Getting organized can make your school parent group much more efficient and effective. Imagine all that background information, contact lists, budget sheets, and notes about successes (and failures) in one place—your officers and volunteers could have everything they need to start working right away instead of recreating every project from scratch.
It’s hard to imagine finding the time to put everything in order while juggling parenting, a career, and life in general. But lots of busy leaders have done it, and you can also with the right tools and tricks. Check out these leader-tested organization tips for bringing order to your systems and working efficiently.
Many leaders depend on one calendar—on their phones, walls, or refrigerators—to keep track of parent group meetings, school, sports, extracurriculars, and home life all in one place.
Tammy Green prefers a large wall calendar and hangs it between the kitchen and the garage. “I find I need to see at a glance what’s happening for the entire week. And I need to see it all the time,” says the former PTO president at Lakeshore Middle School in Stevensville, Mich. Green has her kids add their activities to the calendar, which teaches them organizational skills and helps balance everyone’s schedule.
Leaders who love tech often rely on their phone’s calendar app. Christie Hepburn, room parent coordinator for the Seven Oaks Elementary School Parent Group in Odenton, Md., syncs her iCal calendar app between her Apple iPhone and laptop. “I have colors for each family member, and I can send ‘invites’ to the kids so it’ll link to their calendars on their iPads,” she says.
Jennifer Pettus, Harpeth Valley Elementary PTO president in Nashville, Tenn., finds it’s easy to add dates from online calendars into her iPhone. “If you have a Gmail for your PTO, you can also put things on that calendar and make them flow into your iCal.”
Other resources that help leaders organize their work and schedule events include our Parent Group Planning Calendar, which lists national holidays and other observances like Family Literacy Day and No Name-Calling Week.
And check out A Year of Great Ideas to see fun tips and ideas for every month of the school year.
Month-by-Month Preplanning Guide
PTO leaders need to think several months ahead, and a month-by-month preplanning guide sets out a timeline that keeps leaders on task and projects running smoothly. Green inherited a guide that detailed what she needed to do each month for upcoming activities. For example, in July the guide reminded her to meet with the Lakeshore principal and recruit volunteers to help with the newsletter before back to school.
“That was the most helpful thing for me,” she says. “It’s better to go into a volunteer position knowing what’s expected rather than constantly being behind.”
Traditional officer and committee chair binders are as popular as ever with leaders. As president of the Smoky Row Elementary PTO in Carmel, Ind., Robin Walsh carried a three-ring, three-inch PTO binder with her everywhere. “I had to have all that information all the time in front of me,” she says. The binder is passed from president to president with plenty of notes about contacts, successes, changes to events, and more.
Many leaders swear by their trusty binders but also keep a backup copy of everything on a shared drive. Some want the information at hand in case they don’t have Internet access. Other leaders love an old-school resource.
“We have Google Drive but I still carry my binder EVERYWHERE!” says Alex Kay, president of the Edwin Markham Elementary PTO in Vacaville, Calif.
At Madison (Miss.) Station Elementary, outgoing PTO board members traditionally hand off binders to their successors each May, and everyone goes through the notebooks together. “The new person is able to sit down with the person who’s finishing up,” says Renee Scales, former president. “Each person has the chance to ask ‘What does this mean? How did you handle this?’”
Procedures Book: Your PTO’s Instruction Manual has a detailed list of what to include in a binder.
Digital Storage and File-Sharing
Many leaders have embraced digital solutions for creating and sharing files. Digital files give the entire board access to any information, anywhere (as long as there’s Internet), without worrying about the information being destroyed, lost, or inaccessible.
The Baldy Mesa (Calif.) Elementary PTA created digital copies of its paper-filled binders on Google Drive a short time before COVID-19 caused schools to close.
“The digital drive has been a lifesaver now that we’re distance learning,” says Maggie Scarpellino, the past president of the group. “We didn’t have to worry about swapping notebooks or accessing anything that is in our PTA room. We’ve been able to continue all our work through our digital binders.”
As the popularity of digital storage solutions has exploded, the number of options leaders can choose from has grown. Most cloud-based storage and shared document services like Google Drive and Dropbox offer some level of free storage and some platforms work better on different brands of phones, so leaders suggest doing research before committing to one service.
Cloudwards.net has up-to-date information about free storage providers, their storage limits, and features.
Among leaders we spoke to, Google Drive is an extremely popular choice. Google’s suite of products integrates word processing, calendar, spreadsheet, and other tools to keep users organized.
Danielle Woloszyk, PTO president at Clinton (Mich.) Elementary, creates digital folders in Google for each school year and files notes and scanned receipts under each event. She also uses Google Sheets to make links for grant applications, reimbursements, field trip admissions, and busing information for teachers.
