The reality of school budgets is that art, sports, and other extracurriculars require fundraising — sometimes a lot of it. Upping the profit potential is easier than you think.

By Leslie Pepper

7 Fundraising Tips

When it comes to fundraising, it seems parents are trapped in a continuous loop — think Groundhog Day, but with candy or wrapping-paper sales. (Are you going to lose it if your son brings home one more pencil sharpener from a school bazaar? I am!) But according to teachers and parents across the country, there are plenty of ways to raise money without magazine subscription drives or bake sales. Read on to find out how.

1. See Beyond "Selling"

Adults tend to get hung up on tradition, says Gary Thomsen, sports and events marketing teacher at Chief Sealth High School in Seattle, Washington. “They think, Well, I sold cookies when I was a kid. That’s what we should do. But selling isn’t the be-all and end-all.” For instance, Thomsen led a home run hitting contest where the prize was a new car. (Yes, a car!) “We were trying to figure out how to get people to pay $10 for 10 pitches. A kid said, ‘Let’s give away a car.’ I liked the idea but wasn’t sure we could pull it off. Turned out it wasn’t that tough to do.”

That’s the terrific thing about kids. “They come up with off-the-wall ideas,” says Thomsen. “They have no concept of what’s possible and what isn’t, and they don’t impose the same limits on their thinking that adults do. That’s where the best stuff comes from.”

2. Approach Sponsors Intelligently

When you ask a merchant to donate something without explaining what he’ll gain in return, you make it too easy for him to say no. How did Thomsen sweet-talk a dealer out of a car? He was a man with a plan, promising plenty of visitors to the showroom because he would post the contest sign-up sheet in the dealership itself. “I found out this particular company spends close to a million dollars on advertising each year for the sole purpose of luring people in,” says Thomsen. He positioned his request as a bargain; he could deliver hundreds of potential car buyers (teenagers and parents) to the showroom.

Jean Joachim, author of Beyond the Bake Sale (St. Martin’s Griffin), was a volunteer fundraiser at PS 87 in New York City for years. He says people loved shopping-spree nights at local stores, where a percentage of the profits from purchases rung up between certain hours were given to the school. “One night at Barnes & Noble we handed out flyers to other, nonparent customers, explaining that they could help the neighborhood school just by checking out at a designated register. People were thrilled to help,” says Joachim. Similar events at Burger King were also successful. When you suggest this concept to local businesses, mention to the manager that an event like this brings in eager-to-shop customers and is a great way to give back to the community.

3. Join Current Programs

Many national companies already have sponsorship programs in place, so get in on the action. For instance, General Mills gives schools 10 cents for each Box Tops for Education logo turned in; go to Campbell’s lets educational institutions redeem labels for everything from playground balls to computers to a van; schools can also earn bonus points for organizing volunteer projects or fitness-related activities. Go to

4. Involve Students

A successful child-centric fundraiser idea is to create living histories. Local businesses were asked to donate cameras and tape recorders (“Who can resist a 9-year-old?”) and each student wrote and recorded his own life story, which teachers then helped edit. “We were confident each family would buy their own kid’s history, but what surprised us was that parents were buying all of them,” says Thomsen. That fundraiser’s take? About $8,000. Another possibility is to hold a gift-wrapping night around the holidays. Solicit local merchants for free or discounted wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, and ask parents if they have leftover supplies from previous years to donate. Pick a date and advertise for people to bring their gifts to the school gym or cafeteria, where students will wrap them for a fee.

5. Throw a Theme Night

Giving kids a supervised gathering place where they can hang out with buddies is a win-win way to make money. Joachim and fellow volunteers raised $5,000 to $6,000 a year at a Halloween festival; they charged admission and played dance music, fashioned a haunted house in a stairwell, and set up booths for mask-making and face-painting. In winter they held Friday Movie Nights; $10 bought admittance to the show plus a slice of pizza and a drink. Oak Grove Elementary School, in Poughkeepsie, New York, held a Fitness Social Night to correspond with TV Turnoff Week; they set up a yoga zone, karate studio, and roller skating rink. The event not only put kids in a healthy frame of mind, it also raised more than $1,000. Other popular themes include a sock hop, end-of-season sports party, and dress up as your favorite storybook or comic book character.

