Rising prices on essentials such as food, energy and housing mean families are already facing tough decisions around spending priorities. With the Bank of England predicting a prolonged recession by the end of the year, even middle-income families are looking for ways to cut back.
Alarm bells are ringing across the charity sector too as it prepares for a series of financial challenges. In July, research published by charity strategy agency Good and YouGov found that 15% of people planned to reduce their charitable giving in the upcoming few months.
Dr Alison Body, senior lecturer in philanthropic studies at the University of Kent, says: ‘We’re hitting a perfect storm where the bottom line is affected for everyone. It’s already coming through in stories from schools where bills – particularly energy – are going through the roof, putting even more pressure on an already pressurised set of budgets.
‘Primary schools in many places are at the heart of the community, so as things get harder, we will see parents and carers turning to their schools for help. But the rising costs will also affect staff and volunteers, diminishing their ability to give free time and resources. So schools, which are already in this pressurised position, will be asked to do even more, and to find innovative ways to help, especially in deprived areas. And the parent community, who would previously have been providing some of this support, are going to be the ones in need.’
What can PTAs do?
Alison recommends that PTAs develop a strategic plan to look at what the school can do and what funding the PTA can access. ‘All too often, PTAs stick with traditional fundraisers, such as bake sales. I’m not being critical of those because they are important community-building activities, but I know as a mother that I might easily spend as much on the ingredients for a cake as it will raise for the school.
‘As a separate entity from the school, the PTA can often apply for funding from grants and trusts that the school can’t access. Or they might be able to work in partnership with businesses or access corporate money through match funding. I recently came across a group of PTAs who got together to work with a local charity that provides early intervention support services. Together they applied for quite a large fund to provide early intervention support across all their schools. That has massively improved children’s lives within the schools, without having to rely on the parent population to fund it.’
Problems can develop when the PTA and school aren’t aligned. To open up the conversation, bring the PTA committee, headteacher and governors together to discuss priorities. Nikki Bell, co-founder of charity support network Fundraising Everywhere, suggests PTAs ‘call a meeting that isn’t connected to any kind of activity or event planning. Often when PTAs meet, there are loads of things happening with flurries of emails, and it’s a bit overwhelming. At this meeting, think only about the coming year; talk to the school about what they actually need and what the PTA can realistically achieve, identify any gaps and discuss how you might fill them.’
There’s a community aspect to PTAs that goes beyond asking for money, and events are still an important part of the mix. So make an events plan for the year matching people to events and giving them responsibilities. Once you've got that in place, focus on growth.
Use your connections
PTAs should start close to home by concentrating on their networks. ‘Look at circles of influence, which is to say the people closest to you with the best alignment to your cause,’ says Nikki Bell. ‘First, you have the parents of current pupils at the school, but there are also the parents and carers of children who have left. Then there’s the local community, some of whom will be looking to invest in the people around them. Write down who you know within the school and who’s in the community, find out where the overlap is, and then proactively approach those people and ask for help. When you do this mapping exercise, you’ll be surprised to discover who you’re connected to.
‘When approaching local companies, try to avoid cold calling and instead build on past successes, for example, someone who helped during the pandemic. Corporates are often looking for ways to put back into the local community and if you have a clear link with them, such as a lot of employees with children at the school, use that to help persuade them your campaign is a good fit. Companies love a project they can put on their website and social media to show the good they have done in the community. So often we find that the successful partnerships at a local level are the ones that provide an opportunity for them to come to the school and get stuck in.’
PTAs often work in quite a transactional way where requests are fulfilled, but there’s no follow-up. Nikki suggests using a simple database to track interactions so that ‘amazing opportunities don’t fall through the gaps.
‘With limited resources, it can be difficult for a PTA to work to its full potential,’ she says. ‘But even setting up a spreadsheet and then contacting those people with details of your next project can be productive. In that conversation, ask who else they know that might be able to help. If anyone interacts with you in any way, ask them to fill in a form – ideally digitally – and find out some more information about them such as where they work, why they’re supporting you and how they would like to work with you in future.’
Play to your strengths
Reduce your workload by improving processes and automating as much as possible. That way, effort can be prioritised where there’s the greatest chance of return. Nikki advises booking meetings for the same time every month – online if that’s what members prefer, setting up to take digital payments online or with a card reader, and using templates to communicate with parents in an easy-to-read format.
She also recommends giving specific responsibilities to individuals that play to their strengths. For example, if a PTA wants to start applying for grants, there’s a writing style, format and formula for grant applications that will achieve the most success. So the PTA should identify someone with that experience or who wants to learn and make it their responsibility. This person can work closely with the school to identify the potential impact of grants – how they will change things for the school and the pupils. Then they need to complete applications on time, track who they have applied to, find out the outcomes, get feedback and make sure the PTA reports back on the project if and when required.
