From shopping to planning play dates, there’s hardly any part of our lives that the Internet hasn’t touched. The Internet has changed the way parent groups raise money, too, providing new approaches to publicize fundraising sales and making it easier for long-distance family members to support your child’s school.

Whether your PTO is planning a low-key bake sale or a major product sale, using online tools can help make your fundraiser even better. The key to using online tools successfully for your fundraiser is finding the right tool to address your group’s needs and using it in the most effective way.

Reach More Supporters

Communication is crucial to the success of a fundraiser. How well you get the word out to potential supporters about deadlines, goals, and other important topics can make a big difference in your bottom line. The growing popularity of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter has made it easier than ever to communicate with a broad core audience.

Love it or hate it, Twitter is an effective way to communicate small bits of information. Use it to tell people about upcoming events, deadlines, and meeting times or to send people to your website for more information about your fundraisers or other topics. One advantage of Twitter is that it is easy to read and use on smart phones—much easier than standard email or even Facebook. Plus, you can ask supporters to “retweet” your information to spread it to an even wider audience.

Facebook is much more popular and powerful than Twitter, and many groups have benefited from creating a Facebook page. It can be effective for spreading the word about events and deadlines or for providing additional information on a topic discussed at last night’s meeting, for example.

Both Facebook and Twitter are easy to use and allow you to reach people who might not otherwise read email or see a flyer placed in a child’s backpack. They have the added advantage of allowing you to create an easy way to link back to your website. People are much more likely to use that link if they see it online than if they read it in a flyer.

The key to using either Facebook or Twitter effectively is to establish them first as places where parents can find important information about school. Post details about the new pickup and drop-off setup, the change in lunch policies, the new dress code, or the 6th grade field trip. Tweet about the deadline for sports sign-ups, the weekly lunch menu (with a link), or the great photos of Family Reading Night that you just posted on the PTO website.

By establishing your Facebook page and Twitter feed as places parents can go for information about the school, you’ll have a broader audience when you’re ready to post information about your fundraiser. If your fundraiser allows for online ordering, post a link to the school’s fundraising site and ask parents to forward it to others. Parents can pass along that information to grandparents, cousins, and college roommates, who can buy products in just a few clicks.

“PTOs are increasingly creating groups on Facebook and sending messages via Twitter,” says Jon Krueger, executive director of the Atlanta-based Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. “It’s an effective way to communicate with supporters, especially about your fundraising goal, progress toward that goal, and important dates and deadlines.”

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The PTO at New Palestine Elementary in Palestine, Ind., recently ventured into using social media to promote events and fundraisers such as a carnival, bingo night, and scrip sales. Thanks to the web-savvy volunteer who set up the group’s website, its blog—which announces upcoming fundraisers and events—is automatically exported to the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The Kyrene Middle School PTO in Tempe, Ariz., takes a different approach. While leaders also publish information about fundraisers on the PTO blog, they make it easy for readers to share posts with their own social networks; each entry has buttons to republish it on Twitter, Facebook, Google Buzz, and Blogger or to forward it by email.

Social media sites are also useful for recruiting volunteers to help with fundraisers. For its catalog sale, the Paine Primary School PTO in Trussville, Ala., asked on Twitter for volunteers to compile orders and hand out prizes to students. The PTO also tweeted a save-the-date message to let parents know when the products needed to be picked up for delivery.

Social media can be an effective tool as long as you don’t let the technology get in the way of the message. When communicating about your fundraiser, be sure to say why you’re raising money. “The key thing, whether it’s Facebook posts or tweets via Twitter or the more traditional letter home to parents, is that the message should always be focused on the goal of fundraising,” Krueger says. In other words, don’t just tell people that you’re raising money; tell them that you’re raising money for field trips, classroom supplies, or whatever other goals you have set. “That will keep people motivated and feeling good about what they’re contributing to.”

Make Fundraisers More Flexible

A disadvantage of many fundraisers is that they require people to spend money at a specific place and time. If a parent can’t make it to a fundraiser because of a schedule conflict, he won’t have another chance to support the school through that event until the next year. Adding online components to fundraisers can help overcome this obstacle, giving customers a wider window of time or a more convenient way in which to make purchases.

