New-Look Magazine Drives

Technology creates new options for magazine fundraisers.

by Moira McCarthy


What if there was a giant revenue stream out there already flowing, just waiting for parent groups to harness as added fuel for funding?

Too go to be true? Not so, say magazine companies across the nation. While school magazine drives traditionally have come via a few large companies and funded primarily the middle school market, they’ve branched out. Pushed by magazine companies’ heightened need to reach consumers and coupled with schools’ ever-increasing needs for funding support, the magazine industry has upped your ante. Now, be it through a traditional magazine fundraiser program or new catalog programs that combine magazine vouchers with gift sales, it is the time for you to cash in.

The Kalkaska Elementary PTA of Kalkaska, Mich., realized that at the start of the 2004 school year. In February of 2005, the group launched its first-ever magazine drive, replacing a candy and gift-wrap drive that had been challenging in the past.

“I’m a huge magazine subscriber myself,” says PTA volunteer Debbie Hall-Odeh, who is running that magazine drive. “I hate brochures full of things I don’t want and don’t need but feel I have to buy (to support the school). So the idea of asking people to purchase something they already want and need, just through us, seemed like a good one.”

Hall-Odeh says she was impressed by the industry statistics presented to her by a salesman from American Publishers, by that salesman’s service, and by the fact that most of the selling can be done on-line.

What she’s happy about, industry expert say, is exactly what they are expecting all school groups to warm up to.

“Up until now, there has been one major company in the magazine fundraising business, but now there are several out there competing,” says Robert Corley, director of publisher relations and magazine marketing for Great American Opportunities, one of those newer companies. “That’s a big change, and it has re-energized the industry.”

That “big” company was and still is QSP, a division of Reader’s Digest. While QSP is still the main supplier, they, too, can see that the market is changing. They, too, have begun to offer more to their clients.

“The need for what we do in schools is greater than it has ever been,” says Gary Rich, president of QSP Reader’s Digest. “School funding cuts are deeper. Discretionary dollars are fewer. That’s why the industry is so hot.”

That hot industry is now offering three improvements: stronger sales support, on-line programs, and vouchers.


Not too long ago, selling magazines for schools was an all or nothing proposition. Parent groups either latched onto a magazine drive or chose another fundraiser. All that changed about five years ago when someone came up with a simple yet remarkable idea: magazine subscription vouchers in gift catalogs.

“With that relatively simple concept, a multi-million-dollar opportunity was born,” says Paul Mahler, director of partnership marketing for Time Direct Ventures. At Time, a voucher program was launched in 2001 and is now up and running successfully, offering buyers a choice of 40 magazines via voucher they purchase in a school gift fundraiser.

What schools and Time found out almost immediately was exciting: Not only did people who did not traditionally purchase in such gift programs buy magazines through it, but they bought other items as well.

“Our research found that 33 percent of the (magazine voucher) buyers had never ordered from a school fundraiser before,” he says. “And 40 percent said they would not have purchased anything if the magazine had not been in the (catalog).” And here’s the kicker: Most of that 40 percent also purchased another item. That means, put simply, more sales all the way around for a school fundraiser.

Tina Seekins of Vernon, Conn., saw first-hand the power of vouchers in a fundraising program. As fundraising chair for the Center Road School PTO, she was hesitant to add vouchers to the group’s fall gifts and wrapping paper fundraiser. But her sales consultant at Jeannine Fundraising, Roger Coutu (who actually owns the company), convinced her it was worth one try.

“We had done fundraisers with them forever, and this was the first year we decided to add vouchers,” she says. “We weren’t too sure about it.”

Until the numbers came in. Without doing anything more than adding the voucher offering to their selections, her PTO earned $600, just on magazines. That was a 5 percent increase in the total funds brought in. “And that’s really by doing nothing,” she says.

Seekins and her group are sold. They plan to continue with vouchers in their fundraisers and to publicize them. “It is only going to get even better,” she says. “People just love them. The feedback I got is that in fact it is true: Not everybody wants gift-wrap or gifts. This opened up a chance to buy for people who had not before.” Seekins also learned from feedback that many vouchers purchased were used as gifts. “It’s just such an easy, nice gift to give.”

Coutu was not surprised at the success. “And the real beauty here is that vouchers don’t ‘steal’ from the fundraiser. In other words, people aren’t choosing not to buy something they would have to buy this. In fact, we know that the voucher sales are additional sales and not just ‘stolen’ sales. Most of the time, people buying vouchers have never bought through a school program before.”

“We are sold on this,” says Seekins. “Other schools should try it, too.”

Gift Vouchers

Time’s next big thing, says Mahler, will be to make the “gifting” of vouchers more desirable. Next year, the company hopes to launch a packaged voucher as a gift item. “We want to make the vouchers look better and be better understood.”

The potential of vouchers is big, even in towns where the middle school already runs big magazine drives, says J.C. Smith, national sales manager of American Publishers Hearst. “There is plenty of opportunity for more than one magazine fundraiser in a town,” he says. “What you’ll be doing is taking a customer who traditionally purchases magazines and getting them to purchase that same magazine from a school fundraiser. Eventually, the elementary program (be it voucher or complete program) will provide a feeder system to the middle schools. What you’ll be doing is retaining magazine renewals rather than letting them evaporate.”

