Parent Engagement for Nonprofit Organizations: Better Input for Better Outcomes.

Time and again at Aspire Toledo, we hear the same refrain: If parents aren’t engaged in a program, the program simply cannot achieve its intended outcomes. Teachers, administrators and students tell us that parent engagement is integral to the success of any youth-based program. That’s why Aspire Toledo has made Parent Engagement a key secondary indicator in our Program Assessment Tool.

Parents and caregivers are always an essential part of a child’s life. Every child who comes into your program brings their home life along with them. If the messages children hear at home do not coincide with the messages you’re trying to convey, chances are your efforts will leave the children’s minds when they leave your program.

But what does effective Parent Engagement really look like? And how can Parent Engagement be integrated into your nonprofit organization’s program?

Definition of Parent Engagement

The idea of Parent Engagement seems straightforward enough; parents become active partners in the program, reinforcing the ideas being presented and encouraging their children to incorporate the program’s teachings into their daily lives. But within that overall concept, there are three distinct levels in which parents can take part.

The most basic level is Parent Involvement, in which parents feel that they are invited to participate in a program beyond simply dropping their children off and picking them up again. At the Parent Engagement level, parents are generally more heavily invested in the success of the program. They are more likely to be an active part of the program and offer more feedback throughout the process.

As Marian Brannon, Strengthening Families Coordinator for Lucas County, puts it, “The difference between Parent Engagement and Parent Involvement is sort of like a sausage and egg breakfast sandwich—the chicken is involved, but the pig is engaged.”

Ultimately, parents may actually move into more of a Parent Leadership role, in which they participate in the decision-making process and share a true stake in the success of the program. Not every parent will emerge as a leader, and those who do may only do so as a result of active encouragement on the part of the organization.

Five Steps to Encouraging Parent Engagement

The pyramid seen above only tells part of the story—true Parent Engagement happens in an environment that is designed to support it. The best way to foster that environment is to begin planning for it from Day 1. Ideally, an organization starts thinking about the roles parents can play during the initial planning of the program, while the grants are still being written and the program is still in its earliest development stages.

If you are trying to boost Parent Engagement within an existing program, the good news is that it’s never too late—but as we stated above, it’s always crucial.

Here are a few practical tips that can help boost Parent Engagement:

  1. Talk to the parents. Simply asking parents what they’re looking for in a program can go a long way. Parents are often not accustomed to having an opportunity to express their opinions. And by contacting parents to discuss every aspect of their lives—beyond just the specifics of the program—can create a sense of trust that leads to increased engagement.
  2. Create a welcoming atmosphere. The physical environment is very important, and it includes creating a space for parents to feel they belong. The relationships you build are just as important. Train your staff to engage parents with a positive outlook—and live by the mantra “Relationships over rules.”
  3. Speak the parents’ language. This is both a literal and a metaphorical tip. Does your audience speak Spanish or Arabic? Bring translators into the process at the outset—not as an afterthought. In addition, understand where parents are coming from and create materials they can immediately understand.
  4. Assume good intentions. If a parent is late for an appointment, start your interaction with the idea that she made an honest effort to get there on time. If the parent is reluctant to commit her time, assume it has more to do with her busy schedule rather than any lack of interest in her child.
  5. Look for passionate parents. Any parent who expresses an extra interest in your program—even those whose interest may seem negative—can be encouraged to take on a greater role within the program. Encourage their passions while at the same time directing them toward the places within the program where they can do the most good.

Parent Engagement: Part of the Aspire Toledo Model

Parent Engagement is an essential component of the Aspire Toledo model, in which we seek to create a cradle-to-career support structure for children and families in Lucas County that will prepare them for success in life. To learn more about Aspire Toledo’s work throughout the community, sign up for our newsletter today.

 The information provided in this post come from an Aspire Toledo Network panel discussion presented on August 30, 2017. Participants included Michelle Klinger, Executive Director of Partners in Education; Sandra Johnson, Lucas County Early Head Start Family and Community Engagement Coordinator; Marian Brannon, Strengthening Families Coordinator for Lucas County; Amy Allen, Toledo Public Schools Transformation Leader; and Kelly Kaiser, Baby University.