If 19th-century American author Henry David Thoreau were writing today, he might direct his famous advice about how to live a more rewarding life toward PTO fundraising: “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” And if you’re a parent group leader overwhelmed by the never-ending parade of fundraising projects, you just might be ready to heed that advice and seek a straighter, shorter path to prosperity.

By starting with a fundraising strategy and limiting fundraisers to two or three a year, you can keep parent involvement as your focus. “Our mantra is to do a few fundraisers and to do them well,” says Vickie Mabry, director of the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers in Atlanta. Community building, after all, benefits a school with ripple effects that go far beyond the receipts of the last gift-wrap sale or silent auction. And keeping fundraising in the background can help change perceptions of nonparticipating parents about the nature of the PTO.

That’s not to say that fundraising isn’t vital to support many valuable programs. But a more businesslike approach can help maximize results while minimizing volunteer burnout. Here are some tips on how to focus your team’s fundraising efforts.

Start With a Plan

Create a plan for any fundraising project, detailing the number of sponsors needed and the amount of time needed to plan and host the event. For many groups, a typical fundraiser takes about six months from start to finish, following a fairly standard timeline for a product sale, according to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers.

Six months before: Set a goal and choose a fundraising company. Also, be sure to check with the principal and coaches to avoid conflicts. Your fundraising representative can also help you avoid selling the same items as other groups in your area.

One month before: Finalize plans. Double-check with the fundraising representative. Determine how many volunteers you need. Develop a master schedule of important dates for promotion, sales deadlines, delivery, volunteer appreciation, and evaluation.

One to two weeks before: Do advance promotion by sending home a flier announcing the fundraising goal and when packets will be sent home, by putting up posters around school, and by displaying products at an open house.

One to two days before: Reconfirm logistics with everyone, including the fundraising representative, principal, and volunteers.

At Frank Jewett Elementary School in Buxton, Maine, the PTO starts planning the fall fundraiser during the previous spring, says PTO President Jessica Merrill. By late summer, they’re sorting packets for distribution when school begins. The sale itself might last about a month, followed by about two weeks for the paperwork and then the delivery of the products.

The most effective approach is to break the plan into manageable tasks at the start and then delegate those tasks to different individuals. “If you assign responsibilities under a certain timeline, you don’t burn people out because they don’t feel they have to do everything,” says Frank Pisch, chairman and CEO of Compass Group in Dulles, Va. At Nannie Berry Elementary School in Hendersonville, Tenn., the PTO tackles multi-year projects but divides them into annual goals. Right now they’re working on a three-year project to purchase computers and software for classrooms. They are starting with the fifth grade and then working their way down to the lower grades, but they want to give everyone something each year, so they’re also updating some computers for the new software along the way.

Estimate What Can Be Raised

Part of this process involves making a budget. For many parent groups, this begins with a look at the previous year’s profits as well as asking around. Nannie Berry Elementary is looking into doing a carnival and estimating possible proceeds by talking to other schools in the community and by factoring in the school’s location on a busy road. The budget also depends on transitions; Oakdale Elementary in Normal, Ill., for example, had to lower its estimates for fundraising this year after redistricting took sixth-graders out of its school.

To estimate potential income when you’re trying a new fundraiser, start with your school’s enrollment; look especially at recent enrollment growth or decline. Then, based on experience, figure the average percentage of families likely to participate and the average number of items a family is likely to sell if it’s a product sale.

Look also at whether participation has recently risen or decreased. If possible, look at whether incentives such as student prizes or classroom participation charts have had an impact on sales.

To figure a reasonable goal, look at past history and your school’s demographics and what parents are likely to support. Survey parents. Compare past goals to actual results. And be sure to keep track of all this data to pass on to the next group for help with their goal-setting.

Advertise Your Goal

Make sure that parents know why you’re holding a fundraiser. “Have a plan to promote your goal to people you’re turning to for support,” says Mabry. “It’s important that you say, ‘We’re raising money to pay for a cultural program that allows three community members to speak to students on such and such.’ Emphasize how the children will benefit. Keep that goal front and center. Saying it’s the school fundraiser isn’t enough; say it’s the fall fund drive to raise money to put three new laptops in the media center.”

Survey Parent Support

Parents, including those who don’t attend PTO meetings, need to be asked what kind of fundraising they would support. For example, in last year’s annual survey sent home by Nannie Berry Elementary, parents said they’d like to keep the walkathon, an annual tradition. But they didn’t like the holiday extravaganza and its silent auction, because of the amount of work required. They also asked that the cookie dough sale be combined with the book sale.

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

All these requests were honored, helping the PTO to hone its goals for the year. At Oakdale Elementary, the PTO decided it didn’t need to do any more fundraisers because its goals had been met, but one ongoing fundraiser proved so popular that it was continued: a monthly gathering at a pizza restaurant. “Families said they liked it, so we did it,” says PTO President Mary Jefferson.

Coordinate With Other Groups

Be aware of what other schools and sports leagues in the area are doing. The fundraising company contact person might be able to offer advice about what to steer away from. And ask parents and school personnel what other groups are doing within the school and across the community. “There are myriad groups, and everybody wants to raise a nickel,” says Kevin Lockerbie, president and chief executive officer of Paideia, a consulting firm in Stony Brook, N.Y. “They’re all trying to do wonderful things for the school but may be in competition. You want a coordinated effort.”