Upskill your PTA
PTAs also need to plan for change as volunteers will inevitably move on as their children leave the school. Alison Body says: ‘PTAs and schools need to consider how to equip individuals tasked with fundraising and volunteer management with the appropriate time, skills and knowledge, alongside supporting a wider understanding of fundraising. This doesn’t have to take up time or cost a fortune. At the University of Kent, we’ve developed a free online course specifically aimed at small groups and charities to help them understand the practicalities of fundraising. Courses such as these will get your PTA thinking about ways to move your fundraising forward and how to move beyond the school gates to do that.
Last year, Owlsmoor Primary School PTA in Sandhurst, Berkshire (560 pupils) raised over £28,000 for outdoor classrooms, but PTA chair Becky Sutton expects things to get tougher as we move into winter. ‘Everyone at school including the committee will be feeling the pinch,’ she says. ‘After last year’s successes, the committee and parents need a less busy year, and we don’t feel it’s appropriate in the current climate to keep asking for money. We are anticipating people considering second jobs which may impact on time available for volunteering. We need to be cognisant that the school will feel the squeeze and may ask for help funding things they might previously have funded themselves. Planning and managing expectations is key. Once our new headteacher has settled in, we will meet with him to discuss priorities and then decide what the PTA can support.’
PTA chair Becky Sutton shares her fundraising advice for the coming year
Be clever with events: Last year, our two biggest fundraisers were Fireworks Night and the 2022 Challenge. For Fireworks Night, we sold 1,500 tickets, which is the most we’ve ever sold. We went out to the community and advertised in lots of community groups on Facebook. We deliberately kept the ticket prices reasonable. The local fireworks display is free and starts at 7:30pm, which is too late for many primary school children. We held ours on a different day and began at 5:30pm so younger children could get home to bed. A local estate agent sponsored the event and we used their boards to advertise it.
Share your goals: We borrowed the 2022 challenge from a school we met through the PTA Ideas and Advice Network. The idea was to encourage every child to raise £20.22. We did lots of promotion and social media and asked the teachers to talk about it in class. Although it was a lot of work setting everything up, it didn’t actually require much volunteer time. It helped that people knew that we were trying to raise money for outdoor classrooms. There’s definitely been more buy-in from our supporters because people know where the money’s going rather than it disappearing into an invisible pot.
Be considerate: With Christmas looming, the autumn term can be costly. Our PTA always runs a disco and a Christmas card fundraiser. These things add up and that’s going to be hard for families who haven't got much spare cash. We've got plenty of second-hand uniform available and are negotiating with the head for a shop.
We still need good quality donations, but if the cost of living increases as forecasted, we may need to consider offering alternative options for struggling families such as swapping an outgrown uniform for a bigger size or an honesty box.
Compare prices: When I went to buy stock for a disco last year, I followed the invoice from the previous event. But when I looked at the prices, I found they had doubled in just a short time. This year, we’ll get organised by shopping around and making sure we’re getting the best value for money on the things we buy.
Keep asking: One thing I keep trying to push is match funding. People are often reluctant to ask their employers, but we’ve got quite a few parents who work at companies that are well-known for matching funds. You just need to ask – one parent raised over £2,000 last year. So it’s important to identify those parents and encourage them to tap into the money.
Don’t do everything yourself: Encourage an inclusive environment where people can give as much or as little time as they want. We’ve just set up something we call PTA Lite, which is a WhatsApp group. When we need help with something small such as folding raffle tickets, we ask on the group. It works because people don’t feel they have to say yes every time.
Spread the cost: We’re excited to have Happy’s Circus coming in April next year. Before we broke up in July, we released the tickets to give families time to purchase them as and when they can afford to. In September, we hope to confirm the whole calendar of events for the academic year to enable families to plan ahead. The school community will get priority on tickets, but if we don’t sell them, we will advertise in the local community too because our purpose is to cover our costs and raise enough for the school.
Publicise the PTA: When my children first started school, I didn’t really know where the PTA money went. But since our PTA got Canva for free, I’ve been creating lots of newsletters and graphics and our communications are getting better. We still have to work hard to get the word out about what we do. Whenever I get the opportunity I will go to meetings and tell people what we’ve been doing. It’s important that new families understand what we do too. We recently went to the new starters parents’ evening to talk about what we’ve raised this year and showed them pictures of the outdoor classrooms we’ve ordered.
Identify PTA purchases: Once the outdoor classrooms are built, I’m going to get some plaques installed so that every time someone walks by, they realise that the money came from the PTA. We need to be smarter about self-promotion when we pay for things to make sure that parents know their money’s being put to good use. Without this kind of signposting, it can be hard for parents to differentiate between what the school buys and what the PTA funds. Seeing what we’ve achieved will encourage people to continue to support us.
- Becky Sutton, PTA chair, Owlsmoor Primary School PTA, Sandhurst, Berkshire (560 pupils)