Cutting back on how much paper your group uses will mean less time copying—and more money saved.

by Tim Sullivan


I grew up with the smell of mimeograph copies. As the son of a longtime 1st grade teacher, I vividly remember waiting outside the school office, listening to the clack, clack, clack of the big circular drum. We always had to wait for tomorrow’s worksheets to dry before my mom and I could head home.

Then as a teacher myself (15 years ago), I was the king of the copy machine, preparing quizzes and homework sheets and just about anything else I could print—by the hundreds every day.

Now I find that our PTO, like many I work with across the country, is following a similar pattern. If we have a message to send home, here’s the standard procedure: One volunteer prints it at home; another gets it copied at school; and 300 gradeschoolers bring it home using the old faithful “backpack express.” My least favorite version of that pattern is when the message is two sentences long and we still print it on full-size sheets.

There are strong reasons to change these habits, whether you want to save the earth or just some of your budget dollars. (Is your group getting charged for copies yet? If not, it’s coming.) The good news is that it’s easier than ever to make a change without negatively affecting your group.

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Before we go too far, it’s important to note that parent involvement is certainly a cause worthy of paper. “Green” doesn’t have to mean paperless, just as energy conservation doesn’t mean we never use our cars. Your efforts at supporting your staff and growing involvement and creating community are essential elements of a great school, so any talk of “the PTO can do without paper because they’re just the PTO” is unacceptable.

That said, just as teachers now can post homework online and families no longer need a complete set of encyclopedias at home, there are simple, sensible things your PTO can do to reduce its paper use:

Backpack express. How many sets of siblings are at your school? Just a bit of work one time can help you create a list of youngest siblings in each classroom, and all-school flyers can then go one per family. Our group has saved 55 copies per announcement with this method.

Combining communications. We’ve also had good luck with a once-a-week announcement package. Rather than sending home each flyer whenever it’s copied, event chairs at our school are asked to get their messages to the communications committee. The committee then compiles simple messages onto one page. Some flyers remain standalone, but they go home with the same packet. I estimate we’re saving 300-plus sheets of paper a week with this method.

Minutes and reports. It’s OK to summarize these items at your meetings and post the full documents on your school or PTO website. In fact, when you think about how many folks attend your meetings, the website option is actually more accommodating than the print option.

Email. It’s finally time to make this a core strength of your group. Five years ago, email was already a huge part of the business world, but I was one who felt it wasn’t yet time to use it as a fundamental PTO application. The problem for PTOs is that we can’t just write off those parents who don’t have email. So those groups that went electronic five years ago have been managing both email and hard copies, thus increasing their workload and saving little. Plus the fact that tracking email addresses and making email newsletters work was a bit of a headache.

Today, though, the time is right. Survey your parents. At most schools, the vast majority of families have email accounts. Often, each mom and dad has a personal address; email actually makes it easier for office-based parents to stay connected. If there are a handful of families without email, you can make accommodations for them. Three printed copies is far different from 300.

The technology has come a long way, as well. You can now send a quick announcement or your entire PTO newsletter easily without knowing a thing about programming.

Effective communication is about results: Did my audience receive my message well? Today, that answer can be a resounding yes if you use a few basic tips, a bit of web technology, and a whole lot of email. The trees you save are a nice bonus.

Originally posted in 2009 and updated regularly.


# kate t 2009-07-31 02:00
How are you getting the email addresses? Do they come from the school or did you solicit the parents directly?
# Lisa @ PTO Today 2009-08-03 20:09
Hi Kate-
Check out this blog post by Tim, PTO Today's President, that talks about managing email addresses:

Also, it's always helpful to get a range of answers from other leaders on our message boards:
~ Lisa
# Colette Caswell 2010-01-27 19:03
Is there a template for the opt-in form? Something we can send home to see whether or not parents want email or backpack express to be the primary communication tool?
# joana 2011-01-06 22:30
One of the dads started a simple website for our PTA using WordPress. This year our school has gone "paperless" in communication. It has been a challenge, but having that website has been a blessing. Not only do I blog weekly and it is sent 370 reg, addresses, but i can also email to those addresses if there is an update or an emergency. I know not everyone reads my emails or the principals, but the majority do!
I am finding out that it takes time to get everyone use to this "new" way of communicating.

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