Few would argue with the conventional wisdom that it takes a village to raise a child, but in reality, PTO leaders typically turn to the same usual suspects for help. But as they scramble to recruit parent volunteers or solicit donations from local businesses, they may be overlooking a valuable resource: community service groups. Organizations like the Masons, the Lions Club, and local Moose lodges often are willing to pitch in at local schools if only someone asks.

Civic clubs, service groups, and fraternal organizations can provide schools with volunteer labor and financial support. More important, the groups bring valuable connections that can benefit schools in surprising ways. In Columbia, Md., Harper’s Choice Middle School formed a partnership with a newly chartered Rotary Club in neighboring Clarksville. In the first year of the partnership, Rotary Club members contributed $2,500 to the school and secured donations for comfortable chairs for teachers and healthy snacks for sick students.

The Kiwanis Club in Brooksville, Fla., has a special relationship with Brooksville Elementary, where the group chartered its first youth service club for elementary students. Not only have Kiwanis members helped teach students the value of community service; they have volunteered at the school’s fall festival and supported the school with monetary donations, as well.

“Good, civic-minded organizations are there for a reason—because people want to give back to the community,” says Dan Adams, PTA president at Harper’s Choice. “Some have money, some have resources, and some have people power, but in general all of them have goodwill and the ability to help.”

Despite the success of such partnerships, these kinds of relationships between schools and civic groups are relatively rare. Most PTOs continue to rely heavily on parent volunteers, seeking outside help primarily in the form of in-kind donations from local businesses. But a look at some of these partnerships shows that civic groups can do a lot more for schools than run essay contests and award scholarships.

You Gotta Have Friends

The easiest way to build civic group partnerships is to draw upon existing relationships. The partnership between the Rotary Club and Harper’s Choice Middle School developed because of a friendship between Adams and Rotarian Darrell Nevin, whose children attended Harper’s Choice. When Nevin went to work forming the new Rotary chapter, Adams invited the group to hold a meeting in the school cafeteria. Principal Steve Wallis spoke at the meeting about his vision for the school and led the Rotarians on a school tour.

It turns out that the Clarksville Rotary Club, chartered in March, was looking for a project to rally its members around. The school, which has a high immigrant population with students from more than 90 countries, offered many ways for Rotarians to give back to the community.

Wallis quizzed teachers on their needs and the PTA polled parents, creating a wish list to share with the Clarksville Rotary Club. Near the top of the list was a request from teachers and staff members for new desk chairs to replace old chairs that were so uncomfortable, teachers didn’t write lesson plans at their own desks. A few phone calls to Rotary members netted a hallway full of donated desks, chairs, and filing cabinets within a few days and boosted teacher morale. Nevin contacted a Rotary member who is a used furniture broker, and that member located a downsizing business willing to donate office furniture. A U-Haul dealer, also a Rotary officer, offered free use of a rental truck.

“Four or five Rotary members, Mr. Wallis, and I took a U-Haul truck to the company, loaded it up in an ice storm in January, brought it back to the school, and gave [the furniture] to the teachers the next day,” Adams recalls.

Rotary members have found other ways to meet the school’s needs. A school staff member went to the PTA to ask for funds to buy snacks for students who come to the health room hungry. A Rotarian who owns a restaurant heard about the request during a Rotary meeting at the school and offered to place an order for the snacks. A week later, several boxes of granola bars and other nutritious snacks arrived at the school.

“These are small but meaningful things,” Adams says. “This health assistant was literally buying things out of her own pocket.”

Do Your Homework

Developing a relationship with a local civic group can benefit the school in numerous ways, but it requires a different approach than soliciting business sponsorships. “It’s not the same thing as walking to the local grocery store and asking for orange juice and doughnuts for the meeting this week,” Adams says. “It takes time to talk to leaders, who then take it to their membership, but the rewards associated with those types of partnerships are of significant value to the school.”

Once the relationships have been established, working with civic groups can bring results faster than working through regular administrative channels.

“Tax dollars and school boards can’t do it all,” Nevin says,?“but there is an unlimited pool of talent and business connections that could serve those needs very directly?and very quickly without the political scrutiny of the board of education budget process that inevitably slows the?good intent?to a crawl.”?

