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Five fundraising tactics for savvy schools

We look beyond scrip and bake sales in search of the big dollars available to schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

Classic school fundraisers can be a mixed bag. Car washes. Bake sales. Or candy sales, in which masses of school kids hit the streets bearing neat white cases of World’s Finest Chocolate. The magazine game may see supportive parents buying up years' worth of Cat Fancy in the name of school spirit. In the end, while classic fundraisers can be effective, sometimes the effort required to get them off the ground can feel excessive; the rewards, a lot less so.

As school budgets are stretched to the limit, many parents would no doubt welcome new ways to approach their schools' seemingly ceaseless funding gaps. We looked for a few low-effort, high-impact funding options, including sizable corporate grants. This being 2010, we found a number of creative online sources, including a few up-from-the-bootstraps, do-it-yourself websites that let schools set their own terms for the money they raise.

For parents in search of fundraising strategies that won't exhaust the PTO, check out these five ideas for bringing dollars to your school.

Facebook ritual

Social-media savvy isn't usually the first thing we associate with school fundraisers. Still, an increasing number of "vote for your school"-style contests are shelling out big bucks to schools. How big? This month department store Kohl's launched Kohl's Cares for Kids, a Facebook contest that's giving away $500,000 grants to a total of 20 schools. By visiting the Kohl's Facebook page and signing up between July 7 and September 3, you can vote for your child's school and answer the question "What would your school do with half a million dollars?" Whatever voters decide, a few schools will walk away with an enviable windfall.

Pros: All it takes is a few clicks to give your child's school the chance for a major boost to its bottom line. Even if it doesn't work, it may help build your school's high-tech community.

Cons: This one's decidedly a long shot.

Going for the grants

Many companies offer considerable sums of money to schools that know how to tap into it. In addition to its store credit cards, which can be set up to direct a small percentage of everyday purchases to local schools, Target offers substantial grants, which support local field trips, early childhood reading programs, and the arts. The company also funds library renovations for schools in need.

According to Target's website, last year's field trip grant winners ranged widely in geography and kind, from Iowa's rural Oskaloosa Elementary School to the Weizmann Day School in Pasadena, Calif. The reading grants encourage reading outside of school by supporting "after-school reading" and "weekend book clubs." Grant writers should know that the application period for the coming year begins August 1, 2010, for field trips and March 1, 2011, for early childhood reading and arts grants.

Pros: Grants can breathe new life into underfunded school programs.

Cons: Some funds come with strings attached (Target's libraries include discreet advertising).

Donation matching

Wish you could stretch existing parent donations further? Donation matching is a tried-and-true method. It's also one of the easiest ways for parents with corporate jobs to maximize their charitable impact. Since many large companies have programs in place to match employees' charitable donations, there's almost nothing to it. All that's required is a little bit of paperwork and a signature from HR.

Though most parents won't be switching companies or careers solely for better matching gifts, it's worth noting that one of the most generous donation-matching programs is offered by Johnson & Johnson, which will pitch in twice the total of employee contributions up to $20,000, effectively tripling donations. Several tech companies also offer generous matching gift programs at a ratio of one to one, including Google (up to $3,000) and Microsoft (up to $12,000).

Pros: Parents can easily double — or in some cases triple — their donations.

Cons: Not exactly a con, but parents have to work for a company with a matching program in order to participate.

Online donations

Looking to tap into the wallets of the greater community without throwing a silent auction or begging door-to-door? DonorsChoose offers a new way to solicit dollars for in-class projects and equipment. Founded by Charles Best, who worked as a teacher in the Bronx for five years, the website makes it easy to drum up needed dollars. Teachers write a proposal, post their project on the site, and wait for the donations to roll in.

A similar website called Kickstarter uses an all-or-nothing funding scheme to raise money for all manner of independently conceived projects. Unlike DonorsChoose, Kickstarter projects need not be limited to the classroom but can be used by parent-run groups or even student-driven fundraising. For instance, Brenden and Jared Sullivan, twin sophomores from Sauk Prairie, Wis., are raising money to fund productions of their local middle and high school musicals, which got axed in budget cuts this year. (Amount raised? $927 with 29 days to go as of the time this article was written.)

