PTAs used to be able to simply set up a table with a “Join PTA” sign and have parents line up. But those days are long gone, and today’s PTA needs to provide parents with reasons for joining that resonate with them. At the 2017 National PTA Convention, two events focused on how PTAs can do just that.
Science of PTA Membership Growth—Know Your Audience
National PTA Deputy Executive Director Karin Kirchoff and Florida PTA Vice President for Regions and Councils Carolyn Nelson-Goedert shared demographic information, national surveys of parents, the results of PTA surveys and focus groups, and how that information can be used to grow your PTA’s membership.
The demographic information and surveys drew from the Pew Research Center’s Parenting in America study that looked at parenting as a whole and the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s Second Annual New Education Majority Poll that looked the opinions of Black and Latino parents regarding education and their children’s future. The presenters also suggested using Great Schools’ information on individual schools to learn more about your school’s families. Here in Illinois, the Illinois Report Card for schools can also provide additional information.
Looking at the Data
It probably comes as no surprise that the demographic information and polls show that today’s families look quite different from those of the past, with more mothers working, more varied family structures, and more families struggling financially. Likewise, polling shows that all parents of every ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class are concerned about their child’s education and want to be more involved, and that parent involvement declines as children get older.
With this data as background, National PTA started digging in to why parents who want to be more involved in their child’s education don’t do so and why they don’t join PTA. When looking a PTA’s current membership, there is a broad diversity as a whole, but potential room for growth in areas where families need PTA’s mission the most—rural towns and urban communities.
National PTA’s Focus Groups and Surveys
National PTA conducted six focus groups and a national survey to explore parents’ attitudes towards education, schools, and PTA in depth. The focus groups looked at K-5 parents, while the survey targeted K-8 parents. Both activities included both PTA members, former members, and non-members. One of the six focus groups consisted of only African-American parents and another of Spanish-dominant parents. Half of the focus groups were of lower-income parents and half on middle-upper income parents with mixed racial and ethnic populations in all except as noted earlier. The results from the focus groups were used to create the national survey.
From this work, National PTA discovered that parents define membership in many ways, not all of which include paying dues to actually join the PTA. Approximately 18% of those saying they were PTA members only gave their time to the PTA.
The results also showed that members and non-members are very distinct groups. Members are more likely to be more satisfied with their school, have kids who face fewer challenges at school, are generally older (e.g., Gen X), have a higher education level, and generally have a higher household income, often with two parents both working. Non-members tend to be on the other end of the spectrum from members, being less satisfied with their school, having kids facing more challenges, being younger (e.g., Millennials), having less education, and having lower incomes, often with a single income. Not surprisingly, PTA members were quite positive about PTA, with 60% being promoters. Non-members, however, were almost as likely (51%) to be PTA detractors.
When parents are asked about PTA, their perceptions tended to fall into three buckets:
- What PTA Does: Raises money for school, puts on fun events, family-friendly, easy to get involved
- What PTA Affects: Building relationships with teachers and administrators, speaking up on critical issues, linking the school and home, bringing the community together
- What PTA Could Inspire: Hope for the future, empowering families to make a positive change, helping children realize their potential
Using these three buckets that were generated from the focus groups, National PTA conducted a survey to dig into these perceptions. The results showed that PTA is almost exclusively seen as raising money for the school and being family-friendly, with members also citing fun events as a key component of PTA. However, what PTA affects was much less known even among members, and what PTA could inspire was almost completely off the radar.
Breaking the Time Barrier
Parents throughout this process discussed the struggles to find time. Busy jobs, lack of transportation, and work shifts that aren’t the traditional 9 to 5 all prevent participation at meetings and after-school events. However, many parents said that if they are passionate about a cause, they make sure to make the time in their busy schedule.
Acceptance is an Issue
While 73% of those who identified themselves as PTA leaders described their PTA as “welcoming” and 71% said PTA was “for people like me,” non-members had a much different view. Only 36% described the PTA as “welcoming” and only 22% said it was “for people like me.” In the focus groups, some parents tied this to not feeling welcome at the school as well.
The Fundraising Catch-22
One of PTA’s key strengths that was identified in this work was the ability to raise money for school needs. But that fundraising success is also a weakness for PTA because the fundraising message dominates all others and it is often not tied to PTA’s ability to address education issues. In some schools, there are questions about why the money is being raised and how it is being spent. Low-income families also found the fundraising message leaving them feeling like they are not able to participate.
Attracting New Members
The good news from this work by National PTA is that for those who have felt excluded from PTA, put off by the focus on fundraising, or otherwise unwelcome, PTA’s mission resonates strongly with them as a reason to join the PTA. By focusing their message on PTA’s mission:
To make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.
and following through on fulfilling that mission, PTAs can reach those who haven’t joined PTA in the past. Today’s parents need to feel passionate about a cause to devote their time to it, and it is hard to develop a passion for fundraising. By focusing on helping parents help their child be successful, building bridges between the school and families, and being welcoming and inclusive, PTAs can attract those new parents who can be the next generation of PTA leaders.
Facebook Live Symposium
The above information was reinforced in a symposium at the 2017 National PTA Convention that was shared on Facebook Live (event starts at about 13:45 or -1:40:10 into the video). Called Today’s Parents, Tomorrow’s Leaders: Growing a New Generation of PTA Champions, the symposium featured a presentation by Amanda Slavin, CEO and founder of CatalystCreativ, and a panel discussion with Ms. Slavin, PTA leaders from California, Kansas, and Oregon, and Heather Pressley, Senior Vice President for Girls on the Run International.
Both Ms. Slavin’s presentation and the panel discussion that followed emphasized the importance of engaging the passion of today’s parents for the PTA mission as the key to getting them to join PTA and participate. Ms. Slavin noted that even non-millennial parents are often “millennial minded,” seeking a network, socially connected, passionate about quality education, and emphasizing advocacy for all children.
As a result, to engage these parents to become members and PTA leaders, PTAs need to focus recruitment, activities, and goals to serve parents’ needs, not on what the PTA has always done in the past. Communication and opportunities to participate need to focus on the user, so that a PTA math event becomes a time to share and learn with your child, not to just tell you about the new math curriculum. This also means that PTAs need to facilitate and curate experiences for parents rather than dictating them, providing an inclusive, accepting, and non-judgmental space for parents and families to share their experiences and knowledge.