To ensure your parent group's long-term success, it's important to think about the future even as you juggle this year's demands. Such foresight includes cultivating new leaders, setting goals, constantly evaluating and improving your work, and anticipating the needs of your school community.

Cultivating New Leaders

Even if you have a great executive team this year, you owe it to your school to help lay the groundwork for sustained leadership. One good tool is documentation. For instance, if you don't already have one, write a job description and create a binder for each position. "Without a description, people don't know if they want to take on a job; they have no parameters," says Melissa Kerman, 1st vice president for the Antioch Elementary PTO in Matthews, N.C.

Take people up on their offers to help. "We've heard over and over, 'I said I would do that on the volunteer form, and no one called me,' " Kerman says. "When somebody says 'I will help,' you have to take them up on that." Then get to know your volunteers. "I spend a bit of time with all the new people," says Nancy Klekas, PTA president at Garden Road Elementary in Poway, Calif. "They come to my house for coffee."

Approach people about stepping into leadership positions. "A personal ask counts for so much," Kerman says. She became involved after a phone call from president Angie McDuffie. "Someone who did the auction baskets for us had the potential to be an auction chair, but she didn't write that down on her interest form. So we asked her. She was so flattered and took that on. Don't second-guess what someone would or would not be interested in."

Look especially to the parents of kindergartners. The Kolter Elementary PTO in Houston recruited kindergarten moms to chair the book fair. "Sometimes newer parents want to find a place where they can get involved, and that was a good spot because it was just a one-week time frame," says PTO president Alice Lee.

Ease potential leaders in slowly. Antioch's leaders have identified two accountants who might be interested in the treasurer position. "We're inviting them in whenever money has to be counted, and they can help with the processing," McDuffie says. "It's nothing threatening or scary. And we can say 'These are things the treasurer is doing.' "

Provide direction and support to volunteers. "They need to know there's somebody there looking out for them," Kerman explains. "It's the key to getting them motivated and involved." Adds McDuffie, "When they feel like they're supported and their project is important, they feel more a part of a family and will continue to participate at any level they can." Kerman made sure that the new parent who volunteered to coordinate family fun night understood how to meet with the principal, what kinds of activities were appropriate, and that she needed a license to show a movie in the gym. Antioch also took part in a team-building ropes course in the summer that "set the tone for the whole year," McDuffie says.

Match skills and interests to positions. At Antioch, a parent who is a painter was asked to decorate the school's spirit rock for special events. Now she's on the PTO executive board. At Roxborough Primary and Intermediate School in Littleton, Colo., a parent with experience in catalog marketing was matched to a volunteer position selling logo gear for the PTIC.

Roxborough leaders take this matching process seriously, asking parents to complete applications and two interviews, first with the president and then with the committee chair in their area of interest before they are "hired" in March for the following fall. After a two-hour orientation, they receive an official T-shirt and binder. The result is a team of 89 committee chairs or cochairs and an attrition rate of only 10 percent. "If you really want to lure the working parents, you must have structure and professionalism," says Barbara Chase Burke, PTIC vice president.

And if parents' interests and your group's needs don't exactly match, be flexible. When 12 parents volunteered to help with staff appreciation at Mesa Verde Elementary in Tucson, Ariz., PTO president Beth Lake (a former corporate trainer) welcomed them all. "Instead of just [organizing] one big staff appreciation, we took that group of 12 and built a team. Now we're set up to do staff appreciation once a month."

Setting Goals

Soliciting ideas, discussing them publicly, and then formally setting goals by writing them down and referring back to them can help a group accomplish big things. Set some goals you can achieve now as well as goals that will require work beyond this school year. Just thinking about what you'd like to get done in the future can give your group focus.

The Garden Road Elementary PTA uses surveys to help set goals. One year they questioned families about how the PTA was doing, what they liked, what should be changed, and what the goals should be. One goal that emerged was to focus on literacy, and for three years now the PTA has sponsored an All-You-Can-Read Diner. With 1950s-era decorations, teachers in poodle skirts serving as waitresses, and a menu of books, families come in, sit down, order a book, and then read it together. Then they enjoy free root beer floats.

At Lowry Elementary in Denver, short- and long-term goals often originate at meetings of the principal and the leadership team, which includes the PTO president. Those goals are then brought back to the PTO executive board for discussion. An example is the school garden. The short-term goal was for volunteers to create two unique garden spaces. Long-term goals were to integrate the garden into the curriculum through subjects such as nutrition and to use the garden as a means of philanthropy, with some of the harvest given away to families in need.

Evaluating and Improving

Some kind of formal evaluation process helps groups avoid past mistakes and make continuous improvements. The Antioch PTO uses an event debrief form that is kept in a binder for each leader to refer to, learn from, and add to. Such a form will help the next person learn, for instance, one thing McDuffie had to learn the hard way when she addressed kindergarten parents during a summer meeting: The huge coffeepot has to brew for an hour before the coffee is ready to serve. The group also used a parent survey for its silent auction and learned that they needed to schedule the event for the following year on a weekend rather than during the week.

At Garden Road, the PTA president confers with committee chairs after each event to talk about what went well and what didn't. Last year, after a Boys' Night Out event, the consensus was that maintaining order inside, with the boys moving from one sports station to another, was too difficult. So this year, the activity was moved outdoors and the focus changed to astronomy.

At Lowry, informal feedback from parents led to the creation of a welcome committee. "Our school has a warm and welcoming environment, but we decided based on feedback that we need to formalize that more," says PTO president Debbie Stark. "We are going to create a physical space at events for people who are new or who never connected before. They can ask questions, and a volunteer will walk into the event with them and introduce them to some other parents."

Anticipating Needs

When looking ahead, be sure to give some thought to needs beyond school events and teacher wish lists. Consider the specific needs of your community and how you might address them. Garden Road Elementary, located in the San Diego area, has a lot of military families and also a high unemployment rate. As a result, the PTA is particularly sensitive this year to not putting a financial burden on families. "We've made it a high priority at some of the events to make clear that parents should not bring their wallets," Klekas says. "We have a lot of families who can't go out to dinner or movies or theme parks anymore. We say, 'Come and enjoy yourself.' "