One of the most common questions we get at PTO Today is “How do you start a PTO?” The answer is less complicated than you might think: Get a group of people together, agree on a common goal, then get to it! Something as easy as running a spaghetti supper or an ice-cream social can be the basis for building enthusiasm and getting parents interested in forming a parent group. Yes, there are a lot of organizational steps you can take to get your group buttoned up and running smoothly. But you don’t have to have all of your i’s dotted and t’s crossed to start making a difference for your school. You can tackle that as you grow.
That said, below is a list of steps to organize a parent group and best practices to keep it running strong. We’ve included links to resources that give you more information about key points. Keep in mind that this is a process—you certainly don’t have to tackle the entire list at once! And many of these will come easily as you get your organization in place and begin to grow.
(If you currently have a PTA and are switching to PTO, you might want to read Switching From PTA to PTO.)
1. Gather a small group of like-minded parents. This is not the time for a large committee that could get bogged down in unending and unproductive discussion. Seek out three or four other parents who share your vision of starting a parent group. Get together in a relaxed setting and share ideas about why you want to start a PTO. Write them down so you can use the ideas to develop a list of benefits. Be open with discussion. Talk about how much time you are willing to devote to the PTO. Be sure you know where everyone stands.
2. Develop a purpose or mission statement for your PTO. This is a broad description of what you see as the core reason you’re forming a group. Here’s an example you can start with:
The purpose of the PTO is to enhance and support the educational experience at [Our School], to develop a closer connection between school and home by encouraging parent involvement, and to improve the environment at [Our School] through volunteer and financial support.
3. Brainstorm a list of benefits and a preliminary list of activities. Benefits include ways in which the school, students, and parents will benefit from a PTO. For activities, put down a few major ideas. Be sure to emphasize building parent involvement over fundraising. The most important thing your group can do is get more parents connected with the school. Once you do that, everything becomes easier. Write down your ideas; you will use them to develop your kickoff letter, your fundraising plans, and your future committee structure.
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4. Brainstorm fundraising ideas. There are dozens of possible fundraisers spanning a wide range of activities and products, from bake sales to fun runs to auctions to traditional product sales. There are two key differences between fundraisers: how much money you can make and how much effort you have to put in. Product sales like wrapping paper, candy, cookie dough, and the like are popular because you typically can make the most money with the fewest number of volunteers. You can make a lot of money from an event like an auction, which has the added benefit of being a fun social occasion, but it takes lots of volunteer hours to run. Some groups ask for direct donations; this can work if you have broad support, but it tends to have diminishing returns.
5. Adopt a fundraising policy. Keep in mind that fundraising shouldn’t be your number one goal. Having a reputation as “just a fundraising group” can kill your chances of attracting volunteers and new leaders. Here’s a sample fundraising policy for you to consider:
[ABC PTO] will strive to raise funds to cover its annual budget, and no more. The PTO will limit our fundraising programs to two per school year, unless we fail to meet budget. The PTO will strive to use the money raised in one year to benefit the school in the same year, other than a practical amount of funds to carry into the start of the next school year. Special fundraising programs can be approved to raise extraordinary funding for long-term capital projects. These funds will be kept separate from the PTO’s operating budget and dedicated to the intended purpose. PTO funds will always be used in accordance with the PTO’s mission.
6. Write it all down. Document the details of your plan, which will in turn drive all your efforts during startup. Make it easy to read, nice-looking, and clear. Document minutes of all your planning meetings, especially when you adopt bylaws and policies, and assign officer titles.
7. Meet with the principal. Present your idea, your plans, and your desire to work together. Then listen. Keep in mind that you are not creating the principal’s personal fundraising team. You are forming a partnership with school.
8. Draft a set of basic bylaws. Bylaws are the core rules that govern your organization. They address the makeup of the executive board, how officers are elected, how often meetings are held, and similar nuts-and-bolts questions. Think about how you want your group to run, then look over a lot of other groups’ bylaws before adopting yours. Read the samples carefully and discuss the implications of each article with your founding group. Adopt bylaws by general agreement (acclimation) of your founding members/officers. Be sure to include a procedure to amend the bylaws later. Note that bylaws address the basics of how your group will run. As you organize, you’ll also want to create a set of policies (or standing rules). These are more specific, and you don’t need an amendment to change them. For instance, your bylaws might say you have a general meeting a minimum of four times a year; your policies might dictate that a meeting is held on the first Wednesday of each month.
