Casino nights take careful preparation, and you need to be familiar with the legal restrictions in your area. But the payoff can be big.
Typically, parent groups sell tickets in advance for a Las Vegas-style evening of games like blackjack, poker, craps, Texas Hold’em, and roulette run by dealers from a company specializing in this type of event. If you have knowledgeable gamblers among your parents, you can run the event yourself, but most groups feel that the cost of bringing in professionals is well worth it.
“The dealers we hired were so good, so professional, and they helped people out,” says Joy Klineberg, who chaired the PTA casino night at Robert E. Willett Elementary in Davis, Calif. “It felt like you were at Vegas.”
The ticket price usually includes a certain number of chips to play with. If attendees run out, they can purchase more. At the end of the evening, the chips might be exchanged for raffle tickets. The evening also includes food, drinks (if allowed), and music. Many casino nights include an auction, as well.
Keys to Success
Start planning at least nine months ahead of time, especially if you have to secure permits. If you will be asking businesses for donations, give them at least six months of lead time and avoid approaching them during the holidays, when they will be besieged with requests. “Start way ahead of time,” says Tanya Brooks, president of the Holland Township PTO in Milford, N.J. “This is not something you can throw together.”
Promote the event as a night out for parents, and encourage them to dress up. Make the event special with casino-themed decorations (check your local party and dollar stores), music (hire a DJ or recruit a parent), and food (hire a caterer or do it yourself to save money).
You will need plenty of volunteers, especially if you plan to make the food yourselves. Be sure to have enough helpers so they can rotate out to enjoy the games themselves.
Dos and Don’ts
Don’t skimp on game tables. “Organizations tend to underestimate the number of tables,” says Michael Magee, president of Casino Party Aces in Raleigh, N.C. “A good rule of thumb is to have enough tables so that half the guests can play at any one time. If you have only enough tables for 25 percent of the guests, they’re not likely to rotate through.”
Do create turnover at tables. One of the main challenges at a casino night is to make sure everyone gets a chance to play. That doesn’t happen if people plop down at a game and stay put. To avoid the problem of people not moving from their spots, plan a break in the middle of the evening, such as a presentation by the principal.
Do sell tickets in advance. “Expecting people to pay at the door is a recipe for disaster,” Magee says. “If you don’t sell out, call the casino night party operator and the caterer and reduce the scope of what you ordered.”
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One year, the PTA at North Bend Elementary in Washington state offered separate events for moms and dads. Held at a private home on different dates were a Margarita Mama evening for women and a Texas Hold’em night for men. Tickets were available at the school’s live auction—the first 75 women and 75 men who raised their paddles got the chance to buy tickets at $100 and $50 each, respectively. The women enjoyed a Mexican fiesta and a margarita bar; the men had hors d’oeuvres and a keg of beer and played cards until midnight. Together, these events brought in about $10,000, says former PTA vice president Erin McCallum.
How To Keep It Legal
Rules about casino night fundraisers vary greatly from state to state. In some places, as long as people don’t win any money, there’s no problem. “We have two attorneys on the PTA who made sure our event was legal,” says Barbara Archer, vice president of the Willett Elementary PTA. “The key was that the gaming was done just for fun. There was no money exchange, no real value to the chips. They couldn’t cash them in for things.”
But elsewhere, regulations can be quite strict. In New Jersey, for example, the Holland Township PTO had to apply for both gambling and liquor licenses as well as an individual permit for a casino night. To get the casino night permit, the parent group had to send in event tickets with their permit application. The law also requires that the permit number appear on all flyers and advertisements.
Identifying the correct government office to contact can be confusing. In Iowa, the Department of Inspections and Appeals handles the Social and Charitable Gambling Program. In Wisconsin, the Division of Gaming is under the purview of the Department of Administration, while in Delaware the Gaming Control Board is a part of the Division of Professional Regulation, which operates under the Department of State. And in Texas, where regulation of charitable gambling is divided among several state agencies, the attorney general has ruled that charging an entrance fee for casino nights and similar activities constitutes illegal gambling, even if the event is held for charitable purposes.
The best advice is to find out what rules apply in your area. One place to start is by asking for help at city hall. You can also search online for “charitable gambling” and the name of your state.
“Check your jurisdiction and make sure it’s legal,” says Michael Magee of Casino Party Aces. “Each state and even some municipalities have their own laws about how casino night fundraisers can be done, if at all. Usually, the local casino night provider will know the ins and outs. It’s important to work with somebody familiar with that jurisdiction.”
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