Let's face it, in the vibrant world of parent groups, last-minute worries crop up. The speaker for the meeting shows up 20 minutes late. The three late additions to the field trip mean you're a car short. Somebody's handwriting is illegible on the fundraiser order forms, causing you to order too little—or too much.

But you can avoid the full-fledged crises that bring on major migraines, knotted stomachs, and the occasional chocolate binge. It just takes a little planning and organization to keep the stress meter below the red zone all year long. Not only that, but later in the year people will be wondering just how you do it. There are so many things to worry about, yet you seem so calm. What's your secret? Your secret is you've been organized from the start. Here are nine planning and organization tips. Follow them, and everybody will call you a natural-born leader.

1. Get in your zone.

You're busy. You have kids and commitments. Sometimes it seems like you're living life on the fly. To be a successful parent group leader, you need to create a little calm among the craziness. Set aside a corner of your house—a desk, a bookcase, the computer table, even a large box under the counter—to organize all of your PTO resources. Keep all of your books, calendar, notes for upcoming projects, and anything else PTO-related in this space. Make sure your phone list is easy to get to! Keeping your tools centralized is easy, and it will have a big effect on your organization and efficiency in the upcoming year.

2. Acquaint yourself with your resources.

Wouldn't it be great to have a broad support system of information and advice in place? You'd always have access to a wealth of ideas and solutions for the inevitable challenges and surprises that arise. Well, you can do it. The basis of your network can be past board members and officers. If last year's president is a little burned out or too busy, what about the president from the year before? Or the year before that? Get their contact information from other board members or the principal. And don't be afraid to seek advice from long-standing members of the group. Even if they aren't officers, they will have insight into how things work, as well as what worked in the past and what didn't.

Leaders of other parent groups generally are happy to share information, too. Call or email the leaders of two or three local groups at the beginning of the year to introduce yourself. Wish them a good year, and suggest that if there's anything you can do for mutual support, you would be willing. This initial contact could really pay off later when you need advice. You'll also find plenty of people willing to help on the ptotoday.com message boards.

3. Build the lines of communication.

If you have several members or a number of willing volunteers, create a phone tree. You should never have to make 20 or 30 calls yourself. This is a simple job that easily can be shared. Just pick out five people that you will call, and give each of them five people to call. That's 30 people notified of important information, such as a time change for a meeting or event, and you had to make only five calls. Set this up now. That way you make sure everyone gets the message when something important comes up.

Supplement your telephone tree with email. This is a quick, efficient form of communication, so make sure you gather email addresses from everyone in your group who has one. If you don't have online access, assign this task to a trusted group member who does. E-mail programs allow you to send messages to multiple users simply by typing in all of the addresses, separated by commas, you want a message to go to. Better yet, store the addresses as a group in the address-book function of your program. That way you can contact everybody with just the click of a button.

Consider making email templates for your common correspondence. If you send an email each month notifying members of the meeting date and time, create a brief letter that can be used over and over. Just update the pertinent information each time you use it.

4. Jump-start the important stuff.

Set your priorities based on activities that are time-sensitive or need a lot of lead time. For example if you're in charge of programs, speakers may get busy early, so book the main speakers as soon as possible, and then fill in the rest of the details as the events approach. If you are hosting a chicken dinner off school grounds, you may need to rent the hall well in advance. Any event that needs to be coordinated with the school district, such as a fair that requires school district equipment, should be on the district calendar before the weekends book up.

5. Drop them a line.

Do you have a membership questionnaire? If so, you should get it out to as many people as possible. If not, you should create one. A good questionnaire provides information on people's interests and gives you an easy source of contact information.

Distribute the questionnaire at kindergarten orientation and at open house—two opportunities you have to connect with new parents. But don't stop there. Do a mailing to parents—members and non-members alike. This questionnaire should explain the different duties in the PTO and ask parents what they would be willing to help with. Include everything from baking for a sale, typing, and being on the phone tree to chairing or cochairing a committee. Also, you might ask what the parents would like to see the group do and what events they would like to see held.

The key to making these questionnaires work for you is to use them. Don't just put them in a folder. Take the information off of them and create:

  1. A database of phone numbers and email addresses for the phone and email trees.
  2. A list of event ideas and suggestions, just as you would in a brainstorming session.
  3. A list of volunteers, including specifics of what they are willing to do.

To really get on top of your year, pass out a second questionnaire to the teachers to ask what they need from the PTO and what they want from you. That way you can be prepared, and there are no surprises. You can also ask what level of involvement they want to have this year so you'll know which teachers to call on.

