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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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Updated: March 27, 2016