How to choose a fundraiser

There’s more to fundraising strategy than finding the biggest profit. Here’s what you need to know to pick a program that’s right for your group.

by Christy Forhan and Lani Harac


Choosing a fundraiser can be confusing, and especially so if you’ve spent time operating your school parent group from a distance. There are lots of products to sell: candy, gift wrap, cookie dough, magazines, candles, and much more. Or should you organize an event like a bake sale, carnival, auction, or fun run?

But it’s not just about dollars; it’s also about using your resources wisely so you end up with excited volunteers and happy parents who are more likely to support your next request for support. As we reconnect with families and school staff and return to in-person fundraising, this is the ideal time to strategize so that your fundraiser will be a success. To pick the right fundraiser, first think about the endpoint, then look at how you’ll get there.

The Endpoint: How Much Money Do You Need? How Will You Spend It?

Running too many fundraisers kills parent involvement. Most parents don’t get involved in a PTO to fundraise; they get involved to make a difference for the students and the school. If your group gets a reputation for doing nothing but fundraising, you’ll have a very hard time getting people to help out. The weaker your group’s connection with parents at your school, the less you’ll raise. You’ll have to run more and more fundraisers to earn the same amount of money—it’s a downward spiral.

Avoid this by creating a budget at the start of the year. This has two benefits: It’ll help your group identify what you want to spend money on, and it’ll show you how much additional income you’ll need to balance your budget. With this info, you can target your fundraising to the amount of money you have to raise, plus communicate clearly how it’ll be used.

Holiday shop how-to! Choosing a vendor, getting organized, and lots of promotional tools

The Means: What Kind of Help Will You Have? What Will Your Community Go For? How Fast Do You Need the Money?

Different fundraisers require different resources in terms of volunteer hours and skills. If your PTO is currently surviving with a few loyal supporters, don’t commit to a fundraiser that consumes a large team for several months, like an auction gala or a golf tournament. If you’re struggling to find a treasurer, you might be cautious about selling discount cards, which have layers of bookkeeping complexity. Select a fundraiser that matches your members’ time and ability to run the project.

It’s important to keep in mind what businesses call opportunity cost. What else could you do with those volunteer hours if you didn’t spend the time running a complex fundraiser? The key is to balance the fundraiser’s demands with your financial needs.

There’s also the question of what your school community will support. Find out what’s been done before and how well it worked. Call former officers from your school’s parent group. Ask your principal. Chat with the more experienced teachers. Visit with veteran parents. Look through old PTO files. You might discover long-forgotten traditions that could be revived, such as a welcome-back wiener roast or a neighborhood carnival. Just as important, you might learn about some dreadful fundraising failures.

If you can, talk directly with parents about their feelings on fundraising. Find out whether they’d like to buy something tangible or prefer an event-type fundraiser. Ask whether parents would support a one-and-done major fundraiser or whether multiple smaller fundraisers spread out would be more appealing.

Event fundraisers have a community-building aspect that product sales fundraisers typically can’t match. You can get people excited about your dinner-dance gala in a way they never will be for your annual product sale. The right event can become a positive focus or even a school tradition, like the Colonia (N.J.) Middle School PTO’s annual basketball tournament, which grew so large it had to be moved to a different venue, or the PTO carnival at St. Philip the Apostle School in Pasadena, Calif., which became a communitywide celebration that raises $60,000 a year.

On the other hand, big event fundraisers can take months to organize and run. If you need money fairly quickly, you’ll be better off going for a standard sales fundraiser, which can be planned and run start to finish within a few weeks.

The charts below show some of the most popular types of fundraisers divided by how much they can raise, how long they take, and how much volunteer power is needed to pull it off. Use them as a reference as you’re considering the right fundraisers for your group this year.


Sales Fundraisers

If you decide that a sales fundraiser will work best, you’ll need to choose with specific program will best suit your PTO and your community.

Think like a retailer when you select a company to work with. Is there adequate demand for this product or group of products in your market? Consider what’s sold well in the past, what nearby schools are selling, and what you yourself would buy. With a sales fundraiser, you want the product to help compel your customers to support your group;it’s not just about donating to the cause.

Some sales are so well-received by the school community that they become a tradition. If parents look forward to buying flower bulbs from your PTO every year, they expect the PTO to offer this fundraiser and they’ll support it with their wallets. If your PTO has that sort of tradition, don’t mess with success.

If you’d like to build a fundraising tradition like this, look for products that have the best potential for repeat sales. Search for a fundraiser that no one else is offering in your area, that fits your customers’ price point, that’s suitable for your community, and that’s likely to be desired year after year.