Pros: Online donations let teachers, parents, and kids fund their own ideas on their own terms.

Cons: Some projects might not receive the desired support from donors.

Sensible shopping

Though your parent community may not have enough disposable income to write big checks for school projects, chances are every one of them is spending money for other causes: i.e., keeping their kids clothed and fed. Charity malls allow a school to benefit from its community's purchasing power without asking for one thin dime of extra donation. OneCause steers a small percentage of your shopping dollars toward various educational causes. Depending on where you shop, between 1% and 5% of the total amount you spend will go to your school of choice.

For devoted shoppers, charity malls offer a nearly effortless way to give back to the community. On the other hand, when it comes to maximizing your charitable impact, a direct donation to a school would go just as far as all but the most manic of charity mall shopping sprees.

Pros: A painless way to access donations from parents.

Cons: Since only a small portion of money spent ends up at schools, charity malls aren’t the most efficient way to fundraise.

Comments from readers

"There's another fund raising project out there and it's fairly new to the southern region. It's a great idea and the name of the organization is called UPLIFT. It's a high nutrition standard and a high return education funding network. "
"Somehow I am not convinced that any of the above can really make difference for our schools. What about School Supplies, Uniforms and shoes etc.? Recently for Back-to-school at my daughter's school we bought school supplies from a local company and sold to parents at good profit. Never called it a fundraiser, but we got the job done. Prices were not bad, not as cheap as Walmart, but 100 times better than buying a $10 cookie dough. Parents were happy. "
"Why not have a silent auction. Parents can donate items or you can contact vendors. I came from a school who done this while having a school carnival and they raised over $10,000. With the economy the way it is parents cannot afford to match funds or pay out for everything the school thinks the child needs."
"Here's the thing...I already contribute generously towards education by paying my taxes. The teachers, although not all are great. are under paid for the responsibility they are assigned. Where are the parent's and their responsibilities? Not the ones that volunteer, or lead the PTA, or assist their children with their studies and academic success. I'm speaking of the ones that do not read to their children. check over all of the homework, monitor their computer time. Shoot, it seems as a taxpayer I'm even responsible for feeding some children their breakfast, lunch and dinner! It may sound 'old school' but whatever happened to parental responsibility to the proper raising, feeding, clothing and academic as well as moral education of their own offspring? "
"Another idea for fundraising could be to sell school event photos online at a premium. Snapizzi, a new online facility lets you do that very easily. The number of photos taken at our schools is larger than ever and often the crowd of parents each holding a camera at all these special school events is quite impressive. From my experience as a mother, trying to capture that perfect photo can be quite stressful while engaging actively in the event. If your school has a photographer using the Snapizzi technology, photos can be made easily available online to buy same day. If you price the photos at a premium, - there you have it – a great fundraiser! Our children's privacy is secured by a new patent pending 2D barcode system that offers unique on-line safety features and the system allows different add-on products like printed T-shirts, cups and hats. For many parents buying a photo on line of your child's activities in school at a premium will by far beat washing cars or baki! ng cup cakes. The photos can also be a perfect gift for grandparents."
" In our school, they encourage parents to sell things online via Main Street Fair(, an online auctions and free classified ads site that offers some of the lowest listing fees online. The best thing about this site is that it donates a percentage of its listing fees to the school of the seller's choice. With enough parents involved, this is sure to be a successful fundraiser."
"We've recently learned about a creative school/private partnership that returned $100K to the district by providing volunteers for a large event. I don't think this was unique to Carmel/Pebble Beach but could be repeated in many districts: pot-helps-carmel-school.html "
"We raised $1,200 and $1,500 for the drama dept. at our kid's Middle School last year in two days. we sent out emails to all of the drama parents and a few neighbors and told them we were having a fundraising yard sale to cover the costs of production and costumes for the Fall play and Spring musical. We asked for donations to sell in our sale. People were extremely generous and we provided pick-up service for bulky items otherwise they dropped off donations at the MPR. The sale was held a parent's house and all of the proceeds were donated. I mean who doesn't have a dresser full of clothes that they don't wear anymore, or a garage full of stuff they never use and just takes up space and collects dust? Leftover items that didn't sell were donated to another charity - all shoes went to Haiti, etc. We had one sale in the fall and one in the spring. "
