Moms who want to buy a $5 mystery grab bag at PS 87’s annual auction know they better act fast—the bags usually sell out in the first hour. That’s because the shopping bags are filled with such treats as a full set of Avon makeup brushes, Yves St. Laurent perfume samples, costume jewelry, magazines, discount coupons for local film developing, free health club vouchers, and lots more. All thanks to Jean Joachim, resident grab bag genius at the school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Kids enjoy Joachim’s work, as well. For the past six years at the school’s spring fair, she’s sold $2 grab bags for kids, filled with funky Sci-Fi Channel watches, McDonald’s Teenie Beanies, pencils, key rings, rub-on tattoos, Colgate toothpaste samples, Quaker Oats snack bars, reversible USA Network caps, and other goodies. Last year a donation of Gap backpacks was such a hit that her 500 grab bags sold out in record time, for a $1,000 profit.
How does she do it? “My secret is finding people in the parent body who work for large corporations,” says Joachim, a mother of two sons who is an author, columnist, and direct-marketing whiz. “Every corporation has a supply of pens, magnets, or mouse pads with its logo that it usually can donate. Even if you only get a dozen of one item, that’s fine because it individualizes the bags and that helps repeat sales. Someone sees something she didn’t get, so she tries again by buying a second bag.”
Joachim advertised in the school newsletter and asked parents to think about whom they could approach for donations in their own company or elsewhere. Word of mouth lead her to a contact at Empire Blue Cross, which gave hundreds of pens, and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, which had several extra boxes of Jelly Belly jellybeans.
However, Joachim points out, you don’t need corporate sponsors to make moneymaking bags. “Why not do grab bags at Halloween, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day?” she suggests. “You can buy bulk holiday-themed toys and candy very inexpensively from U.S. Toy Company and Oriental Trading and fill up bags that kids will snap up.” She’s done that, too, laying out $80 to buy stuff to fill 150 bags that sell for $2 each—a quick $220 profit at a holiday bake sale or party.
‘An Important Cause’
Joachim began volunteering at her son’s elementary school the year he started kindergarten, after “I was dragged to the school auction by another mom,” she says. Soon after, she volunteered at a bake sale and found that “people were so nice and it was so much fun it was hard not to get involved. I’m not usually much of a joiner, but I made an exception when I saw there was so much the school didn’t have.” She found that the inclusive, friendly feeling of the PS 87 Parents Association drew her in. “You just wanted to be part of it because you all felt united in an important cause. Plus, it was a great way to meet other parents.”
The next year, she initiated a breakfast for new parents on the first day of school. “It was very traumatic for me, sending my son off to kindergarten, and I thought it would help parents to talk to each other and others who’d already been through it. I wished there had been something like that around when my son started.” She found that such gatherings not only help ease the way for parents but also ultimately benefit the school. “If you make parents feel they’re a part of the school quickly, they’ll be more likely to be involved and be more responsive to giving time and money later on.”
From there, Joachim became the school’s health and safety committee chairperson, and for two years she was the PA’s administrative vice president. Along the way, she also helped with dozens of fundraisers in various capacities, helped out in the classroom, and was a general school cheerleader.
“This wasn’t about me being the chief. Usually I was just a foot soldier,” she notes. “Being a volunteer, but not the one who is ultimately responsible and in charge, is just as fun and important.”
Former PA President Sydnie Ronga welcomes volunteers like Joachim. “Jean contributed to PS 87 in countless ways. She was on the board with me for a number of years, and her insights into the school and public education were always helpful, especially when I was PA president. The important thing that Jean always remembered, and reminded us all, was what we were fundraising for and how important community is.”
Although she had worked in advertising and direct marketing for major ad agencies and has her own consulting business, Joachim found that just being a parent was enough experience to be a good volunteer. “I really had no background for anything I did at the school, but I had a business head and a great brownie recipe,” she says with a laugh. “You don’t need experience in anything. Desire is more important than experience.”
The Next Chapter
Volunteering at PS 87, a top-rated New York City public elementary school of 900 students, has become a “life-changing experience for me,” says Joachim. Not only has it made her dear friends, but it also has led to her first published book and the opportunity to take the school’s successful ideas to parents across the country and inspire other parents to get involved.
At PS 87, Joachim saw how parents banded together to create a fundraising machine that now raises more than $250,000 a year through dances, bake sales, and movie nights, plus an annual harvest festival, spring fair, and live and silent auction. In the 10 years she has belonged to the group, the PA has raised more than $1.8 million. These funds have helped create a computer lab, pay for a librarian, stock the library, provide sports equipment and classroom supplies, and fund the art, science, and enrichment programs. And in the process the school has created a strong sense of community.
Such ideas and foolproof methods to plan and execute a wide variety of fundraisers (complete with organizational timelines and tips for first-timers) are what you’ll find in Joachim’s new book, Beyond the Bake Sale: The Ultimate School Fundraising Book (St. Martin’s Griffin, February 2003).