On-line Purchasing

Like just about anything else in our world today, magazine drives are shifting on-line. “Tremendous emphasis is being placed on Internet sales,” says Smith. “Over the next few years, you will see a shift so that entire programs can be done on-line. This will mean easier execution from beginning to end from the volunteer’s point of view.”

An example of that happening right now is the ESPN program. Says Margo Guthlein, senior marketing manager at ESPN, the company expects more and more school programs at the elementary, middle, and high school level to sign on. In the summer of 2004, ESPN launched its on-line magazine program, with 100 titles, to a small audience in the Northeast. As the program rolls out nationally, the company will be looking to provide a program that runs, from beginning to end, on-line.

“There is no door to door; it’s just on-line everything,” Guthlein says. What happens is a student gets a link for the fundraiser and goes to it, puts in email addresses he wants to send his fundraising invitation to, and it goes out. From there, potential buyers can click on and make their purchase by credit card. In the ESPN program, checks are cut and sent to the school monthly throughout the half-year campaign, based on how sales are going. In other words, no waiting until the end of the campaign for your cash.

At American Publishers Hearst, the same is happening. The way it works there, says Operations Manager Keith Erickson, is each school gets a log-in identification number and password. The ID number is listed in the parent letter announcing the fundraiser. With the number, it’s easy for students to ask potential customers to make a purchase. The student (or parent) simply logs on, types in the email addresses he wants requests sent to, clicks a button, and off they go. As the program goes along, the chairs can log in at any time and see not only how the fundraiser as a whole is doing, but how much each student has sold to date. American Publishers Hearst cuts one check at the end of the fundraiser.

Most companies plan to launch on-line services soon, ending any door-to-door sales and making reaching out to far-away supporters possible. Companies are also working to provide such things as gift-level tallies and progress reports on-line, making the event from beginning to end a cyber process that uses minimal paper.

Sales Force Is Still Key

But even with more and more programs moving on-line, what happens face-to-face still matters a lot. With the increased competition in the field has come a renewed vigor in sales force.

Betsy McGrath, co-president of the Cottage Street School PTO in Sharon, Mass., looks closely at service in choosing a fundraising company. “We look for a good working relationship, and for a person who knows they are not the only game in town. We made a point of telling our sales person that we know they are not the only game in town.” It worked, she says. “It’s amazing the quality of response we get from companies now that they know we know we can be particular.”

In the end, the changes and advances in magazine drives mean one thing: more money to fund what kids need. And in the end, says Smith, that is really what it is all about.

“We at Hearst think we can do better for schools and for kids,” he says. “I look at this from an educator’s perspective (he’s a former teacher). This does elevate literacy in schools. It provides reading materials. What could be more exciting than seeing a third grader enjoy his first subscription?”

And if it helps fund school needs, he says, all the better.

Choosing a Magazine Company

Service. Providers and PTO parents alike agree, it all comes down to the salesperson and the service he can offer you. Look for a salesperson willing to adapt to your school’s individual needs, who makes frequent visits, who offers great prizes and support.

Profits. It is important when looking at profit promises not to be lured by too enticing a number. While some companies may offer higher percentage returns, that may come with a negative balance of less service and support. Weigh them both carefully.

Product. QSP is the oldest and largest provider, and offers the widest range of titles. But other companies are adding more and more to their lists. Read through the titles to make sure you have something your audience will like and want to buy.

Price for your customer. Most magazine drives offer competitive prices, from $10 to $12 a year for a monthly is average. Some offer whatever price is listed on any renewal form a buyer might turn in. Make sure the company you choose provides that option.

Innovative ideas. Ask what they have that’s new and exciting. For example, Time will soon be rolling out the concept of “gifting” subscriptions. When you purchase a voucher, you’ll get some kind of nice box or gift set-up so it’s ready for you to give to grandma or the teacher or whoever you have in mind. Ask about new programs. You should get an impressive answer as most companies are working on something special.

On-line options. Does the company offer them? How can it work for you? What about families who aren’t on-line? And do they offer on-line redemption to make cashing in subscriptions easier for your buyers? All this is important in this tech savvy age.


# Karen 2009-08-31 12:58
Any school group which opts for a magazine drive including "gift" items like candles and mugs should insist that catalogs given to the children selling contain dimensions for ALL products. The last fundraiser for my childrens' school included $20 candles which looked nice in the catalog, but upon delivery turned out to be just 3" tall. Tins with snack items for $18 were also barely a serving size. Needless to say after a few years of this, the relatives were no longer interested in buying.
# Charles Imbert 2010-01-16 23:49
I ordered $139.00 worth of magazines with the Fairview Elementary PTO last fall. I still have not gotten all the magazines I ordered. I finally got my first People Magazine in January only to find it was the Spanish version. I do not speak Spanish. Can you help me?

Charles (Chuck) Imbert
212 Mathis Lane
Sherman, Texas 75090

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