Best way to manage PTO membership?
July 8, 2013 5:42 AM   Subscribe

I am the treasurer and vice president of the PTO for my kids' elementary school. There is currently nothing in place to contact our members and maintain our membership list. We are slowly starting to get better organized, and I'm looking for the best solution. Can you help me wade through the options?

When I joined a year ago, the PTO (parent teacher organization) was hanging together by a thread, with one person doing basically everything. There is nothing currently in place to help organize the PTO - no website, no mailing list, no way to reach out to members beyond notices going home with parents. I've spent this year taking care of the financial side of things - creating spreadsheets and budgets for spending analysis, getting online banking set up, all that kind of stuff, so we now have actual figures for where our money goes so that we can prioritize better.

The next big thing I want to tackle is how to best communicate with our membership and volunteers. Right now we tend to directly contact the same 3-5 helpful people for everything, and while we collect contact info at the (sparsely attended) PTO meetings, we're not doing anything with it.

So: what does your successful organization use to reach out to members? Facebook? Yahoo groups? Something else? Our school has a very basic website and we have been offered a page for the PTO, but there is no outreach/mailing list/community capability, and we'd have to go through a non-PTO administrator to make updates, so I don't see this as a great option. The school does not currently have a Facebook page.

Here are our needs as I see them (please feel free to add if you think I've missed something significant):

- Outreach/Mailing list - we need to be able to contact our membership notifying them of events, asking for volunteers etc
- Calendar - want to be able to put events on a calendar so upcoming events are easily findable
- Document storage - this is not a dealbreaker, as we can continue doing this via email, but it would be good to have some sort of document storage. Ideal situation would be to have general access for all members and restricted access for Board members only for things like budget docs and minutes
- Maintenance - has to be maintainable by more than one person, and must be as easy as possible. I have my hands pretty full already and want to be able to delegate maintenance to others as necessary. I doubt we'd be able to make very frequent updates/posts

- A large proportion of our parents is poor and potentially not computer savvy, so whatever we come up with will need to be as user-friendly as possible
- I don't personally like Facebook and am not on it, though I would (reluctantly) join to set this up if it were truly the best option. I would love some help navigating how to be an administrator of this site while not giving up my privacy - my preference would be to not be findable on FB. Is this an option?

Thoughts? TIA for your help!
posted by widdershins to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: First off, why PTO instead of PTA? Changing over to a non profit and PTA membership can bring you a number of benefits, perhaps even some of this organizational guidance.

I've been on PTA, but as a tertiary member, not a full officeholder.

We used a combination of emails, auto-phoncalls from the principal, facebook page, website page tied to the school system's web page. Every year at the start of the year we encourage membership and ask for email addresses (and have the teachers collect them too). We honor the opt back out, and we nuke the list every year and start fresh.

The FB - make an FB Page which you and someone else administer.

If it's possible, make a gmail group - we used a gmail address and Google Docs with specific restrictions to keep things organized.
posted by tilde at 5:47 AM on July 8, 2013

I found yahoo groups way easier for most people than Google groups, even tho I wanted goggle docs and Cal for myself.
Facebook is too.... Casual.
posted by k8t at 6:08 AM on July 8, 2013

If you want good take-up, do not use anything that requires people to create new accounts. Yahoo's registration system is horrendous. Facebook is objectionable to a lot of people (cf: you, in fact.)

Outreach/Mailing list

I think you need multiple lists, in fact - one for parents, one for PTO members, one for board members, etc. I would NOT do a discussion list but rather an announcement list, using MailChimp or Campaign Monitor. You can send out to your whole list or any segment of the list, and people can reply to you but not to the entire list. This cuts down the noise, ups the value for all recipients, and cuts down the number of people who send your mailings to spam.


Google calendar, you can embed it on any web page.

