Choosing a fundraiser for your school can be a confusing project. 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? The right choice can make a significant difference for your group. But it’s not just about dollars; it’s also about using your resources wisely so you don’t end up with burned out volunteers or unhappy parents who aren’t likely to support you the next time you coming looking for help or money.

Fundraising rule number one is to start with a plan. 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. And the weaker your connection with parents at your school, the less you will raise. You’ll have to run more and more fundraisers to earn the same amount of money—it’s a downward spiral. Avoid it by creating a budget at the beginning of the year, then targeting your fundraising to the amount of money you need. Limit your group to one or two—three at the absolute most—major fundraisers a year.

Rule number two is to evaluate your resources. Different fundraisers require vastly different resources in terms of volunteer hours and skills. If your PTO is currently surviving with a handful of loyal supporters, don’t commit to a fundraiser that consumes a large team for several months, like an auction gala or golf tournament. If you’re having trouble finding a treasurer, you might be cautious about selling scrip (store coupons), which have a layer of bookkeeping complexity. Select a fundraiser that matches your members’ time and ability to run the project.

It’s also 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? Could you create an after-school program? Organize a multicultural event? Add more family nights? The key is to balance the time demands of your fundraiser with your financial needs.

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

One complication of big, event-type fundraisers is that they take months to organize and run. If you need money fairly quickly, a standard sales fundraiser can be put together in a few weeks. On the other hand, event fundraisers have a community-building aspect that product sales fundraisers typically can’t match. You can get people excited about your auction dinner-dance in a way they never will be for your annual catalog 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 has become a communitywide celebration that raises $60,000 a year.

Beyond your own resources, there’s the matter of what parents in your school community will support. Find out what has been run in the past and how well it worked. Call a former officer from your school’s parent group. Ask the principal. Visit with the more experienced teachers. Chat with “older” parents. Look through old PTO files. You might discover long-forgotten traditions that could be revived, such as a neighborhood carnival or a welcome-back wiener roast. Just as important, you might learn about some dreadful fundraising failures. Listen closely so your group won’t make the same mistakes.

In addition, talk with parents about their feelings on fundraising. Find out whether they would like to buy something or would prefer an event-type fundraiser. It’s also important to gauge whether your parents would support a one-and-done major fundraiser or whether smaller fundraisers spread out over time would be more appealing. You might even be able to estimate approximately how much each family would be willing to commit to PTO fundraising, which could allow you to set a projected budget. If your PTO is new or there is no historical record of previous fundraisers, you might even want to conduct a written survey of parents.

Sales Fundraisers

If you decide that a sales fundraiser would work best, you still have a major decision; there are literally dozens of options from which to pick. So now you must decide which specific sales program will best suit your PTO and your community.

Some products sell better in one community than another. Think like a retailer when you select your fundraising program. Do you believe there is adequate demand for this product or group of products in your market? Consider what has sold well in the past, what nearby schools are selling, and what you yourself would like to buy. Remember that 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 kind of tradition. For example, your parents look forward to the PTO’s annual wreath sale just before the Christmas season. Another group in the community knows it can buy flower bulbs from your PTO every year. The parents expect the PTO to offer that fundraiser, and they will support it with their wallets. If your PTO has that sort of tradition, don’t mess with success. If you would like to build a fundraising tradition like that, 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 is suitable for your community, and that would likely be desired year after year.

When comparing the various sales programs, consider whether the product offered tends to be a one-time purchase or something that will be used up and will need to be replaced in the future. The most obvious consumable products are food items, but other products fit this category, too. Candles burn down, greeting cards get mailed, wrapping paper is ripped up, school supplies get used. If you hope to repeat this sale in the future, consider how long it will be before your customers want to buy this product again.

Some sales programs feature one item or class of items—coffee, candy, or socks, for instance. You can pick a theme and build a marketing campaign for your sale. For example, you can promote the sale of specialty pastries in conjunction with Mother’s Day or the sale of beef snacks around Father’s Day. It might sound trite to associate certain items with traditional holidays, but the connection helps your customers understand why they need your products.

Don’t assume your community will support the PTO’s sales fundraiser regardless of the product you offer. Perceived value is important. You won’t meet your fundraising goals if the products are way out of line with the selling price. Sales fundraisers work because customers believe they are getting something of quality at a reasonable price while also supporting a worthy cause.

Do-It-Yourself Fundraising Events

If you’ve concluded that your PTO would be best served by a do-it-yourself fundraising event, then the next step is to decide what kind of event you want 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: You might keep more of your profit with a do-it-yourself event, but a professional company will handle a lot of the work for you. If you do it yourself, be sure to consider opportunity cost. 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 the Big Event, it is wise to 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. Be certain you have a reliable chairperson before you move ahead, no matter whether you are planning a simple spaghetti dinner for the 2nd graders or a major auction gala open to the community at large.

Even more so than a typical sales fundraiser, the success of a 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 over in about a week. Not so for an event fundraiser. You will make money only if people show up at your event, so marketing and publicity are especially important. Start early and build excitement so that everyone wants to be there.

Event fundraising also requires extra coordination with your principal and school staff. 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, the cafeteria, the auditorium, or the school grounds. You also might have to enlist the aid of the custodial or cafeteria staff for your event. Do that early so you aren’t scrambling later when you find out you picked the same date for your art fair as the Girl Scouts reserved for World Thinking Day.

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

The payback for an event fundraiser is fun and memories. People aren’t buying anything in particular. So you want to work extra hard to make sure the event is fun and memorable. Price your carnival tickets appropriately so families feel that they are getting a good value. Have the 3rd grade choir sing the national anthem before the teachers vs. administrators basketball game. Take a break between rounds of family bingo for a pie-eating contest up on the stage. Hire a DJ to blast tunes during the walkathon. Adding an element of fun, maybe even silliness, can ensure that people are talking about your event today and looking forward to it again next time.

For the right PTO at the right time, a special do-it-yourself event can be one of the most enjoyable and lucrative fundraisers your group ever conducts. And if your PTO prefers to share the workload, you can partner with the professionals who work in the fundraising industry every day. But it’s not necessarily an either-or decision. Most PTOs do a combination of sales and event fundraising throughout the year. If you take a little extra time to consider the key points discussed here, your PTO will be well on its way to setting a course for fundraising success.

4 Key Planning Questions

  1. How much money needs to be raised? Start with an annual budget for an idea of how much money it will take to accomplish your goals. If you need several thousand dollars, you won’t get there by holding a few bake sales. On the other hand, you don’t want to burn out your school community on fundraisers, then discover you’ve raised far more than you plan to spend.

  2. How fast do you need to raise it? You can organize a bake sale and make a hundred dollars in seed money pretty quickly. A product sale can raise a significant amount in a month. A major event like a carnival, fun run, or auction can take several months to organize and promote.

  3. What are your volunteer resources? Large, do-it-yourself fundraisers are terrific for building community but require a lot of volunteer hours and significant organizational skill. If you don’t have enough volunteers to share the workload, your committee chairpeople will most likely be exhausted and frustrated by the time the event rolls around. Product sales generally don’t do much for community spirit, but they can be run by a few people over a relatively short span of time.

  4. What kind of fundraiser will your community support? Chat with parents at your next family night or create a written survey. If you’re thinking of selling a product, gauge the interest in that product. Find out how much people would be willing to spend and whether they prefer just one fundraiser or a few throughout the year.