The Parent Group Budgeting Process When Times Aren’t Normal

Parent Group Budgeting Process When Times Are Not Normal

How to make a budget even when you have a lot of questions about what happens next.

by Elizabeth S. Leaver and Lani Harac


Among the challenges facing parent groups that want to resume their usual business: How to budget for a new school year with so many unknowns. It might not be a typical year, but even in this situation you can break it down and create a preliminary plan to work from as you learn more about what the year will look like.

Step 1: Assess where your budget stands right now.

Start with the close of this past year, which for most groups would have been at some point in spring.

Figure out how much money is in your bank account right now—and balance the books if you haven’t done so already.

  • If you had your big fundraiser in fall, winter, or early spring, you might be entering the next school year with a surplus.

  • If your big fundraiser was planned for later in spring, you might have a budget deficit based on how much you spent up to that point.

  • Are there outstanding invoices to pay, or income you’re still expecting from an outside source?

Check out Finance Manager—accounting software built just for PTO leaders

Step 2: Evaluate your income sources.

Next, consider where your income usually comes from, and divide into groups:

  • Still a possible income source this year (e.g., passive fundraiser, online auction)

  • Not sure yet (e.g., in-person fundraiser that might go virtual)

  • Probably not an income source this year (e.g., weekly popcorn sales, carnival)

For many groups, major events like carnivals won’t be allowed because of distancing guidelines or community considerations. Or maybe your direct donation drive isn’t doable because of the financial hit your school’s families have taken. So now it’s time to brainstorm other potential sources of income.

  • Passive fundraisers like AmazonSmile

  • Catalog sale

  • Virtual pledge fundraiser (readathon, walkathon)

  • School supply fundraiser

  • Penny war or other coin drive

(Get together with a few board members and creative thinkers to add to this list.)

Once you’ve figured out your sources of potential income, make an educated guess at what you might net from each one, based on past experience or conversations with other parent groups.

Step 3: Evaluate your expenses.

Now look at your normal yearly expenses. Even if you don’t have all the information you need in terms of what to expect, break down your expenses into categories like these:

“No matter what” expenses: Programs or supplies you expect to pay for regardless of what happens.

  • Classroom supplies (hand sanitizer, student supplies, etc.)

  • Teacher stipends

  • Operating expenses (annual incorporation fee, insurance renewal, etc.)

"Nice to have” expenses: Programs or supplies that are high on the list if the budget works.

  • T-shirts for incoming kindergartners

  • Staff and volunteer recognition gifts

  • Educational materials related to COVID-19

Unlikely expenses: Programs or supplies that probably won’t occur because of circumstances like widespread school closures.

  • Field trips

  • Enrichment assemblies

  • Snacks you'd normally provide during state testing

Try to sort every line item from your normal budget into one of these categories. The kinds of expenses in each category will be different for every group.

Step 4: Review and adjust often.

Going through steps 1, 2, and 3 should give you a solid idea of the resources you have to work with and what your bare-bones goals are for the coming year.

From here, you should continuously reassess (at least monthly) whether your projections still make sense.

As districts share more decisions and you learn more about what the year will look like, you can move income and expense lines from the “not sure” categories to the “yes” or “no” categories.

If you have a budget surplus: You can donate to the principal’s discretionary fund to help support struggling families or fulfill more of your “nice to have” expenses.

If you have a budget shortfall: You’ll have to reduce your expenses if you don’t expect your income to increase. But there’s still a lot of good your parent group can do with less, even from afar.

  • Boost school spirit: When schools closed abruptly in spring 2020, parent groups quickly rose to the occasion and found ways to bring smiles and community connection.

  • Organize collections: Getting food and other goods to families in need was another quick action taken by groups across the country.

  • Thank teachers and staff: The abrupt changes and uncertainty have hit teachers hard, too. School closures haven’t kept PTOs and PTAs from letting teachers know they care.

  • Offer emotional support to kids and families: Parent groups can play a significant role in helping families and children work through the anxieties and uncertainty of this time.

Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly.

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