When you look back on your PTO years, will you think of the playground you helped build and the field trips you sponsored? Or will your memories be a montage of order forms and personal checks, $10s and $20s, and coffee cans rattling with loose change?

Will you feel richer for the experience? Or emotionally spent?

It's the rare parent who hasn't been touched by fundraising fatigue, the sense of being a human ATM. Most of us are convinced that by the time our oldest child graduates, we will have bought enough gift-wrap to wallpaper a small village. We fear that for the remainder of our lives, we'll develop a nervous rash at the sight of a catalog poking out of a child's backpack.

But that's nothing compared to what it sometimes can be like to work these events. For weeks at a time, your normal routine is displaced by product numbers, cash envelopes, telephone rosters. You bump your own mother off speed dial to make room for your distributor, and you learn to pack and unpack a box in 30 seconds or the trunk of a car in 60. If you don't have enough help, or if your efforts yield low profits, you—and everyone who volunteers with you—are going to burn out.

The danger of burnout rises significantly for volunteers and potential customers when they're hit with too many fundraisers. Sometimes a parent group will try to make up for low sales by organizing another fundraiser immediately after the first. Or they'll hold a series of little fundraisers, hoping the profits will add up. Parents feel bombarded, and volunteers fizzle out.

Mike Purvis has witnessed severe fundraising fatigue in his 24 years in the business, and the number of cases seems to be rising. Unlike a couple of decades ago when a community's big fundraiser was the school band's annual candy bar sale, these days it seems everybody is trying to scare up a buck. "Now you've got kids in dance, youth football, basketball, baseball, cheerleading, day care, and everybody's asking for money," says Purvis, regional sales manager for American Trends outside of Atlanta. "It has so proliferated now that it has created burnout."

Chances are it will only get worse, given the faltering economy and shrinking school budgets. However, if parent groups think strategically about fundraising, they can design a yearlong program that yields results by keeping enthusiasm high.

Set Goals and Deadlines

Before you begin thinking about how to raise money, figure out why you need it. Decide what your group would like to accomplish over the year and how much it will cost to meet those goals. Once you've set a budget, you can research the most effective ways to fund it.

As a new school, Liberty Elementary in Carpentersville, Ill., had a lengthy wish list. The PTO asked the school principal to prioritize his needs and came up with a dollar figure that would meet those needs. "I don't believe in fundraising for the sole purpose of fundraising. There has to be a goal," says Cathie Bach, who served as president of Liberty Elementary's PTO before moving to Houston in December. With its goal in mind, the PTO held a product sales fundraiser that was so successful that the group debated whether to cancel its spring cookie dough sale.

In addition to determining a specific goal, your group also should set an end date for fundraisers and stick to it. If a program drags on too long, people will lose interest.

Spread the Word

Setting goals and following strict deadlines will keep people motivated, according to Vickie Mabry, associate director of the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers (AFRDS). It's equally important to communicate those goals to the community, she says.

"Before you institute a fundraising program, you want the full support of the community. Make sure you have a goal you know people are going to buy into. Let them know there's a real tangible benefit for them or their children. And communicate it to them at every chance. Even when you remind them to turn in their money, tell them where it's going," Mabry says.

The more information you disseminate about a fundraiser, the better parents will feel about participating. If you're selling a product, let parents know what the PTO's take will be. Bach was astounded when she learned her school would receive 50 percent of total sales from its fall fundraiser. She made sure that fact was highlighted in the PTO's promotional material.

When possible, link a fundraiser to a specific item or event so people will know what their contributions will help pay for. Parents are more likely to write a check when they can visualize how their money will benefit their children. Some schools give donors a menu of items from which to choose. At Lake Country School in Hartland, Wisc., parents and others can send in money for backpacks, magnifying glasses, and other items that will equip the school's new outdoor classroom. The PTO will accept donations of equipment, as well.

The K-8 school's PTO updates parents on purchases through its newsletter and includes a pie chart showing the breakdown of the PTO budget. "When people hear where their money is going, they feel better," says Lake Country PTO President Sally Pla. "They don't feel like their money is going into a black hole."

Coordinate With Other Groups

Nothing will doom a PTO fundraiser like a student council fundraiser. Or a Scouting fundraiser. Or a...you get the point. People feel overwhelmed when they're barraged by requests for money all at once. They'll either choose one, give less money to each, or boycott fundraisers entirely.

Before setting your fundraising schedule, head off potential conflicts by learning what other schools and nonprofits are planning for the year. Purvis remembers running one schoolwide fundraiser that kicked off at the same time the band and the chorus each launched their own.

"One mom showed me four different fundraising brochures her daughter received in the same week," Purvis says. Three of the fundraisers were for school groups, and the fourth was for an after-school activity held at the school.

Holiday shop how-to! Choosing a vendor, getting organized, and lots of promotional tools

Sally Pla of Lake Country School says her PTO plans to develop a master calendar that will list the activities of area schools and school groups. You can create a master calendar by inventorying the schools and community groups in your area and asking questions. Vickie Mabry points out that school secretaries are likely to know what's happening in their building. Read the calendar section of the local newspaper, and quiz your membership about their children's extracurricular activities. Chances are that many people involved with the PTO are tapped into other groups, as well.

