Why some school parents just don't get it! And how you can get them involved in your PTO

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The first time it happened, I was stunned.

The second time it happened, I bit my tongue.

The third time it happened, I finally realized what I was up against.

I’m talking about parents who just don’t get it.

Parents who, even after several weeks or months into the school year, still ask, “So, what does the PTO do, exactly?”

Bet this happens to you, too, right?

But what really made my jaw hit the floor the first time it happened was getting this question from a parent whose family had been at the school for YEARS.

I thought she was joking!

We were talking about the 5th graduation celebration activities the PTO was arranging. She thought the teachers did everything and had no idea what that “everything” was – the planning, the fundraising, the 27 To Do items the last week of school, etc.

Our teachers, and teachers everywhere, go above and beyond, even waaaay beyond, but “really?”, I was thinking to myself. Especially after the latest round of emails and flyers you received?

So, I just smiled and answered her questions, and asked her for help, of course. Which she was happy to give.

And then it happened again. And again. Parents with kids who had been at the school for years saying, “The PTO does that?” or asking “WHY does the PTO do that?”

Many school parents – and not just the newbies -- just don’t get it

They don’t understand…

What the PTO does and doesn’t do

What the PTO does at our school

They’re fuzzy, for example, on how much influence the PTO has over school policies and budget. We do a lot, but not everything. We bring families together to support the school and help kids learn and grow. But we don’t run the place! (If they don’t like school drop off and pickup procedures, they need to call the Principal! 😉)

The big ways that PTO work benefits their family

PTOs and other school groups help kids achieve more and have more fun doing it.

Parents don’t get that the volunteers and funds we raise provide valuable staff support, learning experiences and resources well beyond what the (shrinking) school budget can provide. All so the kids can achieve more and be happier in school.

What it takes to create those benefits

Parents don’t get that other parents -- who are also very busy -- are making time to plan and carry out activities that produce those cool benefits. WE KNOW that PTO fairies do not exist! And neither do parents with boatloads of free time.

That volunteering is a WIN WIN WIN for their families

Parents don’t get that volunteering is more than sharing the work that benefits all families. When they volunteer, parents help their own kids do better in school and feel better about being there, they help the school do more with limited resources (which also helps their kids, of course), and they help themselves – staying informed and having their voice heard, using current and new skills, enjoying new and old friendships, and feeling good about making a positive difference.

When I first got those “What does the PTO” do questions from parents of returning families, I would always politely answer, but I was still thinking to myself, “What world are these people living in?”

The short answer is a very busy one.

And it took me a little while to really get that.

Many parents don’t get the PTO and volunteering because

Parents are busy and bombarded

All parents care about helping their kids and others. And all parents are busy. (Including YOU, I know!)

Moms and Dads. “Stay at home” parents and those who “work outside the home.” Everyone’s busy juggling important priorities, like our families, our health, our homes, our communities, paid work, and every unpaid job under the sun.

Your emails, backpack papers, social media posts, and more are competing with a ton of other messages and requests for help, including waves of professional marketing, for the time and attention of busy parents.

Parents don’t feel any consequences when they don’t help

If you’re short on help, does the same small group of volunteers try to fill the gaps so you can still hold the event?

If you’re short on help, does the same small group of volunteers try to fill the gaps so you can still hold the event?

If there’s a shortage in volunteer help, and some volunteers always work more hours to fill the gaps to plan and carry out activities and events, some parents will never see the need to volunteer. They’ll never see the connection between volunteering and making sure their kids get the experiences and resources they want them to have.

Nobody likes skipping or canceling activities or events. On the flip side, it’s not fair for a small number of volunteers to get stuck doing all of the work that benefits all families.

And it’s a bad idea for a small number of volunteers to try to fill all the gaps, even for the sake of the kids. That is a surefire recipe for stress and burnout, where volunteers who are trying to help all the kids, including their own, end up hurting their own family and themselves.

Parents will never really get it if you protect them from consequences of not volunteering. If you tell parents, “We can’t do it without you!”, and then you keep doing it without them, you’re making it harder to get new volunteers. And hurting the ones you do have.

Getting school parents on the same page of PTO awesomeness

Positive, creative messaging that doesn’t let up

Blitzing parents at the start of the school year is not enough to reach many parents who are also being bombarded by other schools, volunteer groups, teams, and every business trying to make a buck.

Keeping positive, creative messages flowing throughout the year is vital to getting through to parents and growing your volunteer base. Use every communication channel you have to let parents know the good things your group is doing and what help you need to keep the benefits coming.

PTO PTA marketing and communications channels

Broadcasting channels, like email, social media, and backpacks, make it easy to reach the most parents at one time. They’re good for filling many of the smaller volunteer opportunities and some of the bigger leadership jobs your group has.

Personal contacts, at meetings, or just around the school, or even by phone or personal email, offer the highest success rate for filling all types of volunteer roles, and especially leadership roles. But you can’t easily reach all families through personal contacts, so you’ll get the best results by covering ALL your bases.

Clear consequences and following through

Sounds a lot like parenting, right?

Volunteer sign-up deadlines are very effective for recruiting help for events and they also make planning less stressful. We wouldn’t dream of putting on an event if we didn’t have enough money, and we should look at our volunteer needs the same way.

Be crystal clear (and positive!) with school parents. Tell them

  • That the scheduled event will be a valuable experience for the kids and families.

  • You need parent volunteers to make it happen and you know you can count on their support.

  • If you get enough volunteers by the sign-up deadline – which you fully expect because parents are awesome -- the event will happen as scheduled.

  • If you don’t, the event will be cancelled.

  • How they can help, how to sign up, and what the deadline is.

Give parents plenty of notice ahead of the deadline if volunteer sign-ups are falling short. Remind them that the event will have to be cancelled if you don’t get enough parent volunteers by the deadline.

All parents care, but not all of them can and will show it through volunteering – and that’s okay!

No matter how good a job you do getting the word out about what the PTO does, how families benefit, and how parents can help, many won’t donate their time (although they might still donate money) for a number of understandable reasons. PTO work is important, but it’s not the only important priority any of us are juggling.

As long as parents don’t expect others to do for them what they can’t or choose not to do, we should respect their choices. We all have to say “No” at times, after all. And we shouldn’t make each other feel bad about that. Golden rule all the way.

Your group doesn’t need 100% of parents to volunteer to be successful and share PTO work fairly. You just need more school parent schoolvolunteers than you have now, especially if a small group has been doing everything. (Is this you? See my new class below.)

Want to hear something funny?

Some parents don’t volunteer because they DO get it! They understand what the PTO does and how their family benefits – and they are afraid to volunteer. With good reason! Learn more in this blog post:



Resources to help you grab the attention of busy parents with positive messages about your awesome PTO

  • This FREE video training class was inspired by way too many posts in Facebook groups by burned out school volunteer leaders. If you're part of a small group of volunteers doing all of the work that benefits all families, I’m here to help. Learn more here.

Do you have a funny story to share about PTO life? Have a challenge I can help with? Please let me know in the comments below or email me. I would love to hear from you!

Why some parents still don't get how awesome your PTO is: the secrets to getting busy school parents involved in your PTO. PTO volunteer recruitment strategies that will keep you from scrambling for volunteers. #PTO, #SchoolVolunteersShare #volunteerrecruitment