9. Get an employer identification number. Fill out IRS form SS-4 to get your PTO’s own employer identification number (EIN). You can download the form from the IRS website or apply online. This is a simple, quick step, and it’s free. But you’ll need an EIN to open a bank account. By the way, the EIN (which some people refer to as a “tax identification number”) is simply the way the IRS identifies businesses. It doesn’t mean you have to be an employer.
10. Open a checking account at a local institution using the PTO’s EIN. Shop around for the best rates.
11. Adopt a set of financial controls. One of the most important things you can do is put procedures in place to protect the money you raise. Keep in mind that while you currently may have the world’s greatest treasurer, someday someone else will hold that office. It’s a lot easier to put proper financial controls in place now than it will be later on. You’ll not only protect your group long-term against misappropriation of funds—and unfortunately that happens to PTAs and PTOs a lot more often than you might think—you’ll also help prevent simple mistakes that can cloud your financial picture.
12. Prepare to announce your PTO. Write an introductory letter for your teachers and parents. Develop a kickoff presentation for your first meeting. Be confident but not cliquish. People want to be part of a strong, well-organized group that gives the impression that it is not going to waste their time or money. Be sure to convey that in your public presentations, but also be sincere in your welcome to the whole community. If you let your enthusiasm show, people are sure to respond!
13. Open the doors to the school community by holding your first meeting. Bone up on good meeting habits and basic parliamentary procedure. A working knowledge of a few basic principles of Robert’s Rules of Order can really help. Keep in mind that your goal is to inform and build enthusiasm. This is not the time to get bogged down in details. Create a printed agenda and follow it. Limit the meeting to one hour at most. If issues become contentious or inspire a lot of discussion, appoint a committee (maybe your board members) to study them. The purpose of this meeting is to rally support. If you’re ready, you can adopt bylaws and elect officers. Or you can put that off until a subsequent meeting if that makes more sense for your situation.
As You Grow
14. Start building involvement. Going forward, the most important challenge you face is to build parent involvement. A group with three or four dedicated volunteers can make a significant contribution to a school. A group with a few hundred parents who feel connected to the group and the school can have a dramatic influence on the overall effectiveness of the school and the success of students. The most effective parent groups create the kind of supportive atmosphere where teachers and students alike can do their best work.
The most important keys to building involvement: be truly welcoming and not cliquish; avoid earning a reputation for focusing only on fundraising; create lots of family events that help parents get comfortable with the idea of coming to the school. And keep in mind that there’s more power in 400 people donating two hours of their time than in four people donating 200 hours each.
15. Get buttoned up. At some point you’re going to want to put a more formal structure in place, including incorporating and becoming tax-exempt. Many groups do that at the start, while others wait until they’ve achieved some growth and stability. Incorporation is done through the state—usually the corporations division or secretary of state’s office. Obtaining tax-exempt status—becoming a “real” nonprofit—takes place through the IRS. It requires filling out a fairly detailed form that asks for information ranging from your mission to your typical fundraising gross. When you’re approved, the IRS issues a letter stating that your group is a tax-exempt charity under section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code. (You may also need to apply for state sales tax exemption through your state’s tax office.) PTO Today’s PTO Startup Toolkit offers a wealth of information on these steps along with other basics of starting a PTO. It also walks you through the 501(c)(3) application line by line.
16. Make sure you’re covered. Consider purchasing insurance for your parent group. In most cases, parent groups are not covered under the school’s policy. General liability, bonding, director’s and officer’s (protects your board members), and property (protects items you own) are typical types of insurance that parent groups may carry. Our PTO Today Plus program includes access to significant insurance discounts.
We’re Here To Help
PTO Today is dedicated to helping parent groups succeed. We have more than 700 articles on parent group topics, and we’re constantly adding more. There are lots of experienced parent group leaders happy to lend advice on the message boards, and the File Exchange has hundreds of shared files uploaded by parent group leaders. Parent Express Email is a free, easy-to-use program that allows you to send email newsletters, flyers, and the like to your group. Our free School Family Nights planning kits offer step-by-step directions and fun activity ideas for great family events. And PTO Today Expos give you the opportunity to connect with a wealth of vendors providing goods and services specifically aimed at PTOs and PTAs.
Best wishes from all of us at PTO Today. School parent groups play an important role for schools and our children. Congratulations on taking this initiative, and thank you for stepping forward! Your work will really make a difference.
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