Q: Our PTO is so focused on fundraising that it's turning parents off. As incoming president, my goal is simply to get parents involved in our school community, period. Any ideas?
A: While many schools depend on funds raised by PTOs to pay for supplies or learning experiences such as field trips, there comes a time -- usually late fall -- when parents decide they can't ask their co-workers to buy one more batch of wrapping paper or cookie dough. When fundraising fatigue sets in, PTO involvement can take a nosedive.
What draws parents to a PTO and makes it effective? It's not about the money raised or the hours volunteered, says Tim Sullivan, founder and publisher of PTO Today, an online resource for parents.
"It's establishing a culture where parents ask, 'How can we help make this school a great place for our kids to thrive?'" he explains.
Sullivan shares his list of "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Parents' Groups." The first will not surprise you.
1) Focus on building parental involvement, not fundraising. This means friendly, open communication among parents, faculty, students and the school board, which sends a message -- your group's goal is to support the success of the entire school, not just one program or class.
2) Create family events and long-term traditions that people look forward to.
"Some schools schedule an annual Family Day, Spring Fling or Movie Night and see high attendance because people can plan well in advance," says Sullivan.
3) Be truly welcoming to new parents. Avoid "mom cliques" that scare away newcomers. Make sure to reach out to parents who speak languages other than English.
"Brayton Elementary in Summit, New Jersey, has a Cafe Con Leche Committee. It holds meetings in Spanish that the principal and teachers attend," says Sullivan. "English translation is offered for non-Spanish speaking parents."
4) Let people get involved gradually -- at their own pace. Sullivan loves the Blue Moon Club, created by the PTA at the Thirteenth Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey.
"The name lets volunteers know that they can participate at their convenience, and their contributions are valued regardless of how often they are able to help."
5) Have fun! It's an important element in building involvement.
"Rather than muffins with mom and donuts with dad, the PTO at St. Margaret Mary School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, switched it up -- Zumba for mothers and an obstacle course for fathers," says Sullivan. "The group that plays together stays together!"
6) Put less emphasis on meetings and more on volunteerism. A defined mission and objectives make it easier for busy parents to help achieve them on their own schedule and within their own means. Many PTOs function effectively with a core group supported by members who pitch in when they can.
7) Trumpet your accomplishments; people are attracted to success.
Did your school-wide garage sale raise a record amount? Promote it on Twitter. Maybe your holiday toy drive exceeded projections? Invite the local TV station to tout it on the evening news.
"Make sure to acknowledge publicly all those whose efforts contributed to your success," says Sullivan. "A little thanks goes a long way in keeping people involved."
For more ideas, go to PTOToday.com.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)