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.)

First Steps

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.

More on Bylaws/Nonprofit

Record-Retention Rules for PTOs

Get Organized and Apply for Nonprofit Status, Step by Step

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.

NEXT PAGE: The Basics, Building Support, and As You Grow