times when conflicts rise to the level that outside help is needed. Sometimes a principal or board member can step in to referee. Other times, a mediator is better suited to the task. In many communities, the United Way or another nonprofit support group can help negotiate conflicts for nominal fees.
“Sometimes personal conflicts turn into group conflicts between the ins and the outs,” says McCurley. “Unless you can find some neutral outsider who can facilitate a truce, what happens is one group secedes and will form its own organization, or the two groups remain fighting and the bystanders will start to get the heck out of there.”
Creating Order out of Chaos
It’s always wise to plan for the unexpected. But the Webster Hill School PTO could never have anticipated this chain of events.
Two years ago, the outgoing president moved from the school’s West Hartford, Connecticut, base to New York. Then the incoming president had to step down due to health reasons. And this year’s president-elect couldn’t fill the president’s slot because of personal circumstances.
So, for three years running, the presidency has been in a state of flux, making it complicated to pass along past wisdom to the new PTO chief. That’s why Michele Confessore set out to bring some method to this madness. Two years ago, health issues prevented Confessore from moving from president-elect to president. However, she had enough advance notice to assemble some resources for her hastily elected replacement.
“I pulled together folders for everything,” says Confessore, explaining that she made separate files for each fundraiser, a file for minutes, and a folder of family activities organized by grade. Her intention was that each folder would go to the chair of the corresponding committee.
Realizing that mere files alone can be overwhelming, Confessore organized several face-to-face meetings with the incoming officers. Each folder was the topic of a meeting: For example, one meeting covered fundraising, another spirit wear, and another the newsletter.
She also made it a point to focus on the business at hand, as opposed to the personalities involved. “It’s important to recognize that the PTO is not a personal goal,” says Confessore. “The information is there to be shared, and not owned by one individual. And we have to remember we’re all there for the school, and personal feelings have to be left aside.”