Everything changed when my oldest entered middle school. Suddenly, less communication was coming from the new school compared to elementary. Administration, bless them, misguidedly thought that as kids got older, they should take responsibility for communicating with their own parents about important school information. Ha! If you’ve ever met a middle schooler, you know that getting them to talk about anything can be like pulling teeth.
So I went to the first PTO meeting of middle school looking forward to hearing from the principal. I wasn’t the only one with this idea! There were a whole 10 of us parents there! As someone who can’t help but ask questions and offer helpful advice, it didn’t take long before I was asked to lead a project and eventually, hold an office with the PTO.
As my kids entered high school, I continued to stay involved in the booster clubs for their respective activities and I have found it is a great way to meet grown up friends while staying involved in our kids’ lives. I keep telling myself, I only have a little while left with them at home, so I might as well help out where I can.
Through the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about school fundraising that I’m happy to share with you. DISCLAIMER: My experience is from the public school side, specifically with parent-run organizations.
As always, take what works for you and leave the rest.
1) Quit Selling Stuff
Chocolate, wrapping paper, even mattresses! What? Sometimes these “fundraisers” work to raise money for the school but most of the time, they make money for big companies and create headaches for parents. Elementary school students are usually the most motivated to sell stuff (because the afore mentioned big companies like to bribe kids with cheapo prizes), but little kids require the most help from parents.
What to do instead? There have been lots of creative ideas found online lately. My favorite is the letter asking parents to donate in order to get out of volunteering for the school year! (No worries, there are always motivated parents willing to help out.) Our middle school has a hugely successful fundraiser where they ask people to sponsor them to do volunteer hours in the community.
I think people are sick of the “stuff” and would rather just give a donation with a nicely worded ask that explains how the money will be used – a new 3D printer for the library’s Maker Space, or microphones for the cast of the musical.
No more gimmicks. Just ask.
2) Raffle vs. Silent Auction
Silent auctions are the bane of my existence. In most cases, the organization gets a few cool items donated but mostly, it’s a lot of junk that people just don’t want to clutter up their house (see note above about people being sick of “stuff.”) Small businesses get tired of being hit up constantly for donations of products and the exposure they are often promised rarely pans out as profitable. Also, most public school fundraisers won’t allow alcohol (bummer, I know) which helps people loosen up and bid on things they normally wouldn’t.
Instead, consider a raffle of 1 to 5 REALLY nice items. We’re talking spa packages, trips, experiences like tickets to a big show or sporting event with a back stage meet-up with a star, or technology (like a TV or iPad). How do you get the items? Ask! Big box stores often donate tech, a parent might be a season ticket holder or a grandparent might have a timeshare to offer.
Items should be valued at $300 or more each. That way, you can sell the tickets for $10-$25 each (depending on the income make-up of your school’s families). I’ve found time and again that people are more likely to buy a ticket for a CHANCE to win something big rather than bid on something they really don’t want in the first place. You also have more time to sell tickets and drum up excitement for a raffle instead of a silent auction, and can easily sell tickets to co-workers, neighbors and others who are not involved in the school.
Try a raffle once and you’ll wonder why you ever did a silent auction. Promise.
DISCLAIMER: Be sure to check with your local gambling commission and follow any rules and regulations related to nonprofit raffles.
3) Ask for Sponsors
I define sponsorship as a mutually beneficial relationship between two organizations. In this case, one is the school group and the other is usually a business.
Before going this route, make sure you have something to offer. Can you advertise the business on your social media, through an email list, in a printed roster, program or invitation?
If so, consider asking a business to donate cash to your organization to help you accomplish a very specific goal – the more specific, the more likely you’ll get the donation. When you make the ask, be sure to tell them what benefits they can expect in return. The more they donate, the more benefits so consider a menu of donation levels – three levels is a good place to start. Or, one BIG amount that would be an exclusive sponsorship meaning if they donate that amount, no one else can sponsor.
This concept works well for in-kind sponsorships as well, where the business donates a product or service and they are thanked with some publicity. Just lately, I’ve gotten printing donated as well as coffee donated and both businesses will get an ad in the playbill for our school’s next play.
4) Seek Out Grandparents
Seriously. Grandparents of school age children tend to have more disposable income – and connections – than parents. Ask parents if they’d invite their own parents to like your Facebook page or join your email list. Then, be sure to show them regularly (through pictures and stories) what good work you’re doing for their grandkids. Be sure to ask them for specific donations using those channels at least twice per school year. December is a good time (most charitable gifts are donated at the end of the calendar year.)
5) Make it Sustainable
Once you find a fundraising method that works, make it sustainable by writing up clear instructions, sample flyers and emails and store them in a shared drive. I recommend recruiting and training a parent with a younger student before the current chair of the project “retires” when their student moves on to another school.
Bonus Advice: 501(c)3 or not?
As a nonprofit consultant, I often try to talk people out of starting a new nonprofit. There are already plenty and probably one already serving your idea in your area. But when organizations are raising funds (especially significant amounts) without having their 501(c)3 nonprofit tax designation, it can cause some issues. Without this status, gifts are not tax deductible and most organizations without this status aren’t great about being up front about this. It can anger a donor and you don’t want that. So, I have been involved in helping a couple of long-existing organizations to get their 501(c)3 status so that gifts that they raise can be tax deductible.
Donations to public schools are tax deductible but check your school districts policies. Some won’t allow any active fundraising so won’t be able to accept gifts that your group asks to be given directly to the school for their benefit. Live and learn!
Clover Frederick is a nonprofit consultant in Lincoln, NE, specializing in fundraising, marketing, board governance and strategic planning. Most of what she has learned is through experience or smarter people that came before her. She is also the mom to two amazing daughters who, gratefully, weren’t too embarrassed by her helping out at school – probably because they also like it when things get done. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All of our service area leaders have dozens of years of experience. These are protips they’ve picked up along the way that you can use right now to solve common issues.