Many PTOs consider approaching local businesses for sponsorships, donations, or volunteers but then hesitate because they aren’t sure who to ask, how to ask, and what to offer in return. But partnering with local businesses or even national chains is not an impossible task. PTOs all across the country successfully ask for and receive donations from businesses. These partnerships are an opportunity that benefits both the school and the business.

First, Get Organized

If no one in your PTO has experience asking for support from businesses, just the act of putting together a request letter or keeping track of requests and donations can feel overwhelming. So it is important to have a plan and a good team in place before you start the process. In small parent groups, this project could be managed by one person, but many schools find that a small team of volunteers leads to good results.

The team should agree on a plan to keep track of all business partnership activity. This includes tracking what letters are sent, which companies have been contacted, and what donations have been received. Recordkeeping is essential both to eliminate duplicate asks and to ensure that all business partners receive a thank-you for their donation.

A paper tracking system could be a simple as keeping copies of letters in a binder and writing the results right on the paper. But the Internet also offers useful ways to track donation requests and results. If your PTO event team or fundraising team works electronically, a shared Google document offers an easy way for team members to enter activities like sent letters, personal visits, or phone calls and record the results of their activities. These records are important for both monitoring what’s in process and planning for future years.

Before your team asks businesses for donations, start by considering which activities or programs need outside support and what donations you want to solicit. Take an inventory of must-haves and nice-to-haves for your upcoming events. Then brainstorm which businesses could be the best suppliers for those items.

Think Local, National, and Beyond

It may seem logical to only ask larger retailers for donations, but it’s important to consider what opportunities are waiting locally.

“I target local businesses typically within our schools’ footprint, mainly because there is a strong chance their child, niece, nephew, or someone they know will receive some of the benefits from their donation,” explains Regina Quinn, mother of a 4th grader and member of the fundraising committee at Highcliff Elementary in Pittsburgh, Pa. “It’s a bit more work but I feel it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Sometimes, business owners attended the school that is asking for a donation and they want to give back. It feels good to support the school that educated them. As well, locally owned businesses might be more willing to offer buy one, get one free passes or discount coupons as bulk prizes. Items like coupons can satisfy the need for a large number of prizes. Local bowling alleys or ice cream parlors might donate coupons for one free game or one free cone to every child who registers for the annual fun run. These prizes help motivate kids to participate and help the businesses by bringing in customers.

Donations also make smaller events special. Local grocery stores can donate bottled water, healthy snacks, or even paper products for family night events or teacher appreciation luncheons.

Like local businesses, national chains are often willing to support schools. Store managers of locations in the community are sometimes able to donate gift cards or pricier electronic devices to serve as raffle prizes.

Other national chains accept donation requests via online forms. In fact, some only take submissions through online forms, while others require that an account be created before the request can be submitted.

Parent group leaders share tips on navigating the process on the Ultimate Donation List on ptotoday.com. Schools across the country have used the list to secure donated passes for family destinations like Universal Studios or Disney parks. Other groups contact authors and request signed copies of books or gift certificates for popular stores like Build-A-Bear and American Girl.

Getting the Word Out

In addition to doing research online and in person, don’t hesitate to ask at general meetings and on social media for help in connecting with local businesses. Even if a business can’t donate money, a contribution of volunteer hours, for example, could transform an event from chaotic to coordinated.

Every donation or sponsorship request should include a letter, even requests that happen between friends. A letter is a great way to keep track of what requests went out that year and can later serve as a record of what sponsorships or donations were acquired.

The ask letter is often the first time a business hears from your school, but it’s likely not the first time the business has been asked to make a donation. Businesses often look for nonprofits to support, and PTOs are just like any other nonprofit. So how can your donation team maximize its chances of success?

First, be specific. Business owners and managers prefer to receive specific requests whenever possible. This doesn’t mean dictating a donation or sponsorship, but rather offering a reasonable set of options that would benefit your event.

Second, business owners appreciate good timing. When volunteers contact restaurants during the lunch rush, for example, they might be starting off on the wrong foot with a potential community partner. It’s also a mistake to contact a business the week before your event. Many businesses only donate during the beginning or end of their fiscal year. It may take your team some time to learn when certain businesses are receptive to these requests.

A good strategy for local, in-person requests is to make a list of businesses in your area that your team wants to approach. Call each business first and ask to speak to the manager. If the manager says they do accept requests for donations, let her know you’re sending the letter or delivering it in person. Then personalize your letter for that business and print it on school or PTO letterhead. Be sure it includes all the necessary contact information in case the manager has questions.

The ask letter should also include your donation appreciation package, or what you can offer the business in return. This feature can set your request apart from others. For example, many businesses will want public recognition of their donation in the hopes of growing their business, and PTOs can offer them the chance to connect with the families at the school. If your school secures a donation of pizza and salad for every general meeting from a nearby pizza shop, that pizza shop probably wants to be mentioned during the meeting or included on the back of the agenda. Most likely, they would love both.

Social media plays a big part in promoting businesses, and including some mentions in your social media as a part of your donation appreciation package is a good idea. But don’t feel you have to devote your entire Facebook feed to one business. Offer different levels of mentions for donations of different values. Maybe one mention is enough for the company that donates a gift card, while a company that donated a new iPad as a raffle prize is mentioned in each post about the raffle.

The most basic form of appreciation is a thank-you note. Handwritten notes go a long way toward strengthening ties; making an extra effort like having student-designed art on note cards can help a business remember your school. And if the list of thank-you notes to be written grows long, count your group lucky and consider creating a gratitude committee made up of parents, teachers, and kids to help write the notes.

Businesses will also appreciate a donation receipt if your PTO is a 501(c)(3) organization, so be sure to include that in your donation appreciation package.

An organized team of volunteers, a friendly, specific request letter delivered in a timely manner, and sincere appreciation for donations are three essential components to securing support from businesses. With these components in place, your PTO will be well on its way to hosting successful events and building productive relationships in the community.