July 2012 saw a flood of stories about a “Million-Dollar PTA” in Manhattan and follow-ups exploring the trend of PTOs and PTAs raising big bucks to hire teachers or keep school programs or even whole schools afloat. It was an attention-getting story that was picked up all over the country and discussed at length by daily papers, family websites, and mom blogs galore.

I hated the whole thing.

I think it harmed the vast majority of PTOs and PTAs working under very different circumstances, and I think it led to really great volunteers and parent groups (with ramen noodle rather than caviar budgets) wrongly questioning their effectiveness.

The size of your group’s budget has very little to do with the effectiveness of your group. And this annual Parent Group of the Year issue proves the point. We have profiles of 10 terrific groups and received applications from hundreds more. More than a third of our applicants had budgets less than $10,000, seven had budgets less than $3,000, and one works with less than $1,000 per year.

Our latest comprehensive survey of PTOs and PTAs adds further proof that the Million-Dollar PTA is far from the norm. Sixty percent of the groups we surveyed had budgets less than $15,000. And 78 percent had budgets below $25,000.

Yet all these groups have great successes to be proud of. Yes, groups with large budgets can provide more material assets to their schools. Unless you are grantwriting or prizewinning gurus, you probably aren’t providing new interactive whiteboards to every class in your building without some serious dollars. Groups with higher budgets can and do typically provide more learning supplies or field trips or playground pieces to their buildings.

But if the goal of your group is to make your school a great place for kids to learn and a place where families are truly connected, then you can do amazing things with very few dollars.

Whether it’s a great Family Reading Night or an international night or a food drive that immerses your whole school in giving or an all-volunteer effort that ensures your teachers know that your whole school is behind them—dollars are not the key ingredient.

Teacher appreciation can include supply stipends and gifts for teachers, but it can also center on a potluck lunch, heartfelt notes of thanks, and a surprise flash mob singalong in the cafeteria. Likewise, your family picnic can include rented bounce houses and the best local DJ, but it can also feature sack races and an iPod connected to some speakers from home.

One of the most successful events at my children’s school is a “new families” picnic that takes place the week before school begins. All families new to the school are invited, and several old-pro families play host and answer questions. Reserving the pavilion at the public park—free. Kids running around and meeting new friends on the playground—free. Three tubs of ice cream, some plastic bowls and spoons, and some sprinkles—50 bucks.

The impact on involvement and community at our school? You guessed it—priceless!

I can fill you in on one other little secret. If you are dying for more dollars, the best thing you can do is to stop thinking about dollars at all. Those schools that have the most success raising funds typically have the great spirit of involvement that comes from so many of the low-cost activities that our Parent Group of the Year honorees describe in this issue.

If I could wave a wand and give every PTO and PTA a million dollars, I’d do it. But if you gave me a choice between every PTO doubling its budget versus doubling its passion, enthusiasm, and sense of community, I’d take the latter without thinking twice.

I’m consistently amazed at the good that a few passionate volunteers can do for a school. The myth is that this good comes from the dollars the volunteers raise. Extra dollars are a nice-to-have. Engaged parents and a supportive community are a must-have if we want our schools to serve our kids as best they can.