April 23, 2013

Five technologies that every PTA/PTO (parent teacher organization) should consider using…

In addition to annoying half of the internet with my views on various social topics, I spend some of my time serving as the President of the parent (although we call it “community”) organization at my youngest sons school. I have held some sort of position at my children’s school PTA/PTO/parent/community organizations for the past nine years.

Given that my day job is that of IT grunt, I naturally have pushed these organizations to try out the newest, coolest, and (even occasionally) the most effective technologies available to enhance our service offerings and efficiency.

Over the last few years a handful of technologies have distinguished themselves in my eyes, so I thought I’d pass them on in case someone else is just starting down this path.

1. VolunteerSpot: My son’s school is a charter which is K-9 (will be K-12 in 3 years when the current 9th graders get to their senior year). The students are divided into two physical locations half way across town from one another. Every month the Community Network hosts a teacher appreciation lunch at each school. We typically do soups (2 regular, one vegetarian) and salads (2) with some bread (3) and desserts (3). We also have someone provide bowles, spoons, forks, napkins etc. as well as recruiting a set up and cleanup crew. We provide this for roughly 30 teachers per school. Enter VolunteerSpot. Each month I go in and set up the event complete with all of the roles that need to be filled. One week before the event I send out an email to the class that is providing the lunch that month (we rotate through the classes each month to try to distribute the load as evenly as possible) and then I sit back and watch the magic. Usually the majority of the spots are filled within 48 hours and I almost never have to send out a second solicitation. We never have too much food, too much of a particular item, or a shortage of anything (i.e. vegetarian soup). Whats more the VolunteerSpot system automatically sends out reminder emails to each volunteer prior to the event and has the ability to shoot out thank you notes to all of the volunteers as well. And… if that’s not enough, at tax time it sends the volunteers a summary of their activities in case they want to include them on their tax returns. All for the very reasonable price of free. I consider this online service (or something similar to it) to be an absolute must for planning and managing events.

2. MailChimp: If you have fewer than 2,000 subscribers, you can send up to 12,000 emails per month for the (once again) low low price of free. We’ve used MailChimp for monthly newsletters (formatted in HTML for a professional look), soliciting volunteers for events and more. You can group your recipients (say by grade or availability to volunteer during the day, etc.), track your mailings effectiveness, and avoid being blocked by spam filters. MailChimp does pretty much everything that its more well know “big brother” ConstantContact does and for most folks there is no need to use the pay version. This is another service that I couldn’t imagine running a parent organization without.

3. SurveyMonkey: Yes, it is another service named after a banana eater… I don’t make the news (or the names) I just report it! SurveyMonkey is another free web based solution I find invaluable. it is, as you might imagine software set up to survey your members on how you are doing, what they might want to see happen in the future… or pretty much anything you might want to know more information about. The free version is limited to 10 questions, but based on being able to lay them out in a grid (i.e. rank the following 10 things on a scale of 1 to 10) you can really ask far more than 10 questions. This is especially true given that each question also allows for a free form comment box that can be used to solicit more information. You are limited to 100 respondents, so remember keep that in mind as you are sending out your questionnaires.

Note: at this point the list become a little more flavored toward my taste. There are options to these last two if you are not inclined toward using them.

4. Evernote: Evernote is a free web based data collection service. What we have done is convert all of our manuals, forms, instructions, etc. into Evernote. All of the documentation for our organization is in one place. Additionally we use the Evernote web clipper to capture useful articles and sources of information that might be useful to the group in the future. Evernote has sort of become our brain. The end goal is to have a living “document” that can change and expand over the years as the organization does… collecting out institutional knowledge. If every member of the current organization were to leave the school after this year, in theory another group of parents could step in and keep the ball rolling fairly effortlessly based on the collected information in our Evernote account.

5. Facebook: It’s unlikely you found this blog if you don’t know what Facebook is, but here is a quick rundown on why we use it. One of our main goals as an organization is to maintain a communications thread across the entire school – to parents, students, and faculty/staff, Facebook is the closest thing to “common ground” we have found. Clearly we don’t get everyone with Facebook, but given the push nature and the cross demographic reach, it is our go to application for communications. Obviously we still email (see #2 above) but for quick communication blasts or to broaden the base (via the viral effect of social media) of who sees what we are trying to communicate Facebook is the answer.

While they may not be every answer to everyone, these five services, coupled with a generic web based email address for the organization (we use gmail, but any service would be fine) that can be used as the common login for all of them, should allow your organization to hit the ground running from a technology standpoint. This should allow you to focus on other things, like how to avoid writing sentences as “run on” as my last one! ;)

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