Many parent groups looking for a new fundraising product to sell while also trying to make their schools more earth-friendly have found solutions to both challenges with green fundraisers. These sales offer products that help reduce waste by substituting reusables for disposables such as plastic water bottles and grocery bags. Or the items are made of recycled material, use less energy, are organic and chemical-free, or are bought domestically or through fair trade. Some green fundraisers feature flower bulbs and seeds for home gardeners.
One sign of the growing popularity of this trend is an increase in green initiatives adopted by traditional fundraising companies. For example, Innisbrook now uses recycled paper for its gift wrap, recycles leftover inks, and has reduced waste by eliminating some cardboard packaging and order forms as it has moved to online ordering. DMI Fundraising offers a green catalog sale that includes soy-blend candles, recycled plastic trash bags, and note cards printed on recycled paper. “Our card says ‘Go green with your fundraiser,’ and that has gotten a lot of attention,” says Bonnie Girton, president of DMI Fundraising.
And there are many fundraising companies focused exclusively on environmentally friendly products, usually with profit margins similar to their traditional counterparts. One option is to choose conventional products with a twist. For example, Mother Earth Fundraising offers wrapping paper that eliminates waste by embedding wildflower seeds into the paper; once the gift is opened, the paper can be planted. “It’s one of our more popular products,” says company cofounder T.J. Compagnone. Another option is to choose unusual products like low-flow water nozzles, composting systems, biodegradable trash bags and pens, organic cleaning products and baking mixes, and compact fluorescent light bulbs.
When deciding what to sell, some groups address the concerns of their particular school community. In Berkley, Mich., where Pattengill Elementary is seeking accreditation as a Michigan Green School, parents were worried about BPA, a chemical used in some plastics that some studies have linked to potential health problems in children. So the most important aspect of the reusable bottles they sold was that they did not contain BPA, says Tina Woodbeck, the PTA secretary. The group made $2,400 on what Woodbeck calls “the easiest fundraiser we’ve done.”
Promotional opportunities abound with green fundraisers. One natural tie-in is Earth Day on April 22. “Send out press releases to local newspapers and TV stations,” suggests Corey Berman, cofounder of Koru Fundraising. “Bring them in to see how your school is promoting Earth Day. We had one school where two-thirds of the student body showed up at the school at 6:30 a.m.” to appear on a TV morning talk show segment.
And there are lots of ways to use striking visuals. Lisa Olson, president and founder of Greenraising, says that one school group promoted the purchase of reusable grocery bags by creating a “bag monster.” Someone wore a costume made of 300 plastic bags—one estimate of the average number of grocery bags a person uses in a year. The bag monster made a memorable appearance at the kickoff assembly for the fundraiser. Another idea is to have the principal promise to dye his hair green if the school reaches its fundraiser sales goal.
As is true of most any fundraiser, but especially with a product that is new, letting customers see the product can really spur sales. At Ronald Reagan Elementary in Bakersfield, Calif., Parent Club first vice president Heidi McCraw ordered 12 reusable bags of different sizes and in different patterns from Mixed Bag Designs and asked her friends to carry them when picking up their kids. As a result, people started asking about them, and the school of 850 students made a profit of about $12,000. Other ideas from Peggy Herzig, national sales manager for fundraising at Mixed Bag Designs, are to hang the bags from a clothesline (along with a poster about the sale) near where students are dropped off or to use flattened bags as place mats for a teacher or volunteer appreciation luncheon.
Pairing a new product with a more traditional fundraiser is another good idea. One example is Reagan Elementary, which sold $2,000 worth of Smencils, scented pencils made of recycled paper, at its book fair. “We bought 500 and they were gone in a day,” says McCraw, who had to order more to meet the demand.
Talk Up the Benefits
Getting kids involved is key. “Children seem to get it; they’re willing to change behaviors,” says Ann Whitman, cofounder of Back2Tap, which offers stainless steel water bottles. Some companies provide kid-friendly videos to communicate the environmental message. Back2Tap has a video about the life cycle of a water bottle, from the development of the plastic, where water is found, and how it’s brought to the bottling company, to the landfills where most bottles end up. Children also respond well to games. For example, to promote the purchase of reusable water bottles, you might have a plastic bottle toss at recess or lunch, with teams racing to fill up a bag with empty bottles to be taken to the recycling center. To promote reusable lunch containers, recruit students to gather and measure the waste from one day in the lunchroom.
To drive home the message about the benefits of reusable water bottles, schools in Westfield, N.J., formed a districtwide green team and designed a logo to be embossed on the stainless steel bottles they sold. One side features a globe with leaves coming out of it and “Westfield Public Schools”; on the other side is a line for students to write their name, followed by the words “is helping to save the planet,” according to Lane Graves, cochair of Franklin Elementary’s green team committee. While eliminating plastic bottle waste was the group’s main objective—they marked up the reusable bottles by only $2 to keep them affordable—Franklin sold 500 bottles and made a profit of $1,000. Other schools have held a logo design contest among students.
Whatever your approach, be sure to convey a double message with green fundraisers. “Communicate that you’re raising money for what the PTO is funding and that we should do our part for the earth,” says Olson of Greenraising. “You need to communicate both messages. Some are motivated by one message and some by the other.” This twofold message dovetails nicely if you use a green fundraiser to raise money for an environmental benefit. For example, some schools selling reusable bottles have used the money to purchase bottleless water coolers that provide cold, filtered water for the schools.
And if the fundraising company you’re working with is a good citizen, make sure your parents know that, too. For example, Back2Tap donates 5 percent of its profits to a charity that assists countries where access to clean drinking water is a problem.
Emphasize that the products you’re selling provide the solution to a problem. For those concerned about school lunch waste, Koru Fundraising offers reusable food containers that are BPA-free. “A lot of families want to go green, so getting them on board with a green fundraiser is not the hardest part,” Berman says. “We provide products families have been looking for. That gets them excited.”
Originally published in 2010 and updated regularly.