Fundraising is part art and part science. Parents generally have limited ability and interest in giving to the PTO. They can only afford so much, and there are plenty of other options for donating or spending their money. So how do you motivate them to participate—and, ultimately, maximize the funds you raise?

Start With a Strategy

It helps enormously to consider your fundraising strategy as a whole before school even starts. Look at it from a linear, chronological perspective to help decide what to run at different times of the year. You might also look at it as a pie chart to determine what percentage of your income is going to come from each fundraiser.

“Our strategy is to reach as many families as we can in some format,” says Erin Buss, president of the Parent Teacher Connection at Davisburg (Mich.) Elementary.

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School fundraising experts say that the percentage of families who participate in a fundraiser is the single strongest indicator of how successful a fundraiser will be. In other words, it’s better to raise money in small amounts from a lot of people than in large amounts from a few people. If the only people who are participating in your fundraiser are your key PTO volunteers, you’re not raising as much as you could. And if they’re each contributing more and more so you can meet your goals, it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

Offer a Variety of Opportunities

Balance is important. Different types of fundraisers appeal to different types of people. It helps to incorporate a mix of product sales, event fundraisers, collection programs like Box Tops for Education, and even retail loyalty programs that reward groups with a percentage of sales.

Here’s an example of what a balanced fundraising year might look like:

Fall: cookie dough sale, first box tops collection

Winter: holiday shop

Spring: carnival, second box tops collection

Ongoing: supermarket loyalty program

Occasional: restaurant fundraising nights

Planning your fundraising in this way has several benefits. For one, it creates broader appeal. A variety of fundraisers will reach more people with different spending habits and discretionary budgets.

This kind of balance also helps fight fundraising fatigue. Many families are happy to support the school once or twice. But you can’t expect to go back to the well too many times. This is where events and collection programs help add to the mix. Loyalty programs, where parents can support the school simply by making regular purchases, can also help. The simpler the program, the more likely people are to participate. More complicated programs like scrip tend to attract fewer participants but typically yield more per purchase for the group.

“Burnout is a factor,” says Crystal Hartwell, president of the Hunt Elementary PTA in Puyallup, Wash. When the group used the same sales fundraiser three years in a row, profits slipped by $300 or more each year. They made a change and also incorporated other types of fundraisers during the year. The result was more participation from families overall. “We’ve found that 10 to 12 percent of the participants in each fundraiser do not participate in the others,” she says.

It also helps to get kids excited about your fundraiser, whether it’s a product sale or the school carnival. When kids are motivated, parents are very likely to take part. Incentives work best if they encourage every child to participate rather than rewarding the few who sell the most. And incentives don’t have to cost a ton. For example, let the kids wear pajamas to school one day if you reach your fundraising goal, or have the principal promise to dress up in a clown suit.

Measure and Recalibrate

Always analyze the success of each fundraiser after calculating your net profit. How did your results compare with those from past years? If you find that sales are trickling off, it’s time to think about something new.

Make notes on what you would do differently next time. If the products from your catalog sale showed up the day before winter break, you should probably start it earlier in the fall. If there weren’t enough volunteers for the three-day book fair, plan to only run it for two days next time.

And ask for feedback. You want to know if parents liked your fundraiser enough to participate in it again. Buss’ group has changed course because of such input. “Our decisions are mainly based on our parental feedback,” she says. “It’s those families that form our organization and that we serve. If one fundraiser doesn’t go well, we move on to the next.”


Planning Tips for More Effective Fundraising

Encourage competition. Give a trophy to the class that collects the most box tops.

Work with local businesses when possible to maximize publicity and goodwill. In exchange, you can publicize their business by thanking them on your website or Facebook page and posting a link back to their site.

Consider timing your efforts to take advantage of holidays. Obviously, wrapping paper will sell before Christmas, but think about a chocolate sale before Easter, or a carnation or flower bulb sale before Mother’s Day.

Increase your profits by doing some work yourself. Can you get a larger rebate from the school photographer if you provide volunteers on picture day to corral the students?

Think about ways to make money from items that parents are already planning to buy. There are fundraising opportunities through companies that sell Halloween costumes, summer workbooks, and other items.

Ask for donations. Request a one-time cash donation at the beginning of the year with the promise that you won’t run any additional fundraisers if you raise a certain amount. Tap into parents’ emotions by emphasizing that the funds stay in their school to pay for programs benefitting their children.

Make sure you have enough committed and reliable volunteers for events. “Success is determined by many things, not just profit,” notes Crystal Hartwell of the Hunt Elementary PTA in Puyallup, Wash. “While a high-profit auction might yield the most in dollars, there’s also a large draw on volunteer time, which can cost energy and time in other areas of your organization.”

Consider local events that you can be part of. If a regional track meet or athletic competition will be held in your town, look into running concessions the day of the event. Find out if any college teams and sports venues in your area allow nonprofits to run concession stands in exchange for a percentage of the sales they make.