6. Build on Success

If you hit upon an idea that works, don’t shy away from making it an annual thing. You may think that doing the same thing year after year seems boring, but it doesn’t have to be. “Hold an official postmortem after every fundraiser to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and brainstorm ways you can refine the event next time,” says Joachim.

7. Make Helping Easy

Lots of parents — especially those who work long hours or are raising kids on their own — worry that volunteering will require more time than they can commit, so they rule it out altogether. Counter this by pointing out that the more people you have, the less time each individual ends up having to give. At the initial planning meeting for any event, ask everyone to bring another mom or dad to the next one to quickly and painlessly double the workforce. And don’t be shy about emphasizing the fringe benefits of helping out. “Pitching in makes you look good. All of a sudden you’re not just the parent who only comes around when she wants something from the teacher. You’re the parent who shows up to do something good for everybody,” says Joachim.

Success Stories

Terman Middle School: Palo Alto, California

Big idea:, a nationwide Web site that posts reviews of local merchants, promised to pay $2 for each critique submitted by a parent. Businesses ranged from pet groomers to dentists to contractors. To get the ball rolling, the fundraising committee sent out a newsletter and an e-mail bulletin with details and instructions on how to gain access to the site. “This is something people could do on their own time, which was really convenient for everyone,” says organizer Belle Griffiths.

Profit push: Frequent progress reports sent out via e-mail were key, says Griffiths. “We had a slow start, but once a couple of parents started writing, that spurred an internal competition of who could generate the most,” she says.

Money banked: More than $3,000

Lakewood Ranch High School: Bradenton, Florida

Big idea: “Everybody around here — kids and adults — loves cars, so we organized an auto show,” says technology education teacher Greg McGrew. Owners of over 100 different domestic, classic, and imported cars paid the $10-$15 entrance fee, and about 200 people paid $3 each to enter school grounds for an up-close look. Organizers bestowed various awards in categories including oldest car, best paint job, cleanest engine, and loudest stereo (determined by a decibel meter). Merchants, including car dealerships and auto parts and accessories stores, paid for booths to showcase their wares.

Profit push: “We’ve been doing this for four years running now and keep raising the bar,” says McGrew.

Money banked: $3,000

Southwest High School: Fort Worth, Texas

Big idea: The senior class collected more than 2,000 used cell phones and “sold” them to Phoneraiser (, a company that recycles old handsets. Kids asked family members and posted signs, and some had parents collect at their workplaces. “One mom gathered more than 100 phones from clients at her hair salon,” says Rosie Rios, who headed up the fundraiser. “It became a community event.”

Profit push: “We got the kids really excited. Not just about raising the money, but also about the environmental aspect of keeping the phones out of landfills,” says Rios.

Money banked: More than $6,000

Highlawn Montessori School: Prairie Village, Kansas

Big idea: Kids worked on individual mosaic tiles that were all used to decorate large mirrors to be sold at an upcoming auction.

Profit push: Parent and auction cochair Julana Harper-Sachs came up with a clever way for the school to garner as much money as possible. Instead of bidding against one another for the mirror and ending up only with the cash from the highest bidder, why not pool their resources and bid together? Other parents got on board immediately, and the group collectively decided that they would pool their funds for the “purchase” and donate the mirrors back to the classrooms so everyone could enjoy them. When the auction took place, there was technically no bidding war, but everyone got in the spirit. “The auctioneer would jokingly single out a parent, saying, ‘That’s all you’re going to pay for your daughter’s hard work?’ and the person would add a little more to the pot,” says Harper-Sachs. “It was a lot of fun.”

Money banked: $15,000