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What cause based NPOs can learn from PTOs?

Updated: Aug 26


The start of every school year is always a mixture of emotions, sensory experiences, and anxieties for everyone, right? On the one hand, parents, teachers, and students are experiencing mixed feelings about going back to school, and on the other, everyone is quietly thankful for the routine that these next ten months will bring.

Sounds of familiar scoldings... “that’s too expensive” in the Target aisle, and the smell of pencil shavings always signal to my brain the season is changing. And let us not forget the anxieties of friends, saying goodbye, homework, and grades that always seem to creep back up. As you can probably guess, it was a back-to-school week for my family, and it’s been a ‘ride.’


This season shift also signals the start of the PTO and their efforts to support the school through any means necessary. As a child of a pastor who moved me all over and now a military spouse, I have had the absolute pleasure of experiencing numerous different school districts and their PTOs.


And let me tell you, NPOs can learn a thing or two from these PTO parents.


PTOs MOBILIZE ALL VOLUNTEERS Nonprofits, and PTOs often fall into the steady trap of the same helpers ALWAYS helping. PTOs are not immune to this. However, they often use that adorable offspring to reiterate 1000x’s before you get out of the car that “fill in the blank” is tomorrow. This is an invaluable attention-grabbing annoyance, so…. how does a charity replicate it? I suggest using your existing volunteer force to channel their inner 5-year-old and ask potential volunteers to help, often, every time, personally, almost incessantly. I remember joining one school and meeting just one of the PTO members. After the brief standard introduction, her next question was brilliant “ok, so which committee can we place you on to serve? Events or teacher appreciation?” She really didn’t give me a chance to back out, AND she immediately took action by taking my information and passing it on to the committee chair. To top it off, the chairman had excellent follow-through and got me connected and volunteering that next week.


PTOs ARE UNAFRAID, JUST TO ASK. Relationships and networking in nonprofits is probably one of your most important tasks other than your specific cause work. It would then make sense that NPOs are more fearful of burning a bridge when asking versus a school, but this fear can often leave donations unclaimed. PTOs are fearless about mobilizing their army of volunteers and asking EVERYONE for donations and raffle items. They are ok to be told no, knowing that someone else will ask next year. Adopting this mentality WITH a bit of professional restraint could really help. At our current school, they keep a running list of every donor from the past ten years who gave ANYTHING. Before each event, they appeal to them and ask them to participate in any way possible. EACH. EVENT. This means they are reaching out four times a year. Once again, they mobilize their volunteers to take sections of the hundreds of vendors, making the task easier. If they say no, they say no. The only time someone is removed from the list is if they explicitly ask to be removed (which is difficult to do over the phone to a charity) or if the company is no longer functioning. Appealing a few times a year, personally, with a call, will help sponsors see just how active you are, and perhaps just one of them will be the exact right fit. Remaining active and at the forefront of their minds, though, lead to more referrals and one-time donations.


PTOs CHANGE OFTEN SO THEY LISTEN TO NEW TALENT As children matriculate and age out of school, so do their parents move on out of the PTO. What could be seen as a weakness is having constant turnover, which is fatal. The best PTOs have harnessed it as a strength. How do they do this? For starters, they have constant mentorship roles within committees. This is something that can easily be set up in your volunteer roles. Even if it’s the same five people, have them change out their roles each year to avoid burnout and megalomanic syndrome. Now, we have been at the PTO who did not listen to new talent, and it was awful. We did NOT get connected, and we did not participate. But the areas that did make us feel valuable and heard had all of our efforts. Even if your new talent has questionable ideas, just listening to their past experiences will make your NPO better. You can start the conversation by “Where do you like to give/donate?” OR “Where are you not as likely to donate? Why?” AND “What did you learn from your past charity that we can use here or avoid here?”.


PTOs STICK TO THEIR MORALS So, our current school has been labeled “The Healthiest School In Denver,” and they have many policies and procedures that the admin enforces on a daily basis (like no candy or sweets - our kids hate that one). The PTOs mission and vision have adopted many of these same healthy principles with healthy events and standards for fundraising that align with the school. For instance, there is a line about recycling on the school side, so the PTO adopted this and now only hosts green events and does not print off flyers/ invitations for events. These parents have been unyielding in their approach. One of my dear friends was an officer who asked for some new ways to fundraise. I mentioned a way one of our other schools made money through their PTO, not realizing it went against the “no kid facing fundraising” rule, and it was immediately shot down. Forget it would have been easy, simple, and made them loads… the conversation was over. Oftentimes, I believe charities want to do so many things to just be seen more and get the next donation that they entertain the grey areas more than they should. The way this PTO was steadfast in their morals was impressive and something that all NPOs should be doing. Full Stop.


PTOs ENCOURAGE CONTAGIOUS GENEROSITY Ah, nothing like a bit of social pressure to increase an auction item, right!? Since these PTOs have so much changeover (as discussed above), they are sometimes ripe with drama, which is never good. However, getting some of the newbies in an auction room with established families and you can get the contagious generosity effect happening. The new families want to fit in, and if they see the established families participating, it will be an easy ask. This exact scenario happened at an auction PTO event and helped them over their goal for the year. So how can an NPO leverage this? Well, yes, auctions are great at getting the competitors all riled up, but who would be your equivalent to “old families”? What sort of giving is your board asked to contribute? Could you ask them to give a bit more publicly at your events to help get the ball rolling?


PTOs CAPITALIZE ON THE APPEAL TO THE HEART Now, in this area, the PTOs kinda have an unfair, sometimes biological (thank you, adoptive and foster parents!) advantage that NPOs cannot replicate, YOUR CHILD. The PTOs know that you will do just about anything for your child, and they capitalize on this to get you to give and participate. So, the challenge for NPOs is how to shift this heart attachment to your charity as well. The best way is to draw the connection between their heart and your cause. “Leave the oceans for our children” (clean up the ocean) OR “Everyone deserves to be celebrated for their birthday” (foster care birthday party fund). Making the appeal to the heart hit as close to home as possible is the key. If you make it about someone/something they love, that donation ask is so much easier.


If you want to talk more about PTOs, NPOs, or pencil shavings, reach out!


Team Kat and Mouse can help your charity with TRAINING, TACTICS, AND TOOLS, and I (Dani) would love to chat about your donor’s online experience. Check me out at www.thecharitydesign.co , read some more blogs, or get a FREEBIE of the 6 Must-Haves on Every Nonprofit Website.

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