Document storage

Shared Google docs or Dropbox, which will be free.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:25 AM on July 8, 2013

Charms is your solution! Easy-peasy to use, and it's made for this purpose.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 6:54 AM on July 8, 2013

Best answer: PTA president here.

Yes to mailing lists. I have a group on Gmail for current members. I have another group for board members. It's easy. For each contact I input cell phone numbers so I can look them up quickly and contact them by phone or text if need be.

I would absolutely create a Facebook page if you can. You can create an "Open Group" Facebook page, where only members can post. Or, a closed group. See here on the different types of Facebook groups:

I would run this by your school's principal first. Facebook is a great way to get the word out. Absolutely do it if you can.

Like you, our school has a PTA section on the school's website. This is where I publish current fundraisers, ongoing fundraisers, PTA projects, upcoming meetings, meeting minutes and agendas. Not many people look at this section. A Facebook page and monthly email updates are better ways to reach your members.
posted by Fairchild at 7:02 AM on July 8, 2013

Per the Pew Research Center only 76% of adults with household income under $30,000 use the internet, so a lot of the email/social media stuff mentioned here is good but maybe not enough to be sure you reach you parents (though obviously you know your membership better than I do).

I might get pilloried for using its dreaded name but if you just want to maintain a member directory of a few hundred (or even a few thousand) and maybe print labels and want it to be easily transferred to other people in the future when they take over it might not be the worst idea to use MS Access. Most people who work in an office should have access to it, you can be pretty certain it will continue to be supported by MS and not be snatched away just once you get to know it (Yes I’m bitter about Astrid and Google Reader.)

Google docs could do this too but the label making is non-obvious and there are privacy/security concerns with keeping everyone’s info in the cloud (though I guess newer versions of Office are pushing people to do that too so *throws arms up in despair for privacy*).
posted by Wretch729 at 7:56 AM on July 8, 2013

For me, the outreach question is entirely different than the infrastructure question.

I need more information before answering the outreach part of your question. How many parents are currently members? What does membership mean in your PTO (as opposed to a PTA)? Is there a cost involved? Are you trying to increase the number of members or just create systems to reach out to current members? When you are looking for volunteers or doing promotion, are you only trying to reach current members or all parents?

In terms of infrastructure:
- I would NOT recommend switching over to a PTA, particularly in a low-tech, low-income school. There is a level of bureaucracy that can be stifling, not to mention really difficult to navigate.

- I agree with others that Dropbox or Google Drive is the best place to organize your documents. You can also look into whether or not your school district allows parents to have school district accounts. One parent group I've worked with stores all of their documents on the school's network. (This is a particularly low-income school where almost no parent leaders have computers at home.)

I can give you more hints about outreach when I have more information.
posted by frizz at 8:01 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you very much for the answers so far. To address some of frizz's questions:

There is no cost of membership in the PTO, and all parents are invited to be members. There are 550 students at the school. Right now we probably have around 150 'members' - parents who have attended a meeting and provided contact info to us (the school is not allowed to give contact info at the moment; we're working on this). Clearly we'd like to grow that number, but the first step to me is to be in better contact with the ones who have already indicated interest in the PTO. Till now, there's been nothing done to follow up with them and I am working to change that.

I don't think we're interested in switching over to PTA at the moment. We're still bare bones here and need to build more parental support first.

I'd be very interested if someone knows the answer to my FB privacy question...?
posted by widdershins at 9:22 AM on July 8, 2013

The school may not be allowed to give you student/parent information - no matter if you're a PTO vs a PTA. Every group I've been with simply made sure to be front and center on registration/round up/intake days and coordinated notices home as well.

I was brief in my Facebook answer but it's the same. Set up the page, administer it with someone else. When you or the other person posts, you "post" "as" the page,not your name. Set one up for something unrelated as a trial - a group or a page to be liked, see which one works better for you.