Parent groups can also improve fundraising potential by learning more about their target audience—the consumers. Elizabeth Metz suggests doing a demographic scan of the community. Figure out the average income for a family at your school, then factor in the number of monetary requests the typical student brings home in a year. The list may include teacher wish lists, dance costume, computer club, and student council sales. With that information, you can come up with a fair contribution to the PTO, and tailor your fundraising plans accordingly.

"Don't let your group get greedy," says Metz, president last year of the Manzanita Elementary School Parent Teacher Volunteer Organization in Kingman, Ariz.

Limit Fundraisers to One or Two per Year

When a PTO runs too many fundraisers, it sets in motion the law of diminishing returns. Parents find it easier to toss a catalog in the recycling bin if they suspect they'll be hit up again in a month or two. Volunteers work just as hard for lower profits.

When Metz joined the PTVO in 1998, the group held eight fundraisers that year. When she took over as president in 2001, the group eliminated all but two and sent a note home informing parents of the change. "I believed then, as I do now, that when fundraisers are done well, you should only need to run one or two a year," Metz says. "When our fall fundraiser totals came in, they were more than our group had raised the whole year before. One fundraiser!"

Do Several Fundraisers, but Mix Them Up

In addition to product sales, many parent groups plan fundraisers with the primary purpose of building community. They consider a cash profit a pleasant byproduct of their efforts.

In Florida, Braden River Elementary School PTO President Julie Anibar appeals to the "unifying factor" among the parents of the school's 1,000 students—their children. The group not only makes it clear how funds will benefit the kids; it also sponsors events that allow parents and kids to spend time together. Fundraisers have included a Fairy Tale Ball, which raised $20,000 last year, and a Wrangler Roundup, featuring carnival games and a country and western DJ.

In-school fundraisers such as coin wars and teacher dress-down days promote school spirit and, when students are involved in tallying the take, can provide real-life lessons in economics. It's important not to overdo these, however, since parents will start to feel the strain on their coin purse.

Most PTOs supplement their fundraising events with ongoing programs, which involve recycling ink cartridges or collecting box tops. Widely regarded as "no-brainers," these fundraisers rapidly can become onerous if the return doesn't justify the labor. If you sense that volunteers are burning out, scrutinize these programs. Do they provide enough income to justify your investment of time? If they don't, consider eliminating them. But first, look for ways to balance your profit-loss equation, either by streamlining your processes, lightening the workload, or boosting profits.

Lake Country PTO sought to increase parent participation in its grocery receipts program by simplifying the process. The group printed envelopes with a description of the program and distributed these to families. Parents simply had to tuck their month's grocery receipts into the envelope, then send them into their child's classroom. While the response was good the first month, many of the parents turned in the envelopes with the receipts, and collections fell off again the next month. Pla says next time around, the PTO will encourage parents to keep the envelope and send in the receipts separately.

Braden River Elementary has found a way to pick up extra cash while helping out local vendors. The PTO regularly invites craftspeople and sales reps to peddle their wares in the school cafeteria in exchange for a percentage of the sales. Often, the people doing the selling are parents of the students. Families appreciate the convenience as well as the low-pressure opportunity to contribute to their child's school.

Lighten the Load

Purvis has noticed in his two and a half decades of fundraising that the pool of available volunteers is shrinking, due in large part to the rise of two-income families. When the same few people are shouldering most of the work, they're going to burn out fast, he says.

John R. Beatty Elementary School in Las Vegas recently wrapped up a cookie dough fundraiser, but PTO President Tina Johnson discovered it was very time-consuming to count the orders, especially in a large school. The group's next product fundraiser will be pasta, which volunteers will have to separate and distribute on their own. After the sale, the PTO plans to assess whether the profits justified the time and energy. "This may not be worth the effort," Johnson says.

Labor-intensive chores like those could strain the generosity of already overtaxed volunteers. Here's where it's helpful to have extra hands to call on. Lake Country PTO has a database of everyone who filled out a volunteer form at the beginning of the year. It regularly taps into the database, but those who aren't called into service during the year receive a phone call from a PTO member anyway, just to acknowledge their willingness to volunteer and to assure them that they will be called in the future.

Braden River Elementary has increased its volunteer force by recruiting people from each grade. There are seven classes at each level, and each grade conducts its own fundraising event. For instance, the second grade is hosting a Disco Fever Night, while grade five has overseen a yearlong candygram sale. Parents who are intimidated by a schoolwide fundraiser may find it easier to get involved on a smaller level. Parents also see a direct benefit to their child because their efforts are narrowly targeted.

While chances are you won't emerge from your child's school years without experiencing at least a touch of fundraising fatigue, if you set goals, communicate them often, coordinate with other groups, and cast widely for volunteers, it's fairly certain you'll enjoy a speedy recovery. And your school will be healthier for it.