School fundraising has evolved since the days when PTA members would set up a card table and sell homemade cookies and brownies for 50 cents apiece to hungry schoolkids. With many districts facing hefty budget shortfalls and layoffs, teachers, parents, and students are looking at more lucrative alternatives to bake sales.

Most fundraising falls into two categories: the traditional approach of selling items (such as candy, discount cards, and magazine subscriptions) directly to friends and neighbors and online fundraising, in which schools earn money through sales from Web-based vendors. Not sure which is best for your school? Read on for pointers on both.

Going the traditional route

Whether students are selling cookie dough or coupon books, these seemingly small items can add up to a lot of cash. School groups raise more than $1.5 billion every year selling various products — the profits account for about 80% of the funds for such “extras” as computers, field trips, and playground equipment. But it can be tricky deciding what to sell or figuring out what will bring the greatest return.

The same concerns over childhood obesity that are prompting states to crack down on school soda sales are forcing athletic booster clubs to think twice about selling candy to fund sports programs. And by adopting stricter nutrition standards for food sold on campus, some school districts are rendering bake sales and other food-based fundraisers obsolete.

One innovative and high-yielding option is recycling cell phones and printer cartridges. Since most families upgrade their cell phones and toss out an average of three to four printer cartridges every year (businesses throw away even more), this is an easy market for school groups to tap. It’s also a good way to teach kids how going green can help the planet and pocketbooks: Recycling companies pay anywhere from 50 cents for ink-jet cartridges to $5.50 for high-end laser cartridges.

Choosing the right product and company

The bottom line in any fundraising drive is maximizing the amount of money you can make, so it’s important to not only choose something that will sell well but to also work with a company that offers a fair percentage and low shipping or delivery costs. And don’t forget about quality control: If you choose a company with inferior products, you may not have as many repeat customers or earn as much money in years to come.

Once you have weighed all the factors and chosen a company, contact a sales representative and take advantage of his or her experience to wage the best possible sales campaign. Many companies offer free promotional materials, prizes, and advice on how to craft campaigns.

Taking it online

The Internet has ushered in a wave of “charity malls” — websites like eScrip and OneCause that let people make donations while buying from such well-known merchants as Amazon and Staples. The charity mall gets a sales commission (about 5 to 8% of the purchase price) from the online merchant and then passes on a portion of this commission to whatever school the shopper designates. How much the school receives differs for each mall. For example, a $20 purchase made on one of the leading sites would result in a donation of 75 cents.

Beware of fundraising companies that offer commissions as high as 20%. These are generally short-term promotional campaigns in which part of the commission goes to the school and part goes to the company.

Generally speaking schools do not have to enroll to begin accruing funds through charity malls, but they do need to register to receive any money. Most sites wait until schools have accrued a minimum amount — usually about $50 — before sending a check. Keep in mind that school donations made through charity malls are not tax deductible.

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