[published March 2001; updated October 2006]
Picture this: You make your usual yearly sojourn for new school clothes. You fill the dressing room bench as usual—with polo shirts and cargo pants, belts and sweaters—and head to the register with whatever fits (and, of course, is also cool). Your selections are rung up and folded, and you pay a grand total of $400. Guess what? You just earned $28 for your kids' school. On the way home, you pick up a video and a pizza. That's another $1 for good old Anyschool Elementary.
How is this possible? Welcome to scrip.
The concept is simple: Schools purchase gift certificates, or scrip, from popular retailers at a discount, which the retailers are happy to give because they're guaranteeing themselves customers and some goodwill advertising. Parents then buy the gift certificates from the school at face value. The difference in price is kept by the school. Parents spend the scrip at the retailer, where it's worth the full face value; they haven't spent an extra dime to help the school, nor have they had to change stores.
And school earnings can really add up. The most successful scrip schools get hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from scrip. Typical schools with modest programs can earn $3,000 to $10,000 without an undue amount of effort.
Some quick math is the best way to demonstrate the earning potential of scrip. Say a family with one child in elementary school and one in middle school spends $1,200 on school clothes every year. The school gets a 7 percent discount on certain retailers' scrip. During that year, the school would make $84 (7 percent of $1,200) from one family's clothing bill. Now consider what that same family might spend on pizza and gas and toys, items with typically higher discount percentages. And don't forget holiday shopping. Multiply that family's earnings by, say, 20 families, and you have $5,000 or more for your school.
A word of caution about scrip, however: Although it's been around since 1988 and many schools have run successful scrip programs, several major scrip brokers have gone out of business in the past few years—often leaving schools in the lurch for thousands of dollars in unfilled orders.
It's important to use a few precautions when you invest in scrip, recommends Dave Burgess, vice president at Great Lakes Scrip. "Don't be afraid to ask financial questions about the business," he says. "An open line of credit, the fact that a bank is willing to loan them money, is usually a sign that it is a healthy outfit."
Some signs that a scrip vendor might be in trouble include missed delivery dates, long holds for customer service, and increasingly frequent reports that the company is "reviewing its orders with merchants." But groups can reduce the likelihood of falling victim to a failing company by being cautious, staying on top of orders, and even splitting orders among several brokers.
"You have to run your scrip program like a business," Burgess says. "With a healthy dose of skepticism."
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While the impressive returns from scrip are very real, there's still no such thing as completely pain-free fundraising. Where scrip gets high grades for its earning potential and for the fact that parents don't have to spend an extra penny to help your school (they don't have to buy or pay more, they just have to buy differently), successful scrip volunteers do spend a lot of time on their programs.
But though the prospect of starting a huge new fundraising effort may be daunting, a scrip program can be run more simply. Follow these pointers and you'll be on your way:
Despite the initial difficulty of getting people to change their shopping routine, in the end scrip works for two reasons: The participating retailers are stores where your supporters already shop all the time, and your supporters can help your school without spending an extra dime. It's a nice combination. If you can find a group of supporters (even just a small core group, at first) willing to change their shopping habits, you could be on your way to a successful scrip fundraiser. And your shopping trips may never be the same.
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