When comparing product sales programs, think about whether the item tends to be a one-time buy or something that’ll be used up and will need to be replaced in the future. The most obvious products are food items, but other consumable products fit this category, too: Candles burn down, greeting cards get mailed, wrapping paper’s ripped up, school supplies get used. If you hope to repeat this sale in the future, consider how long it’ll be before customers want to replenish their personal inventory.

Don’t assume your community will support the PTO’s sales fundraiser regardless of the product you offer. Perceived value is important. Sales fundraisers work because customers (your school families) believe they’re getting quality items at a reasonable price—while also supporting a worthy cause.

Do-It-Yourself Fundraising Events

If you go with a fundraising event, you’ll need to settle on what kind of event to have. In general, any type of do-it-yourself fundraiser requires more volunteer effort than a professional sales fundraiser. That’s the trade-off: Youkeep more of the profit with a DIY event, and you’ll do more of the work than if you use a professional company. Here’s also where opportunity cost comes in: If your best volunteers are tied up planning the big community art fair, they won’t be available to help with other PTO projects.

Before you announce your big event, recruit a qualified chairperson. Lots of people will nod in agreement when talking about different fundraising events, but few are willing to step forward to be in charge. Look for a reliable chairperson before you move ahead, whether you’re planning a simple spaghetti dinner for the 2nd graders or a major auction gala open to the community at large.

The success of your fundraising event depends on getting your school community engaged. Sales fundraisers are essentially passive: The catalog arrives at home and parents make decisions about buying. They might encourage friends or coworkers to buy, but the whole process is low effort and finished in about a week. For an event fundraiser, you’ll make money only if people show up, so marketing and publicity are especially important. Start early and build excitement so that everyone wants to be there.

Event fundraising also requires some careful coordination with your principal and school staff members. Before you can set a date, you’ll need to review the school calendar with your principal. Depending on the type of event you have in mind, you might need to verify availability of the gym, cafeteria, auditorium, or school grounds. You also might need additional custodial or cafeteria staff.

When figuring the budget for your fundraising event, be realistic about all of the costs you’ll incur. “Do it yourself” doesn’t mean “free.” No matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to get every water bottle, T-shirt, and balloon donated. You’ll need to factor some out-of-pocket expenses into your overall profit plan.

The payback for an event fundraiser is fun and memories. People aren’t buying anything specific, so you want to work extra hard to make sure the event is fun and memorable. Adding an element of amusement or silliness can ensure that people are talking about your event today and looking forward to it again next time.

Originally posted in 2010 and updated regularly.


# Lele Galer 2010-03-22 20:13
I think that your fundraising article was full of some great, practical advice --it would be great to have it as a sheet with bulleted points.

Also - please consider doing a regular piece on grantwriting to supplement fundraisers. I do this as a volunteer for our district and the PTOs. PTOs are 501c3s and therefore able to apply for private and corporate grants. Just a thought. Great job.

Lele Galer
# Craig Bystrynski 2010-03-29 21:58
Hi Lele -- Glad you found the article helpful. Regarding grants, we do have an article on grantwriting that includes tips on where to find grants. It's called Finding and Winning Grants. One terrific grant program that specifically targets parent groups is Lowe's Toolbox for Education.
# Howard 2011-04-03 19:00
There are lots of different school fundraising ideas. I strongly suggest schools use brochure fundraisers. That way there is no upfront cost and you only purchase the items you've already sold.
# Terry Duperon 2012-01-13 23:35
I really like this article on keeping it simple and focused. Building relationship with the families. Inspires people to want to participate and contribute both in time and financially.
# Amy 2013-03-13 00:59
@ Lele,
Not all PTOs are 501c3, it is an extensive process that requires money. Ours has not opted to go there yet. I am wondering if it has been a good move for others?
# JPS 2015-04-28 16:22
Some great ideas. Another idea to consider is a travel fundraiser. It’s a great way for sports teams or for that matter schools and PTOs to raise money. Everybody travels for business and vacations. It is an easy alternative.
# Kim Link 2016-02-12 16:03
Great article. We are going to run a Christmas Ornament Fundraiser this year. We are going to put our logo on the front and the year on the back. This way we are hoping that families will want to collect the yearly ornaments. We are purchasing the ornaments from • They have been helpful and sent a sample of another ornament for us to look at. We can set up a table and sell them at our other events.
# Fundraiser Guy 2016-06-21 20:21
One fundraiser I do every year with my baseball team are donation cards. No products to deliver, no inventory, just scratch and give a donation.

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