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

6. Create your own PTO yellow pages.

Here's a great idea from Huntertown (Ind.) Elementary School's Wildcat PTO. Copresident Joe Hyndman created a yellow pages for committee chairs using the information he received from returned questionnaires. Hyndman divided his booklet into separate listings, such as typing and baking. "The challenge is always getting more parents to volunteer," he explains. "I want to make it easier to be the chairperson or tackle a task." Chairpeople get a copy of the "PTyellOw Pages" to find the volunteers they need.

"There's also a heading for people willing to be on a two- or three-person team to chair a committee. This makes it easier for people to get involved and gets people looking beyond their own circle of friends." Hyndman says using the PTO yellow pages spreads the labor around so no one individual gets called all of the time, and all of the parents who volunteered get to be involved.

7. Make a paper trail.

As president, you need to be organized, but so do your chairpeople if you want the year to run smoothly. Each chair should keep a procedure book. You can prepare a book for them. The procedure book is a three-ring binder containing your PTO's bylaws, minutes from meetings, budgets, a board roster, and treasurer's notes, among other information. For each chair, add any information you have from last year's chair and other information you think would be useful. For your publicity chair, for example, add the names of local education reporters and contacts at the television stations. Include copies of old press releases to give him a head start. For fundraising chairs, include notes from past fundraisers. Also include catalogs and Web addresses from vendors, along with notes about the contacts—who was easy to work with, for instance.

Each chairperson should add information as the year goes on, then pass the binder to the next chair. Each chairperson also should include notes and plans for his specific tasks, including a follow-up for each event or project that gives feedback about what worked and what didn't. With this in hand, events are easier to run from year to year. It's very important to keep track of every committee's expenditures so that you'll know how to set up the budget for the next year.

As an alternative to or an addition to the multiple binders, you can keep a folder for each event and store them in a portable file such as a milk crate. Each event—chicken dinner or plant sale—gets a folder, and the chairperson is responsible for filling the folder during and after the event. The folder should contain the procedures for that event, what the event entails, how far in advance the tasks have to be done, and vendors contacted in the past. Having this information at hand for yourself and for the chairperson will make sure there are no surprises for upcoming events.

8. Lay the foundation for publicity.

Do you think you need publicity? Publicizing your group's activities is a great way to find new members. Furthermore, publicity such as a photo in the local newspaper or a general-interest item on the local television news is a great pat on the back for the person running the event. What a way to get volunteers excited!

Getting publicity for your events will be easy if you take the time to set up contacts now. One way to get a foot in the door with your local media is to call local education reporters and offer to be a source of information about schools. If you help them out or at least introduce yourself, it will be easier when you want your event covered.

As you plan your calendar, keep in mind events that will be picture-worthy. A photo of children sitting behind desks may not strike fire in an editor's heart, but photos of kids planting trees, walking in a walkathon, or visiting with the elderly will be easy sells.

9. Cultivate successors.

It's not always easy to find willing volunteers for key spots on the board. As you well know, the work can be intense. But you don't want just warm bodies filling the slots. You've worked hard, and you want the group to run as well as it has during your term. Three weeks before elections is no time to be scrambling to think of candidates.

Consider as possible candidates people who have been very helpful and organized. Those who have been given strong assignments are good choices. If they've been helped with those assignments and thanked and celebrated for their success, they might even be eager for a leadership position.

Keep in mind that partnerships also can work well. Co-presidents or board members should have complementary skills. Hyndman's copresident at the Huntertown Elementary PTO, Linda Anderson, has a good connection with the parents and teachers. Hyndman enjoys working behind the scenes, with communication and the technical side of events. Talk to the possible candidates about the job as the year goes on. Starting early lets you train successors easily as you accomplish your normal duties.

A Fast Start

Here are two ideas to clip and save for the end of the year. If you follow them in June, you'll get next year off to an even faster start.

Year-at-a-glance. Set next year's dates in conjunction with the principal at the end of this school year. Make sure the principal sets those dates on the school and district calendars. This prevents scheduling problems with the school and also lets parents plan ahead around events. With a big annual calendar, you can also space out events so the individuals and committees involved don't get overwhelmed. And if you have your calendar set up early, you can publish it on a refrigerator magnet to send out to your members.

Meet early. Hold a goal-setting meeting for newly elected officers before they take office. Hosting an event with the current and future boards creates a forum for the outgoing officers to pass on useful tips and hints. The new president should also have new board members meet to get to know each other early in the summer. They can share ideas then ot get the brainstorming going. If you get some events and activities nailed down—and if you have volunteers—you can get people moving early.