Some companies allow schools to get credit for sales made online even after the official fundraising sale has ended. For example, your group could hold a catalog fundraiser with the usual two-week period to collect order forms and payments. With an online component, a supporter of your school might still be able to order products four months later, and the PTO would get a percentage of that sale.

Auctions have also benefited from added flexibility. While in-person auctions typically last a few hours, online auctions can go for days, weeks, or months, allowing supporters to place bids around the clock. Introducing an online auction component can also help address issues with in-person auctions. For example, moving some auction items online would shorten the length of a live auction or reduce the amount of space needed to display silent auction items.

The John S. Bradfield Elementary PTA in Dallas has successfully used an online auction to build excitement before its in-person auction event. It’s not unusual for the PTA to see an online bidding war emerge as the virtual auction closes the day before the live and silent auctions are held. Auction attendees can also view, but not bid on, live and silent auction items on the website.

What’s New Online

As technology and the ways we use it evolve, so do approaches to fundraising. For a growing number of fundraising companies, the Internet is more than a way to collect orders; it’s a way to create or deliver products, too.

With some fundraising companies offering print-on-demand services, parent groups have more options when ordering items like cookbooks, calendars, and T-shirts. While in the past parent groups placed large orders and had to store merchandise until it could be sold, print-on-demand allows PTOs to order smaller batches of merchandise and parents to place individual orders. For some print-on-demand products, buyers can customize their purchases. A parent placing an online order might be able to choose from several colors of T-shirts and from half a dozen designs featuring the school mascot, for instance.

The popularity of smart phone applications has led companies to explore how they can be incorporated into fundraising. Chinook Book piloted a mobile version of its coupon book fundraiser last fall in Seattle and Portland, Ore. The app can be purchased through iTunes; users pull up a map showing which coupons can be redeemed near their current location. To use the coupon, they hit the “redeem” button on the phone and show the screen to the cashier.

And with the popularity of mobile applications like Foursquare and Facebook to “check in” at restaurants and other businesses, it was only a matter of time before the technology was adopted for fundraising. In 2011, the company EdRover plans to introduce an iPhone app of the same name that will let a user make a donation to a chosen school by visiting participating businesses. “We wanted to provide an easy-to-use tool that would help people as they go about their daily errands and feel that they’re helping to give back,” says president Tania Mulry. “This is the new way to fundraise.”

As the Internet continues to grow and change, companies explore new ways to incorporate technology into fundraising. The fundamentals of fundraising remain the same, but these new methods to get out the message and reach a broader audience can enhance any fundraiser.


Basic Tips for Online Communication

Used well, email, Facebook, and Twitter can grow the customer base for your PTO’s fundraiser. These forms of electronic communication are generally used to complement, not replace, old-school methods like notices in the school newsletter and flyers sent home with students. Post occasional updates on how the fundraiser is going, but not so much that parents begin to tune out.

Email: When emailing school parents about fundraisers, include a link where supporters can place an order online. Mention the end date of the sale, if applicable. If you send a message to several people at once, protect their privacy by putting all recipients’ email addresses in the bcc field. Encourage parents to forward the email to others, perhaps adding a message from their child explaining how the fundraiser will benefit the school. You can make creating and sending emails (and managing all those addresses!) a breeze with PTO Today's Parent Express Email, a free parent group email tool.

Facebook: When promoting a fundraiser on your parent group’s Facebook page, don’t post so often that it turns off parents. Intersperse posts about the fundraiser with other items. Encourage parents to post the link to participate in the fundraiser on their friends’ Facebook walls; depending on individual privacy settings, the posts may be viewed by many other Facebook users, spreading word of the fundraiser even wider.

Twitter: Post about the fundraiser and encourage readers to “retweet” it, then thank them for the retweets. Adding a hash tag to your tweet (for example, #SmithSchoolPTO) will make it easier for Twitter users interested in the school to find your tweets.