You would not need to get permission from the principal to set up a PTO of XYZ School page, IIRC; one group with a very tumultuous relationship with their principal has at PTA of XYZ school page and the school maintains their own page.
posted by tilde at 10:41 AM on July 8, 2013

Best answer: A large proportion of our parents is poor and potentially not computer savvy, so whatever we come up with will need to be as user-friendly as possible

Assume that whatever percentage of your students get free/reduced lunch is the percentage of families that don't have any regular internet access. In practice, this will not be true (many, many low income people use smartphones as their "household" internet, and certainly a percentage will have access at home or at work) but it's a good rule of thumb.

Our PTO (which is also a 501(c) nonprofit - not sure what the PTO/PTA convo is about above re: nonprofit status) uses a combination of Facebook, direct parent emails, a wordpress website, and paper communication via backpacks and US mail postcard to get the word out. I wish our PTO actually did more to reach our low income and ESL families (of whom we have many) and would do more to make meetings accessible to families who might work 2nd shift or do shift work, but we're getting there. Facebook is probably the most successful tool for ongoing engagement, and a combination of direct emails and backpack mail (including posters in the school) is most successful for getting people to attend meetings and events.

The most successful thing our PTO has done to get contact info is to hold a series of after-school events, free and open to all families, where volunteers collected contact info from parents. We start with an ice cream social that takes place the day of Kindergarten orientation, and continue throughout the year with "Grow a Reader" nights (book swap, bookmobile visit, book by local author read to kids by librarian, free copy of book read given to all kids donated by the publisher), a spring "Bike rodeo" (bike safety day underwritten by a local bike shop and State Farm insurance), an "instrument petting zoo" (in partnership with the local symphony orchestra - kids met the musicians, got to try instruments, and then there was a short concert), etc. We have a strong partnership with the school administration, which makes this possible, along with volunteers who are very good at getting things (books, food, events) donated or underwritten by local businesses.

They also held a series of "meet your neighbor" nights where parents volunteered to open their homes and/or yards to host a true "neighborhood" PTO meeting/social event. For that we did flyers and left them everywhere we could think of, and it was actually the most successful event we had for reaching out to families who were socially or economically disconnected from the regular flow of information (particularly special needs families, immigrant communities, and low income folks -- a low income housing complex is part of our schools cachement area and holding one of the "meet your neighbor" nights in their community room drew in a lot of families who didn't think there was a PTO or didn't think the PTO was "for them").

I'd be very interested if someone knows the answer to my FB privacy question...?

I don't know what the "official" answer to this is, but the simple solution is to either a) have someone else set up the page, or b) set up an account for you under some plausible alias and only use the account to update the PTO page.
posted by anastasiav at 11:01 AM on July 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks very much guys - think I have what I need.
posted by widdershins at 3:36 AM on July 9, 2013

One thing to remember computer savvy =/= unable to manage Facebook. I surf FB almost exclusively from my phone. So anything mobile friendly is very handy. Maybe send out a survey every once in a while.

One thing I liked and am going to copy to my own parent organization is a newsletter - short, informative, with ideas for sharing and learning with the kids. Pair that with surveys the KIDS want to fill out, you'll get some participation, for example, "If [the principal] was a bird, what kind of bird would she be".
posted by tilde at 5:53 AM on July 9, 2013

I am active at an elementary school with a high percentage of low-income ESL parents, which translates to a lot of families without regular internet access. We just did a parent survey about communication, and discovered that the most successful ways of communicating with parents are with actual paper (frustrating, because its the most expensive and labor intensive method) and phone calls from the principal. Our principal has a robo-dialer type thing set up for this. We also have a facebook group, which is quite active, but it does select out a large percentage of parents. We also have free babysitting at PTA meetings, which helps enormously to increase participation.

Anastasiav has some great advice about using social events at the school to connect with parents, and gather their info there. I would recommend avoiding facebook if you can, just because its the easy option for a lot of people, and you end up with a communication gap that can be hard to bridge once it has set in.
posted by Joh at 1:39 PM on July 9, 2013

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