More on our Economy Blues fundraising survey:

Complete Survey Results | PTO Leaders’ Comments
Recession-busting Tips | Hit Hard: How One Group Is Coping

Profits for the PTO’s annual gift-wrapping fundraiser at Pine Grove Elementary in Rowley, Mass., are down about 50 percent from last year. “Our rep is saying, ‘It’s not just you; it’s everybody,’” says PTO president Hilary Odoy. “We’re being told that across the board, every school is seeing these kinds of numbers.”

There is ample evidence of this trend. The Tonawanda Elementary PTO in Elm Grove, Wis., also saw sales of its main fundraiser cut in half. And at Roxboro Road Elementary in Syracuse, N.Y., the annual fundraiser netted only $5,000, down from $8,000 last year.

The turmoil in the American economy is affecting parent groups in multiple ways. Not only are profits harder to sustain; money usually spent for extras is increasingly going toward school operating costs, as well. And with families struggling to make ends meet, some schools are seeing their volunteer base eroding. In tough times, how can a PTO continue to fulfill its mission?

Redirecting Funds

One possible approach is to redefine the PTO’s role. In the past, the Pine Grove PTO funded enrichment activities such as puppeteers. Now the group is paying for music room carts, library books, and supplies for art and science classrooms. “We’re funding more consumable items that would typically be in the school’s budget,” Odoy says. “It’s a shift in thinking. We’re not saying ‘This isn’t what we do.’ We don’t question whether it should be a district cost. We know the money’s not there.”

Although many parent groups have resisted taking on these types of financial responsibilities, Pine Grove is not alone. At Public School 163 in New York City, the PTA is paying for facilities costs such as painting and gardening. At Alice B. Landrum Middle School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the PTO has been contributing to the salary of a school nurse and now has added stipends to encourage teachers to sponsor clubs.

While some requests for funds originate with the schools, in other cases it’s parents who take the initiative to keep valued programs from disappearing. For example, when all funding for student activities and athletics was cut at Lisbon Central School in Connecticut, parents rallied to salvage winter and spring sports and regular after-school clubs. They organized a spaghetti dinner and a golf tournament. One parent sold Christmas wreaths; another set up a “cutathon” with five hairstylists donating their time. And the PTO pledged the proceeds of its fall fundraiser to the cause.

The group is about one-fourth of the way to its $40,000 goal. But there are concerns that the PTO might turn into a fundraising machine for athletics and activities, so a decision has been made to create a booster organization as a PTO subcommittee.

Parents also banded together on Bainbridge Island, Wash., when the district cut $30,000 from an outdoor education program. The solution was for 4th graders at the district’s three elementary schools to seek sponsors for their environmental cleanup efforts, according to Erin Jennings, PTO president at Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary. The money raised will offset the cost of a three-day, two-night nature outing. The three PTOs have also increased the number of scholarships provided to assist the neediest kids.

Rethinking Fundraising

With fundraising proceeds plummeting, some schools are altering their tactics. At Barnett Shoals Elementary in Athens, Ga., the PTO plans to sell a coupon book for which the total savings at local businesses exceed its $12 price tag. The school also has placed a new emphasis on community-oriented fundraisers; this year the PTO sponsored a fun run in place of its traditional fall product fundraiser. Students sought sponsors for each one-eighth of a mile they ran, and community businesses donated fitness-related prizes, such as a Nintendo Wii game or a gift certificate to a sporting goods store.

The result: Sales more than tripled, from $4,000 for the product fundraiser to $13,000 in pledges for the fun run. One reason is that the proceeds are earmarked to construct a community track. “It’s pretty amazing,” says PTO copresident Kelly Sanders. “It’s the power of asking and showing people we want to bond together in these tough times in the community.”

Sometimes additional efforts are needed. The parent-teacher group at Roxboro Road Elementary in Syracuse is adding a fundraiser to help offset the cost of yearbooks, which used to be distributed free to students. The Landrum Middle School PTO added a fun run to celebrate the opening of its new fitness trail facility, which the PTO helped pay for. Pledges were collected for laps run by students, and other activities—such as a dunk tank and a fitness boot camp—cost $1 each. Because the event was structured as a supervised after-school activity, parents could pick up their children when it ended, increasing participation.

Getting Creative

Necessity is the mother of invention, and PTO leaders everywhere have been brainstorming to identify new sources of funds. Some schools are pushing parents harder to take advantage of businesses’ willingness to donate through loyalty programs like those from Kroger and Target. Others are scouting new opportunities, such as Belk’s semiannual “charity day”; groups keep the proceeds from the sale of $5 tickets, which allow entrance to a special bargain shopping day at the department store. More parent groups are seeking grants, too. Lowe’s, for example, gives awards of up to $5,000 to more than 1,000 public schools each year through its Toolbox for Education program.

The PTA at Public School 163 has found a great resource in local politicians, including city council representatives, borough presidents, and assemblymen. The group received a $75,000 grant to buy a new gym floor, acoustic tiling for the cafeteria, and a cooling system for the school’s computer hub; they also won smaller grants to pay for dual-language textbooks, the school’s chess program, and a dance with a Mexican theme. “They have money budgeted specifically for schools,” says PTA copresident Julia Heath. Parents at the school took grantwriting courses and have their efforts reviewed by attorneys. Heath suggests that PTO leaders contact their city government to find out what grants are available and that they determine the cost of a project before making a request.

Sometimes money comes from unexpected sources. Pine Grove PTO president Odoy teamed up with the gym teacher to enter an equipment room makeover competition. Together, they filmed a humorous video of the top 10 reasons their PE supply room needed to be remodeled, complete with balls falling on students’ heads and spiders creeping out. While they didn’t nab the $25,000 grand prize, they did win a $1,000 runner-up award.

Reaching Out to Volunteers

With many families struggling to get by, parents may be taking on extra jobs or returning to the work force. The result can be a drop in volunteerism. That’s the case at Landrum, where PTO membership has fallen from 60 percent of the school population to 42 percent, a drop that president Elizabeth Scolapio attributes to the economy and the burden of membership fees when families have children at multiple schools.

Parents are also hesitant to take on additional responsibilities when they feel overwhelmed and anxious, so PTOs need to be sensitive to individual situations. “We’re cautious about asking people to volunteer,” Odoy says. “We don’t know what’s on their plate. A few people I know have lost their homes due to the economy. There are a lot of people struggling and so many foreclosures in our town. We don’t want to make the assumption that people will do something this year who did it last year.”

Still, PTOs need volunteers. One solution is to make parent group involvement more flexible. For example, at Barnett Shoals’ fun run, parents could volunteer whenever they were able, whether it was during an hourlong lunch break or between commitments in the afternoon. The PTO also holds alternate meetings at a community center, helping busy parents save both time and gas.

Tough times have actually led to increased parent involvement at Roxboro Road, where the number of volunteers has grown. “Parents have said, ‘I couldn’t participate in the fundraiser but I wanted to offer some sort of support to the school, so I want to volunteer,’” says Alexandria Smith, PTG president. “These are parents who typically would not have volunteered previously because of time commitments.”

Talking openly about economic challenges may also help draw people closer, especially if you look at solutions. “Maybe having a crisis pulls everybody in,” says Pam Zelasky, president of the Lisbon Central School PTO. “It focuses everybody on the needs of our kids. People are willing to sacrifice a little bit of time, money, gas. If everybody sacrifices a little bit, nobody has to do a lot.”

More on our Economy Blues fundraising survey:

Complete Survey Results | PTO Leaders’ Comments
Recession-busting Tips | Hit Hard: How One Group Is Coping