“I wrote this book because I felt the level of creativity and ingenuity at PS 87 was unusual. They took creative ideas and made things happen,” says Joachim. “Schools across the country shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel.” This is especially important during these times of educational budget cuts, she notes.
“I wanted to share these fundraising ideas with other schools so parents wouldn’t feel so dependent on school budgets but could feel empowered to make things happen—to enrich and improve the educational experience— at their own school, through their own efforts. That’s the American way to do it. Get together and raise the barn. Many schools are not doing fundraising and just doing without or wondering how they can make the school experience better for their kids. Fundraising can do that.”
More Than Raising Money
Having events that involve your school and your community in having a good time is key, she says. Even a bake or craft sale, where parents and kids can make something to contribute, “is what launches the commitment to fundraising.” A gift-wrap drive may make more money than a carnival or car wash, “but it doesn’t form the same sense of community-building that having fun does,” Joachim explains.
Another key to a successful fundraiser is to start small, Joachim says. “Start with a specific cause, like new books for the library or equipment for the science lab. That way people can see five new shelves of books or two new microscopes you bought with the money raised. It’s important for people to see where the money is going. It helps motivate them to work hard.”
Also, remember that it takes a year to work out the kinks in any new fundraiser. After each big event, hold a “postmortem meeting while everything is fresh in everyone’s minds to discuss what worked and what didn’t work and how things can be improved the following year,” says Joachim. “It should be part congratulatory, part problem solving.”
Another idea that’s worked at PS 87 is to keep a workbook, a virtual how-to playbook of all events, that’s passed along to the fundraising chairs of the next year’s events. When her second son graduated from elementary school last spring, PS 87 didn’t lose Joachim’s grab bag connections and expertise. She left detailed instructions in the workbook, including the phone numbers of all her contacts, copies of all correspondence, and helpful hints. “That way the next volunteer doesn’t have to start from scratch, and the job doesn’t feel so daunting,” she says. Plus, she notes, “I’m available for phone consultations.”
The biggest mistake she thinks schools make is “not saving half of what you make as a reserve fund. Only with a reserve fund can you make your events grow,” she says, explaining that those profits can be used as a cash outlay to expand a school fair, for example, by booking expensive amusement rides that draw crowds and command higher-priced tickets. “Otherwise, you’re stuck doing the same small stuff every year.”
What’s Joachim’s main secret to success that she wants to share? “You have to have the head of a businessperson and the heart of a parent,” she explains. “I use my business sense when it comes to budgeting and obtaining donations, but when it comes to the children, money is less important than the feelings of a child.”
To that end, if she sees a child at a school bake sale who doesn’t have enough money for a cupcake, she’ll take the few pennies they have and let them have one anyway. She also makes sure to have inexpensive items available, like wrapped licorice sticks she buys in bulk and sells for 10 cents each, so everyone can afford to buy something.
And when she’s handing out grab bags at the fair, she’ll save some “special” prizes that can only be won by finding a hot-pink ticket in just a handful of bags. “When a child learns he’s won something special, he’s in seventh heaven. The look on his face is worth all the hard work.”
10 Fundraising Ideas
Here are 10 fundraising ideas from Beyond the Bake Sale: The Ultimate School Fundraising Book, by Jean Joachim (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003)
- Turn less-prominent holidays such as Cinco de Mayo and Presidents’ Day into a moneymaking opportunity by holding a potluck supper and charging admission.
- Print school logo T-shirts, mugs, and pencils and sell at a school store, sporting events, book fairs, and parent teacher conferences.
- Photo sales: Find parent photographers to take photos of special school events such as award ceremonies, plays, and graduation; sell the photos to parents who forgot their cameras.
- Start a garden on school property. Let students plant, tend, harvest, and sell the produce and flowers.
- Hold a Thanksgiving eve pumpkin pie bake sale. Right before the holiday break, have parents show off their favorite pumpkin pie recipes. Selling seasonal specialties saves people a trip to the bakery or the trouble of making it themselves. You’ll build in steady sales if you do this annually and people come to expect it.
- Do you have any parents who are singers? Musicians? Stand-up comics? Sign up parents with such skills for a grownups’ talent show and charge admission. Teachers can participate, too.
- At a street fair or other family event, rent costumes and have parents dress up as the Cat in the Hat, Pippi Longstocking, Curious George, or other popular children’s storybook characters. Have the characters circulate along with a photographer armed with a Polaroid camera. Charge to take posed pictures.
- Have a schoolwide art show of students’ work. Offer free admission, but charge for refreshments.
- Try a 50/50 raffle where the prize is half the pot. Interest grows the more you collect and buyers realize that the winner will take home at least $500, for example, if you’ve sold $1,000 worth of tickets. Watch the pot grow! Check local and state laws before you try this, however. Raffles are regulated in many areas.
- Have a continuous white elephant store in a basement room in the school. Use a volunteer staff to run it, and ask for parent donations of secondhand clothing, sports equipment, and toys.
An Amazing Record
The fundraising numbers for PS 87 during Jean Joachim’s 10 years as a member: