Business donations can be a great boost to parent group programs and fundraisers, but approaching a restaurant manager or store owner for donations doesn’t come naturally to everyone. As a new fundraising chair, I was hesitant when I first started approaching businesses on behalf of our elementary school PTA. Then I realized that we had a lot to offer in return and that we were asking for a good cause. Before you ask for donations from local businesses, consider these 10 tips to make it easier and to boost your chances for success.

Coordinate Your Requests

Coordination is key. Meet with your group’s other committee chairs first and make a list of all the donated goods, services, and money you will need for every event over the whole year. If you need bottled water for four events, it’s more efficient to ask one retailer for all of it at one time. You don’t want to unknowingly approach a business for a large sponsorship after another committee has already approached them.

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Take a Look Back

Find out whether any records exist of which businesses donated in recent years. You’ll be a step ahead if you know which companies were willing to work with your organization and how much they were comfortable giving. 

Mine Your Connections

A personal connection can open doors, so ask around to see whether anyone on your board or committee knows someone at the company. You can even ask parents whether they own or work at one of your target donor companies.

“It’s not what you know, but who you know,” says Julie Moesgaard, president of the White Swan/Cherry Valley PTO, which serves sister schools in Rockford and Cherry Valley, Ill. “I was on another board, and one of the members owns several Papa John’s Pizza restaurants in our area. I reached out to him for a donation for a teachers’ rewards party. He returned my call in less than 30 minutes, donating pizzas for three classrooms.”

Clearly Explain What You Want

After you’ve tapped all of your connections, you’ll need to prepare to reach outside your network. Before you approach anyone, write a letter outlining what you’re asking for. The first part should clearly quantify what you need, whether specific goods, services, a monetary donation, or sponsorship. Offer alternatives—for example, instead of cash, can they give store credit for your organization to use, or gift cards you can give away as prizes?

Put Your Best Foot Forward

The second part of your letter should include an overview of your organization with a mission statement. Then outline what you can provide in exchange for their donation. Exposure and publicity are valuable, so offer to list the business in a student directory or newsletter or mention it on your website and Facebook page. If there are a lot of students at your school, make a point to promote the number of local families who will see the name of the business in print. If you’re a registered charitable organization, encourage them to consider it a tax-deductible expense.

“We approach businesses at the beginning of the school year with a plan for all that we will offer over the course of the year,” says Megan Dezendorf, president of the Adams Elementary PTA in Cary, N.C. “It is broken down by season because we are a year-round school. In the summer, they get a tweet to our Twitter followers; in fall, they get their logo on a banner that hangs by our playgrounds all year long. In winter, they get a logo on our school T-shirts; and in spring, they get a free booth in our Vendor Village at the spring carnival.” The PTA also mentions businesses in the PTA newsletter every season.

Formalize Your Program

Give your supporters a title they can show off. For my PTA, I created an official Community Supporters Program. I created a logo and had window decals made saying “Proud Supporter of Gayhead Elementary School PTA.” Every business that donated was given a decal to display in their storefront in addition to the other benefits of being listed in our newsletter and on our website. You could easily print certificates on your own using an online template or with nice certificate paper from an office supply store. 

Find the Right Fit

Do some research about the companies you want to approach. You want to find out whether they’re likely to donate, and often you can get that information online. Look for a page about corporate contributions with donation request guidelines and deadlines. Remember, local companies have more to gain from the publicity of sponsoring your program. Avoid approaching competitor companies so you’ll be able to offer “exclusive” exposure to your families.

Make It Easy for Them To Say Yes

Find out who the best person is to contact rather than sending an email to a generic address. If you’re making a personal visit, go at a slow time (for example, avoid a restaurant during the dinner rush). Tell your contact exactly what the money will be used for, and play to his softer side. How could someone resist supporting programs for children?

But Be Prepared To Hear No

You may just strike out. The company may have already met its quota for nonprofit donations or feel your cause isn’t in its best interests. Graciously thank your contact; don’t burn bridges. Ask whether the company would be open to hearing from you at some future point, and make a note to come back then.

Follow Up and Keep a Record

When you receive a donation of any type, send a thank-you note with a handwritten signature. Include a receipt, if applicable, so they can make it a tax deduction. Show them proof of the publicity you promised by printing out the screen on your website on which they’re mentioned. Keep records of the company and contact names in a file that can be easily understood by next year’s volunteers.

“We offer a tax deduction since we are a 501(c)(3),” says Nancy Farrior, secretary and past president of the Copeland Elementary PTO in Huffman, Texas. “We also like to follow up with pictures and a thank-you letter showing how their gift matters.”

If possible, enlist students to write thank-you notes or make drawings that businesses can post for customers to see. Donors will love knowing they made a difference for kids, and just may say yes the next time you ask for their help.  

Traci L. Suppa is vice president of fundraising for the Gayhead Elementary PTA in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.