Do More With Fewer Resources

Parent group leaders share tips for making do when money is tight and volunteers are scarce.

by Emily Graham


In an ideal world, parent groups would have waiting lists for school volunteers and throngs of businesses begging to sponsor their events. In the real world, staffing and running events takes a lot more creativity and resourcefulness. The good news is that whatever the size of your budget or group, there are simple ways to do more with less.

Plan To Save

Last year, the Parent Teacher Fellowship at the Tri-Cities Christian School in Bristol, Tenn., faced a tough challenge. Leaders wanted to treat families to a free event, but the group had a small budget and didn’t want to lump all the grades, from kindergarten through 6th, into the same event. The PTF’s solution was to hold separate hourlong family nights for different age groups, spending only $50 on each one.

“We decided to have the nights centered around a holiday or to reinforce a special event at school. [That] made it simple to find bargains,” says Leanne Miller, who served as PTF president last year. Miller shopped at dollar stores and bought generic items instead of name-brand products. Teachers and a local church provided craft materials.

The 6th graders enjoyed an aerospace-themed flight night after taking a class trip to Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. The PTF served moon rocks (popcorn) and other snacks, and parents helped their children launch toy rockets brought back from the trip. Lower grades had events for Valentine’s Day and Easter. Some families brought shoeboxes and egg cartons from home to use in the craft activities. The groups played games that required little to no equipment, like a relay race with hard-boiled eggs.

The simple events were a hit with parents and kids alike. “Just to see the families work together was priceless,” Miller says.

Because parents came with their children and teachers participated, only four to six adult volunteers were needed at the events. Miller recruited parents of children in other grades to help and gave each volunteer a schedule of activities and instructions upon arrival.

Shop Smart

When Springfield Middle School opened in Fort Mill, S.C., last fall, school employees gave a long wish list to the PTA. Parents wanted to help out, but they didn’t want to spend all the PTA’s money on supplies at the expense of student programs. The PTA also wanted to stick to its plan of having one large fundraiser for the year.

Savvy shopping helped the group provide equipment as well as support an arts enrichment program without going broke. Officers borrowed a die-cut machine from another school and bought a used poster printer on eBay. The group also called officials at an area school that was closing to see whether they could buy used equipment.

“Our philosophy was, there was no reason we needed to have new things,” recalls president Brynne Fisher. “It made it possible for us to not have to be a fundraising machine.”

The group held a series of informational programs for parents, bringing in local experts that agreed to speak for free about financial readiness for college and Internet safety. “There are lots of people who have expertise in things...who are willing to do something for free if asked,” Fisher says.

The money the group saved allowed it to pay for a four-day schoolwide cultural arts program in which students wrote and per?formed music, created artwork, and made a documentary.

Ask for Help

Older students can also be a big help. At the Fairview School, a K-8 charter school in Milwaukee, dozens of 6th through 8th graders volunteer at the annual back-to-school festival. Last year, 46 students volunteered, mostly running carnival games for younger students, according to PTA copresident Linda Beczkiewicz. The students earned credit toward the school’s community service requirement, got free food tickets, and received a lot of public recognition for their efforts.

“They can hang out with their friends, but they also get to do something and earn points for it,” Beczkiewicz says. “They seem to like it, because people are raring up to sign up for it.” And because of the older students’ help, more parents could enjoy the festival with their younger children.

Still other parent groups look within their communities for volunteer support, asking civic groups, college students, churches, or businesses to help run events. Kramer Elementary in Oxford, Ohio, benefits from a partnership with the local Kiwanis Club and nearby Miami University. So many Kiwanis Club members and college students volunteered at the PTG’s fall carnival that very few parent volunteers were needed in the end.

“We like to use the Miami sports teams to help with the carnival because it lets the kids meet the ‘famous’ Miami players,” says PTG president Jennifer Marston. “[They] enjoy signing autographs and running games, too.”

Campus service organizations frequently volunteer at Kramer Elementary for community service credit. Miami University students also help with academic enrichment programs. When the PTG sponsored a program on architecture last year, it called upon students at the architecture school to help.

The school already had a relationship with the local Kiwanis Club, which operates a K-Kids club at the school. In addition, the PTG asks parents what companies or organizations they can help the school connect with. Even though Oxford is a small town, Marston says, there are many community resources available that the school can tap into.

Money-Saving Tips

Borrow. Ask parents, area schools, and local businesses to lend equipment for a set time period.

Buy used. Look through classified ads and search on eBay, craigslist, or similar websites. If a school in your area is moving, closing, or consolidating, find out whether it will sell or give away any of its equipment.

Shop the sales. Compare prices in news circulars or on a price-comparison website.

Plan wisely. Schedule events around holidays to make it easier to find discounted supplies, or pick a theme that allows you to reuse what you already have.

Volunteer Tips

Have smaller events. If you don’t have enough volunteers for a big event, consider having separate events for different age groups. Ask parents to staff each other’s events.

Communicate well. Give your volunteers clear instructions as well as a starting and stopping time.

Get help from students. Ask older students to help with activities for younger students.

Get outside help. Ask high school or college students to help with your event. Develop relationships with civic groups, churches, or local businesses, which can also be a good source of volunteers.

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