Q: Our PTO is trying to raise money for different school programs. We have energetic volunteers, but we'll be lucky if we raise $10,000. I read about schools that raise really huge sums. How do they do it?
A: Parent-teacher organizations don't raise big bucks overnight. They've established strategies, routines and expectations over time. What's their secret?
First, they have a year-round program of events, such as auctions that parents and donors anticipate. Second, the volunteer cadre is large and well trained. Three, these schools cultivate and properly thank loyal donors.
When Sharon Robertson helped her kids' California public school raise money, "We made sure that parents with connections used them and that kids wrote thank-you cards."
Fourth, Robertson says, "We put people who could bring two of the three W's (wealth, work and wisdom) on the team. We asked: Can you write a check or get others to? Roll up your sleeves and pitch in? Apply your skills for marketing or project management?"
She lives in New England now, "where we raise less money, but have equally dedicated volunteers. The vibe is more focused on instructional goals: What can we do to help teachers teach and children learn?"
Tim Sullivan, founder of PTO Today, an organization that provides resources and information for parent-teacher groups, likes the sound of that.
"Money doesn't equal success," he says. "Passion and purpose define great parent groups. If your goal is to make your school an amazing place for kids, where families are truly connected to the school's goals, you can do great things with very few dollars."
Sullivan gives examples: Family Reading Night (or even Science Night, Math Night, Health Night or Game Night).
"Our new P.E.P. (Play more. Eat right. Power down.) Night Kit is popular as parents learn to foster healthy habits," says Sullivan. "What about an after-school ice cream social to welcome families new to the community? Hold it on the playground. Old pros host and answer questions for newcomers. Three tubs of ice cream, plastic bowls and some sprinkles. Fifty bucks. The impact on parent involvement? Priceless!" (For more ideas, go to ptotoday.com/events-and-programs.)
The same kind of impact can be made through a year-round teacher appreciation program that provides basic supplies.
"Faced with a classroom full of runny noses, many teachers are grateful for boxes of tissues and a supply of hand wipes," says Sullivan. (The website TeacherLists.com shows parents how to give teachers this support.)
Sixty percent of PTOs and PTAs have budgets of less than $15,000, says Sullivan, and 78 percent have budgets of less than $25,000.
"Yet these groups have great successes to be proud of," he says.
Robertson agrees. "School fundraising is changing," she says. "Not every teacher wants the PTO to buy her a whiteboard. Mrs. Sanchez wants money for a field trip. Mrs. Jones wants more picture books.
"We work with individual teachers to procure what they need. Sometimes we post their wishes on donorschoose.org. Or we ask local service organizations, foundations and individuals who want our school to succeed. Knowing who to approach is where the wisdom comes in handy!"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)