"I agree with one of the posts below that although these generous corporate donations are wonderful, they are serious long-shots and don't actually fall under the term 'fundraiser'. My school recently set up an online auction where parents could bid on donated items. In particular, items like a dinner and a movie with a teacher were inexpensive yet 'priceless' experiences worth more than the face value to our kids. Also, I am usually opposed to selling products and services to raise money but I found The VIP card was really successful because our school received $10 of the $20 price per card and the savings more than covered the cost after one or two purchases. Let me know if you need details on either of these ideas. "
"GREATESTFUNDRAISERONEARTH.COM is a site that brings you to a company creating a huge buzz in fundraising as well as personal revenue generation. It's a turnkey operation that works together with Elite Specialty Meats to create an ongoing, money raising effort for any organization, charity, school system, or club. There is no start-up cost, and the organization even gets a customized website to have orders placed, sales tracked & profits tallied. It's truly amazing."
"The real reason why fundraising does not work…. In going thru the vigorous process of trying to enroll my kid in a private/independent school I learn a few eye opening life events. 1st discrimination still exists… if any one tells you otherwise they are turning an eye blind. 2nd I notice that some of theses schools who were fundraising while touring had a great of support from wealthy stay at home “moms’ – whether in support of time or money. Unfortunately public and lower end private schools do not have this structure support. Hence I now have to work harder to make sure my kid is getting the education he/she deserves. I will lead the way in making sure my kid’s school implements some great visual ideas I that I gather from touring these schools. And you may think he/she was not good enough to get in but when you see the competition and those that have gotten accepted one begins to wonder? Well that’s for other blogs. Simply said true fundraising may not work for all schools…a change form the 1st statemen! t line. "
"What's being implemented at Tustin and Irvine Unified is absolutely wonderful; however, these are districts that tap into a relatively affluent population. When you have committed parents/families, the student population will always benefit from that. Most districts, though, have a mixed socioeconomic and diverse population, and a plan like that would undoubtedly be shouldered a disproportionately smaller parent population... far less than the 75-80% hoped for. Another thing to consider is that when the community rallies to make up for the deficits in the public education system, then state and federal governments will continue to see that schools can get by with continued educational budget cuts. And the cycle continues, where the burden falls upon the parents of school-age children. I don't know what the solution would be in the end, but I do agree you have to do the best with what you've got. Unfortunately, for most schools and districts, that isn't very much. As a teach! er myself, I see how far-reaching and drastic those cuts are in the classroom, and it's the students who get the short end of the stick every time."
"Where is the flat-out request for money up front to fund the year? Our school in Tustin Unified and the Irvine Unified school district, both in Southern California, are asking parents to donate roughly $350 per family (Irvine is asking for it per pupil) at the beginning of the year and looking to completely eliminate bake sales, gift wrap sales, etc. No hassles, no endless flyers asking for money. We're hoping to implement this year. This method would raise all the funds necessary to not only fund the things that the state doesn't pay for anymore (which isn't much) but also after school programs, arts and a regular PE teacher -- you know, the things that go beyond just teaching to the test. Things that used to be taken for granted. A well-rounded public education is no longer free. If even 75-80% of a schools familes would donate in this manner, it would make a huge difference. Because here in California, the broken system of funding schools, special interests, union! contracts, etc. won't change anytime soon, so we have to work with what we have."
"I couldn't disagree more with this post. Savvy schools know not to waste their time with these fundraisers and certainly not count on the income from them. Now that I think about it, these aren't even fundraisers - they are contests, grants, donation drives and affiliate programs. Sorry but this just isn't what schools need today. They need focused efforts that EVERYONE will get behind. If you're searching for consistent big dollars, these recommendations fall short. Still love you guys though!"
"Barnes & Noble stores have an in-store program where school supporters can shop in stores and have a percentage of sales as high as 20-25% go to the school. Online sales also count, but for 10-12%."
"Another great idea is selling healthier foods! There's just no excuse for profiting at the expense of our kids' health with so many options available."