Parent groups have sold scrip to raise money for years. Here’s how it works: A group buys gift cards for well-known retailers at a discount from a scrip company, then sells the cards to families at face value. Families use the gift cards for everyday purchases like clothes, groceries, or gas, earning money for the school on items they would be buying anyway.

Traditional gift cards are still popular, but scrip companies have begun offering digital options that allow families to pay online for scrip, order electronic gift cards (e-cards) from home, and use mobile apps in the store. Here’s how scrip is evolving to keep up with technology.

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Digital Scrip Options

Depending on which company your group works with, the online options may go by different names, but the concepts are the same. Not all scrip companies offer every online option yet. Some are still building their digital platform.

Electronic or mobile card: With this format, users buy e-cards online at the scrip company’s website and either print out a paper certificate to take to the store or pull it up at the register through a mobile app on their smartphone. As with plastic gift cards, retailers allow users to choose from several dollar amounts, making this a good option for dining out, an unplanned trip to the mall, or an appliance emergency. (E-cards aren’t available for gas, and often not for groceries.)

Online pay: This feature allows families to sign up for a secure online payment system, linking bank account information to their scrip account. Using this system, families can add funds to many types of retailer gift cards and purchase e-cards almost instantly.

Reuse old cards: After ordering a card through your school and redeeming the full amount, you can add funds to the same card online instead of waiting for the next time your scrip coordinators take orders at school. This means no more tossing plastic cards when they’re used up. The reload option is available for many gas and grocery cards.

Keep in mind, not all digital scrip options are available for all retailers. Surprisingly, some of the largest retailers may not be set up to use a smartphone’s point-of-sale technology. Check with your scrip provider for more information.

While purchasing scrip online cuts down on paper­work for parent groups, many parents still prefer to receive traditional gift cards over electronic scrip, especially for gas and grocery purchases. At Pleasant­ville (N.Y.) Middle School, the 5-year-old scrip program has converted to 100 percent online payment, but traditional gift cards still comprise 70 percent of sales, says former scrip coordinator Marielise Watts.

Nancy Cook, scrip coordinator for Master’s Academy of Vero Beach, Fla., launched a scrip program last year at her school only because of the online payment options now available. She had experienced a robust traditional scrip program at her previous school, where volunteers sold gift cards in person, but decided in-person sales were too time-consuming.

In the first year that the Master’s Academy Parent-Teacher Fellowship offered plastic gift cards, families ordered and paid online. Cook bundled them for families to pick up at the front office. When families order and pay online, she says, the program almost runs itself. This year, Cook is accepting checks for the Master’s Academy scrip program, but it does require her to make a trip to the bank.

Families can also purchase mobile scrip or e-cards, available anytime. “Some of our families love the mobile scrip app and use it exclusively,” Cook says. “They’ll go to their store, figure out what they’re buying, and purchase the mobile gift card right there in the store in the denomination that fits their shopping bill.”

Because not all retailers offer reloads or e-cards, traditional gift cards are still relevant. However, offering the electronic options helps groups raise more money, says Jill Whalen, vice president of Great Lakes Scrip Center. In her experience, when online options are available, families spend 45 percent more on scrip. Digital scrip also allows faraway relatives to participate and enables PTOs to fundraise year-round without fees. (Traditional gift cards incur shipping fees.)

Digital sales are growing at The Manna Group Scrip Company, which launched its online platform in 2015, according to Kim Damato, director of business development and merchant relations. Plastic cards remain more popular, but digital sales are growing, she says.

“Not all families are willing to order e-cards and pay online, so it’s important to continue offering plastic cards, but digital cards can enhance a program or be a good choice for a group with fewer resources because it takes less work,” Damato explains. (Just keep in mind, digital is not completely hands-free.)

Digital methods also multiply purchase streams with less effort. Grocery and gas cards are staples for many, but other retailers offer higher rebates, often 10 percent or more, so dinner out or new jeans lend themselves to e-cards and mobile apps. Also, retailers offer scrip specials, such as 25 percent back on purchases at a certain store over Thanksgiving. “The immediacy works well for many family budgets,” Whalen says.

Loyalty Model

At one company, eScrip, families have long used store loyalty cards to earn money for schools. In a variation on scrip gift cards, users register participating retailers’ loyalty cards, or sometimes personal debit or credit card information, and link their schools with eScrip retailers; they can even earn by booking air travel and cruises.

PTOs find eScrip useful because they don’t have to take orders, manage money, or manage an inventory of cards, says Joanne Remillard, executive vice president of eScrip. “However, it’s still important to communicate regularly with families to remind them to use the program,” she says.

In January 2016, eScrip launched a mobile app called Benefit that families can use to purchase and redeem gift cards via smartphone for major retailers such as Target, Whole Foods, and the Home Depot. The mobile gift cards can also be used for online shopping. More features will be added to the app over time, Remillard says.

If you’re considering a traditional scrip program, Damato recommends researching it to understand choices. Ensure that a scrip company’s retailer list fits your parents’ shopping habits, and consider starting small. Don’t be afraid to call and interview a company about how it can serve your organization, she says.

Both traditional scrip and digital scrip require a certain amount of education for families to understand them, so clear and regular communication is key. But even starting small with a few families can add up for your school.