Our schools need our families' time and money more than ever -- but we're already overextended. Here are ways to help without the headaches

kid at front door
Credit: Frances Janisch

School is just starting, and I'm already feeling at risk for Fundraising Burnout Syndrome. The e-mails have been coming fast and furiously. How much wrapping paper/cookie dough/candy can I be counted on to sell? Which days will I be volunteering for the book fair? Would I rather make brownies, cake, or cookies for the bake sale? Perhaps I'd be willing to approach local businesses about donating items for the auction?

Now please don't get me wrong. I think it's really important to support my children's school. Plus, these money-making activities are a great way to get to know other parents, foster a sense of community, and set a positive example for our kids. Although I realize that our schools are strapped for cash, the problem is that my family is too. Like many moms, I already feel both overcommitted -- and conflicted. "I have a love/hate relationship with all the fundraising," agrees Missy Bonaguide, a Roseland, New Jersey, mom of three daughters. "I want my girls to go on field trips, have enough computers in their school, and be exposed to the arts," says Bonaguide. "But we have no extended family nearby, so we need to try to limit what we sell. I feel bad asking for money more than once a year."

Bonaguide and I (and plenty of other parents) also resent the fact that when parents don't participate, their kids may be singled out as a consequence. "When I don't buy T-shirts with the school's name on it, my kids won't feel a part of 'Spirit Day' on the last Friday of every month," she says. One T-shirt may be a drop in the bucket, but multiply that by a bunch of other kids in the family, a few bake sales, a couple of rolls of wrapping paper, and some raffle tickets -- and it can really start to add up to some serious time and money.

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Why Things Are So Tight

Yet schools are increasingly dependent on parents buying those T-shirts and selling that wrapping paper, particularly when it comes to funding programs that aren't considered to be part of the "core" curriculum (think art, music, and sports). As school budgets continue to be slashed, states have less money than ever to spend on education. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 34 states and the District of Columbia have made significant cuts to school funding since 2008. Colorado, for example, has slashed $260 million from school budgets in 2011, a reduction amounting to more than $400 per student.

To make matters worse, the same troubled economy that's shrinking school budgets is also sending stay-at-home moms back into the workforce and squeezing the schools' go-to source of free labor even further. Rachel Loventhal is one of the overwhelmed. The nurse-practitioner from Atlanta wants to help, but between running a household and working full-time it's just too much. "I feel like each day it's just a struggle to get us fed, clean, wearing appropriate clothing, and have lunch packed and everyone to work and school on time. There's always something that fails to get checked off the to-do list, and for me, that's fundraising activities," says Loventhal.

It's not only parents who wish there were a better way. Even before the economy went south and school budgets were being slashed, a survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found in 2007 that 64 percent of principals would do away with fundraising entirely if they could. They felt that all the efforts to raise money distracted students, overburdened parents, and interfered with teacher agendas. Still, nearly 90 percent of the principals surveyed believed the benefits justified the time and effort involved. Why? Well, for one thing, it works. "Traditional fundraising sales for products like wrapping paper, cookie dough, and T-shirts account for roughly 80 percent of the dollars that parent groups use to provide 'extras' for their school," explains Tim Sullivan, founder and president of PTO Today, an organization that serves PTO and PTA leaders nationally.

He's probably right, but as I sat at a red light one day behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, It will be a great day when schools have all the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomb! I vowed to explore some other paths.

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Smart Ways to Fundraise

When your schedule is crazy, you might just prefer to donate money rather than time. That's what's behind one choice that's gaining popularity among parents who are too busy to volunteer. The "Opt-Out" is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of participating in fundraising activities, parents can contribute a specific amount of money at the beginning of the year directly to the school. Not only is this a huge time-saver, it also ensures that the school receives 100 percent of your money (no splitting of proceeds with cookie-dough companies, for example). Some schools even offer opt-out incentives, like discount cards for local movie theaters. If your school doesn't officially endorse this, there's no harm in suggesting it to other parents or your principal.

Of course, not all of us have the means to sign a sizable check at the beginning of the year and be done with it (I know I don't). And if that's the case for your family, consider choosing just one fundraiser per year to donate your cash and/or time to -- preferably an event that appeals to you. For some parents, that's the traditional wrapping-paper sale and for others it's the book fair. But once you've identified your project, you'll have a comfortable and legitimate way to get out of all the other requests that come your way without seeming like some kind of slacker. When Violet's mom e-mails you to work on the bake sale, you can simply say, "I'd love to, but I'm going all in for the auction this year -- it's getting my total focus." By giving a positive spin to fully committing yourself to one project, you won't find yourself feeling so conflicted by each additional plea for your time, energy, and money.

You may be able to get more for your donated buck by asking your child's teacher for a list of classroom supplies that she needs. Chances are it will include everything from toys to paper towels to art supplies. Check out ClassWish.org, a nonprofit site where teachers can create a digital wish list and parents (or grandparents) can donate funds or specific items.

If you're organizing a project and need other moms to help out, try using one of the new online tools like VolunteerSpot.com. The site lets you describe the type of volunteering you need and then send a link to parents so they can sign up for times that work for them. Without your inbox filling up with e-mails sharing availability and unavailability in excruciating detail, you'll be free to spend time actually planning the event. And for those of us signing up, we can see when our friends are working and avoid the shift with ScaryBraggingMom.

Yes, there's an app for that too. Created by Tania Mulry, a frustrated-by-fundraising mom, edRover (free for the iPhone) allows you to support your school while running errands. It alerts you when you're within 100 feet of a participating business, and if you "check-in," the donation will automatically be sent from that business to the school of your choice. The future of fundraising really depends on innovative concepts like these -- especially my future in fundraising. This year, I'm going to adopt one of the new approaches, so... okay, you can sign me up to volunteer. But only once a semester, please.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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