Some school PTO and PTA groups have tapped into a new way to raise money for critical school projects: online contests powered by social media. The winners are reeling in big bucks.

Instead of ringing up sales, the goal is to rack up votes. Parents reach out to everyone they know through Facebook, Twitter, online discussion groups and communities, and email, encouraging friends to vote and to spread the word.

In February 2010, the Brouillet Elementary PTA in Puyallup, Wash., entered a contest sponsored by the Pepsi Refresh Project in hopes of finally realizing their goal of a new playground. Participants had to create a video about their project. During the month, voters would pick their favorite project. The top 10 would get funding, up to $50,000 each.

“It was so easy for people to help,” says PTA president Shannon Perkins. “All I was asking for was a click of the mouse. I didn’t want their money.”

Perkins used strategic mass email communication to spread the word, then monitored her school’s progress online. “It was exciting, and it was also very stressful,” Perkins says, joking that she’s glad February has just 28 days. “We were up and down, up and down for the whole month.”

When the competition ended, the school had the third highest vote total. The parent group got its $50,000 in March, and by the first week of school in the fall, kids were having a blast on their new playground.

Learn the benefits, risks, and costs of credit card processing for your fundraiser

Is an Online Contest Right for You?

As with any project, parents have to decide whether an online contest is worth their time investment. While a few groups do win, most of those who participate don’t win. You’ll need to determine whether it’s worthwhile to marshal your resources into an all-encompassing effort with a big payoff, but one you are unlikely to achieve.

Success depends on your parent group’s reach. How many friends do your members have? How many friends do those friends have? Do you have the networks set up to reach thousands of people willing to take a few seconds out of their day to vote?

Here are some other issues to consider:

  • Do you have an enthusiastic parent eager to spearhead the effort?
  • Do you have enough lead time to create and execute a strategic campaign?
  • Is your school community already comfortable with social media?
  • Is your project a good fit for the contest?
  • Can you afford to direct energy toward the possibility of winning a contest or is your project urgent and in need of a more sure outcome, like a traditional fundraiser?

At Laurel Ridge Elementary in Decatur, Ga., parents were initially excited about a contest sponsored by the search engine Bing. Through the Our School Needs program, schools could win a cut of a quarter of a million dollars earmarked for projects such as new library books or a refurbished gym.

Laurel Ridge parents desperately want to retrofit their school’s playground so students with special needs can enjoy recess. But the Bing contest wasn’t a good fit. The parent group had a hard time uploading its application to the site. Parents were concerned that the contest was confusing to voters, who were urged to register and open an account with Bing. “It could look like an email grab,” says Emily Proctor, co-vice president of the PTA.

Parent leaders decided to pass on that opportunity and instead are focusing on getting a grant from a company that makes retrofitted playground equipment. “A contest requires a lot of participation, and you don’t want to exhaust people,” Proctor says, adding that she thinks Bing’s effort to support schools is terrific. “You want to go out with a strong campaign.”

Here are some key components to a strong, effective campaign:

  • Build a database of email addresses of every parent, teacher and staff member in your school. In your emails to these direct supporters, urge recipients to forward the email to all their contacts. Emphasize in your communications how you will use the money if you win. Always include the link to vote as well as details about how many times a person is allowed to vote.

  • Encourage anyone in your parent group who isn’t already on Facebook to sign up and build a network. Show reluctant users how to adjust settings to protect their privacy.

  • Enlist a parent comfortable with social media to build a Twitter following. The social networking tool isn’t as widely used as Facebook, but it’s great for sending out quick bursts of information.

  • Reach out to local radio stations. Ask them to talk about the contest on the air and to provide a link to the contest on their website.

  • Contact every local media outlet, from the smallest community newspaper to the largest TV station. Encourage reporters to focus on your school’s enthusiasm and the worthiness of the project.

  • Touch base with homeowners associations, neighborhood watch programs, and other community groups. Encourage them to send an email to their members or post a link on their Facebook pages and websites.

  • Tap into your community’s most active online discussion groups and listservs. Universities, arts organizations, parent cooperatives, and other niche groups often have active listservs. Some groups have strict guidelines, so make sure it’s OK before you post about the contest.

  • Reach out to local businesses and to the corporations for whom many of your school’s parents work. Ask them to announce the contest in flyers, on their Intranet site, or in an electronic or paper newsletter.

  • Reach out to school alumni. Lake High School in Millbury, Ohio, won first place in the Kohl’s Cares contest, winning half a million dollars. (See “Ohio School Wins Big,” below.) The enthusiast who started it all: a woman who had attended the school and now lives in another state.

  • Talk up the contest at school just like you would any fundraiser: through posters, announcements, and flyers in backpacks.

Ohio School Wins Big

So how did Lake High School beat out all the other schools that entered? “The secret is to have your building blown down by a tornado,” jokes principal Lee Herman. Lake High was leveled by a devastating tornado in June 2010.

When an alumna in another state wanted to enter the Kohl’s Cares contest, Herman was grateful, but he didn’t think his school had a chance. “I thought, Oh, schools in L.A. or New York will win; they have so many more people,” he says. “We’re so small, we couldn’t possibly pull it off.”

The former student used Facebook to get the momentum going. The school was near the top 20 when a local news station picked up the story. Suddenly, the little school in Ohio was making a run for the top.

“People knew we could use $500,000,” Herman says. The contest gave supporters a way to feel like they were part of the rebuilding effort. Schools in Nebraska, Texas, and Missouri offered to share their votes, urging their supporters to direct some of their votes to Lake High. The story caught on and never lost steam. “We had enough people who cared about us,” Herman says. “We really didn’t have to do a lot of work.”

Toward the end of the contest, Lake was in the lead, but then it slipped to 21st going into the last day. A radio station featured the story early in the morning, and by 10 a.m., the school was back up to fifth place. “By the time it was done, we were in first,” says Herman, who was moved by the outpouring of support for a community that lost seven lives and many homes in the disaster.

As online competitions get more common, more schools will compete, with only a few getting the big prize money. Still, for many of them, the thrill of the competition and the chance of getting a big check will make online competitions worth the challenge.