Before soliciting help, find out where an organization’s focus lies and match its interests with the school’s needs. Many civic groups focus their community service on a particular sector, but the majority support children’s and educational programs.

Lions Clubs frequently help with school vision screenings. Many Masonic lodges come to schools to provide free child identification cards with fingerprinting and photos. The Elks run a drug awareness campaign and may offer help with Red Ribbon Week activities, while the U.S. Jaycees have a smoking prevention program for schoolchildren. Soroptimists International, a volunteer service organization for women, focuses its efforts on improving the lives of women and girls. Many organizations also have service programs for children, such as the Kiwanis-sponsored K-Kids Club at Brooksville Elementary.

Before approaching community groups, ask parents, grandparents, and teachers what skills or connections they can offer. The K-Kids Club formed at Brooksville Elementary in great part because of the involvement of staff and staff members’ spouses in the Kiwanis Club.

Building and maintaining a partnership takes time and effort, so both parties need to be committed to the partnership and prepared for leadership changes. “Make sure you have good rapport and the support of the club,” advises Leigh Ann Ledford, a teacher at Brooksville Elementary who became a cosponsor of the K-Kids Club after a key leader moved to another community.

About 50 students in 2nd through 5th grades participate in K-Kids. The students raise money throughout the school year by selling candygrams during the holidays and baked goods at PTA-sponsored school dances. They use the proceeds for a school improvement project. The group paid for an outdoor water fountain and has planted trees and helped with landscaping projects at the school. Students have read to kids in a Head Start program and have visited nursing home residents. K-Kids members also give back by helping with the Kiwanis Club’s Christmas parade, pulling wagons along the parade route to hand out programs before the event starts.

The club meets in a classroom before school, with Ledford and another teacher serving as leaders and Kiwanis members providing refreshments. Once a year, the officers go to the sponsoring Kiwanis Club and run a meeting.

In addition to sponsoring the K-Kids Club, Kiwanis members have flipped hamburgers at the PTA’s fall festival and made donations to the school. When a teacher received a Fulbright scholarship to study in China, the Kiwanis Club helped defray her travel expenses. “They’re a wonderful bunch of men and women that are dedicated to community service, and they’re passing that on to our kids,” says Brooksville Elementary principal Sue Stoops.


Tips for Working With Community Organizations

Take an inventory of the school community. Ask which organizations parents belong to and whether they have contacts at local civic groups. Many great partnerships start by asking a friend or neighbor how their organization can contribute to the school.

Take an inventory of the community at large. Find out what service groups exist in your community and ask the principal whether the school has a history with any of them. If your school or school district has a volunteer coordinator, call on that person for advice and help.

Make sure teachers, administrators, and parents will welcome the help. “If the school creates an environment of participation, people will step forward,” says Dan Adams, PTA president at Harper’s Choice Middle School in Columbia, Md.

Determine your needs. Before you ask for help, figure out what the school needs most. If your PTO needs extra volunteers to run a family fun fair, be specific about the time commitment and the work involved.

Just ask. Contact the organization’s local leader or community outreach officer to talk about what the school needs and what the organization may be able to do. Some service groups are more equipped to offer volunteer reading tutors than to donate money. “You have to have someone who’s not afraid to go out and beg,” says Sue Stoops, principal of Brooksville (Fla.) Elementary. “You can’t just go out and ask for money. You have to give a good rationale and explain what you’re going to do with it.”

Be patient. Realize that it will take longer to get a response from a community group than it will to call a local business owner. Local organizations receive many requests for help, which they must evaluate and take to their general membership for consideration.

Establish key contacts and stay in touch. Appoint a single person to be the school’s liaison to the civic group. Make sure everyone involved knows how to get in touch with key players at the school, the PTO, and the civic group.

Start small. It’s OK to set lofty goals, but it’s best to start small and gradually expand the partnership. In Napa, Calif., a Kiwanis Club spent years raising money and constructing playgrounds at more than 25 schools. That work started when a Kiwanis member volunteering at a school witnessed a playground injury and decided to improve a single playground. (“The Playground King” tells that volunteer’s story.)

Think about how the school can give back. Offer to let the civic group meet at the school, or encourage teachers and students to take part in a community service project sponsored by the civic group.

Say thanks. Write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper thanking the club for its help, or draft a press release to community media outlets detailing the partnership. Any resulting publicity will benefit everyone involved.