That is the question. And the answer is usually NOT.
I know it can sound like a no-brainer: "Hey, we're a school that wants to get the word out to families. There's going to be a carnival/family fair nearby. We should have a booth there."
It's good to think about recruiting new families.
But... here's why doing such events can be a bad idea:
1. It takes a lot of time, both before and during. Your time is valuable. You have to prepare supplies, activities, volunteer schedules beforehand, not to mention devote the man-hours to the actual event, and you have to arrive early and stay late. Plus, if the event turns out to be a bust, you usually have to remain until the very end, as painful as it is.
2. It's often not the right audience. You no doubt know who your audience is. It's not just "families with school-aged kids." It's narrower, isn't it? You have to consider geography. So perhaps you want "families with children ages 10 and younger and who live within a 5-mile radius." The event may be nearby but perhaps it attracts families from across the city. Or maybe the event is too narrow and won't include anyone in your target audience.
- Example: Our school had a booth at an event just a couple blocks from our school. The annual city event catered to young families so it seemed perfect. Sadly, I didn't take into account (rookie mistake!) that it was hugely popular and thus attracted families from all over the city. Thus, we spent a lot of time talking to people with no intention of attending our school. And the crowds were so big we often couldn't chat with everyone so many would just take our giveaway (a grocery tote from our school district) and move on.
-Example: Our school had a booth at a nearby preschool fair. This was a preschool-run event so seemed like we would reach lots of nearby preschool families--our target audience. But the other preschool families were running other booths (it was more of a fundraising event) and so we hardly interacted with any families. The attendees were there to buy second-hand items and food and almost all were childless. I should have researched the event more but when I heard "nearby" and "preschool," that seemed sufficient.
3. You could be doing other, better things instead. If you have loads of enthusiastic volunteers, and attending such an event would not hinder your ability to do other, more effective marketing tasks, then it makes sense to attend. You might make a great connection or two and it's nice for willing volunteers to feel useful.
4. It can be damaging. The wrong volunteers, wrong message or a booth that gives a less-than-professional impression can hurt, instead of help, your school reputation.
5. It can be expensive. Some events charge a fee for "vendor" booths. Be wary of paying any fee. Also know that giveaways and activity costs can add up fast.
Well, now you know the cons. Like most things, of course, it’s not always black and white. There can be some pros to attending. Hosting an event booth can be a positive experience for your volunteers. In talking up the benefits of your school, they strengthen their commitment to your school and they get to bond with fellow volunteers. You can also create good will between your school and the hosting organization. Of course, you can make some good contacts, too.