“All the board has access so everyone can find anything they’re looking for,” says Woloszyk. “I was nervous about the switch to digital, but now we’ve gone completely paperless. Our accountant said that’s a great way to store everything for transparency.”
“We have a Google Drive where we keep everything—and I mean everything,” says Cricket Campos, member of the Duello Elementary School Parent Group in Lake Saint Louis, Mo. “From copies of our [501(c)(3)] docs to the copier pin, to our different login info, to our financial docs, to event planning docs, to step-by-step guides on how to create a SignUpGenius. It was a labor of love for our board to create but has been worth every second that was spent on it.”
No matter how good the tool is, it can’t do the organization for you. Group members, regardless of whether they’re using binders or digital platforms, will need to commit to record-keeping. “We’re always updating [Google Drive] with notes from our events and meetings,” says Campos. “It’s a team effort. Everyone on the board and every person who chairs a committee for one of our events helps keep Google Drive updated.”
For more information about paperless options, see how the Hunt Meadows Elementary PTO in Easley, S.C., embraced Google Drive as their tool of choice in Getting (and Staying) Organized.
Rebecca Ramirez, the Ronald Reagan Elementary PTO president in Palm Desert, Calif., recommends creating a PTO email rather than each officer using their personal accounts. “Otherwise, all contacts and linked accounts to the personal email will leave with the volunteer,” says Ramirez. “Our PTO board has one email we all log into. It keeps everyone on the same page. If you want more than one email, make sure the recovery email is the main PTO email.”
Jessica Smith, secretary for the Bridesburg Elementary HSA in Philadelphia, Pa., recommends creating officer-specific emails. “We have a main one, schoolnamehsa@gmail, and then each of us has our role as well... so presidentschoolname@gmail for example. That way the addresses can be passed down to the next people. We all have the password to the main one.”
Staying on top of emails is important, too. For Julee Grass, an uncluttered inbox is vital. “I respond, delete, or file it to look at it later,” says the PTO president of the Vassalboro (Maine) Community School. For PTO matters, she creates folders and files everything immediately. Then, at least a week and a half before the meeting, she opens the folder and works through those messages.
There are lots of tools groups use to organize their parent communications. Check out the comprehensive list of messaging services and options to consider when deciding which one to use in Text Messaging Apps for PTOs and PTAs. Most apps offer a variety of calendars, communications tools, and directories to help organize parent emails.
Online volunteer sign-up tools like Google Forms and SignUpGenius allow parents to choose a task that interests them or sign up for a shift that fits their schedule. Groups can get parent email addresses from teachers or ask for parents to “opt in” to PTO communications.
“Our district will not give us students’ emails so we have to ask people to sign up. Most of the parents do,” says Lexi Cousino, president of the Edmonson Elementary PTO in Madison Heights, Mich. Her group uses PTboard to send information and flyers out to parents. “We do an online and paper membership. We give people the link for PTboard and they sign up there. If they choose paper, I manually input their information.”
Passing along the history of the parent group gives a new board a solid starting point, but how much information is too much? Organized leaders say make time to purge outdated information. Your future self will thank you.
Some items are kept permanently, some are kept for seven years, and others for three years. Check out Rules for Keeping PTO and PTA Records for guidelines for keeping bank statements, meeting minutes, and more. And then download the PTO Record-Retention Rules checklist as a handy reference for how long to keep documents
While much of the records upkeep is commonly done at the end of the school year, leaders can use the Year-End Financial Checklist any time of year to help organize the treasurer’s files and complete bookkeeping tasks.
The Lowry Elementary PTO in Denver, Colo., also uses Finance Manager, web-based software from PTO Today that helps treasurers and other members who don't have accounting experience balance their budgets and reconcile their statements. Leaders can try the software free for 30 days, and any data they’ve entered remains if they decide to buy.
More Organization Tips—Small Changes That Have Big Impacts
Manage your to do list with a simple form.
Washington Elementary Parent Teacher Club president Marne Simpson created a form with columns for tasks, responsible parties, and due dates, as well as a place to check off when each item is done. The Lodi, Calif., mom saves old forms to help plan future events.
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Use traditional mail and communications options—they still work.
Anna Marie Jamison, past president of the DuJardin Elementary parent group in Bloomingdale, Ill., had a PTO drawer, much like a mailbox, where teachers left requests or parents turned in receipts. Committee chairs and officers all had access and could take messages or items relevant to their role.
Schedule non-PTO time.
Sometimes the best way to organize PTO responsibilities and save your sanity is to block out time away from the demands of the volunteer job. Ann Reynolds, former PTO president at Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Mass., took a break each Friday morning. “I would not check email or take any phone calls related to the PTO unless something big was going on,” she says. “I had to schedule time away from it.”