Consider Manpower Needs and the Needs of Manpower

If a fundraiser requires a lot of help, be sure to accurately estimate the assistance needed, and be sure that your school community is willing to help. At Crystal Lake Elementary School in Lakeville, Minn., PTO members interested in holding a carnival sought information on-line about the number of volunteers such an undertaking would require.

If volunteers aren’t available, consider alternatives, as Greensview Elementary School in Upper Arlington, Ohio, did after the task of finding volunteers for a December book fair grew too tough. The solution? Instead of a Christmas book sale, the group decided to move the fundraiser to February and instead encourage “reading with your valentine.”

“For the past two years it’s been a struggle to get volunteers because of the holiday season,” says PTO President Dawne McGuire. “We moved it to February, a month that doesn’t have a lot of PTO functions. That’s one less thing to worry about for the holidays.”

And don’t forget about the need to train volunteers. “So often we assume that people read directions that were sent to them or that they know what to do,” says Pisch, who recommends a large group meeting or a series of smaller meetings to help volunteers know what their responsibilities are. It’s also a good idea to appoint someone to make sure the volunteers do get trained. That way, this responsibility won’t get overlooked.

Choose Complementary Fundraisers

Mabry says that some experts recommend conducting one good product fundraising activity as the “cash cow” for the group and then holding another activity that’s more community oriented, such as a spaghetti dinner or small carnival. Crystal Lake Elementary PTO decided to combine a silent auction with its carnival to appeal to both adults and children. Greensview Elementary combined four fundraisers into one: the sale of poinsettias, spirit clothing, grocery store gift cards, and car wash tokens.

“We made one packet of a four-in-one fundraiser so people didn’t get four different things coming home in November and December, and there was one pick-up date for all those items, which made it very easy,” says McGuire. “Parents said it was nice to get one winter fundraiser packet.”

Rotate Fundraisers

Years ago, the Greensview Elementary PTO held an annual Christmas shop, and people in the community got used to waiting to do their Christmas shopping at the school. So it was a risk to dump that fundraiser, even though proceeds had fallen off, and to introduce a new event in the spring: a flower sale that now pulls in over $8,000. “Some people are not comfortable rocking the boat,” says McGuire. “You take a risk when you delete a fundraiser and bring in a new one.”

Crystal Lake Elementary usually keeps fundraisers for a few years and then changes them. They also modify their approaches; for example, in the third year of their silent auction, they decided to cut back on auction items by featuring only gift baskets created by classes and not seeking gift certificates from the community. Then they added a carnival to the festivities. And to make the event more fun for parents, the PTO sought volunteers from high school sports teams to work the carnival, freeing parents to spend the time with their own children.

“One of our parents came up with the idea,” says PTO president Jo Ann Crandall, “and it was well received by the high school coaches. We felt that asking the parents to do all the work and give money too was kind of hard.”

Use Non-Sales Fundraisers

Many schools supplement traditional fundraising activities with collection or loyalty programs that require less effort. Crystal Lake Elementary raises $3,000 to $5,000 on its non-sales fundraisers: ink cartridge recycling, Target credit cards, and the collection of milk carton lids, soup labels, and box tops.

Nannie Berry Elementary recycles newspapers in addition to ink cartridges and also collects box tops and soup labels, and encourages parents to use cards from Publix, Food Lion, Kroger, and Office Depot. Oakdale Elementary teachers work at McDonald’s periodically for a share of the profits brought in by school families who eat there that night.

Stop Once Your Goal Is Reached

If you raise the amount of money you budgeted, then it’s time to quit. “It goes a long way to building good will among parents that if you reach or surpass your goal in the fall, perhaps you forgo a spring fundraising activity,” says Mabry. “Tell parents that thanks to their support, you won’t have one.”

Say Thank-You

If your PTO collapses in exhaustion at the end of a fundraising activity, you may be overlooking a final important step. Once the goal is met, says Mabry, “then raise the roof and shout out loud ‘We did it!’ Sometimes parent groups forget to go back to the folks and say we did this because of your support. As a parent myself, I’m much more apt to support fundraising if I know how the money was spent.”

Such a thank-you can be as simple as the single sheet of paper Mabry found in her daughter’s book bag on the last day of school: “She came home with a completely empty book bag except for one letter from the PTO with a list. It said, ‘This is what your support paid for this year.’ It was very gratifying. So next fall when the book bag comes home stuffed, I’ll remember.”

Evaluate Your Fundraisers

At the end of the year, take a close look at what went well and not so well. Evaluate how the fundraising efforts could have been more effective not only in terms of how much money was raised but in how you might improve the experience for volunteers. Consider changes for the next year and make recommendations to the next group of parents. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Did your group meet or exceed financial expectations?
  • What percentage of families participated? Is this number higher or lower than last year?
  • How might you have increased participation?
  • How else might you have promoted the fundraiser?
  • Have you surveyed parents about this fundraiser and whether they’d like to participate in it again next year?
  • How have you thanked the volunteers?
  • Are plans under way toward implementing the originally stated goal? (Is the new playground equipment on the way? Are the field trip plans complete?) Have you communicated this information to families?

Fine-tuning a fundraiser can make a big difference. Improving your best fundraiser—increasing profits from $5,000 to $6,500, for example—can be a better way to go than running three additional fundraisers that make, say $500, $400, and $350. You’ll save work, probably raise more money, and shed that “fundraising group” image that can turn off some parents and discourage their involvement in PTO activities.

6 Fundraisers: Tips for Success

Major Fall Fundraiser

Usually product sales: catalog, gift-wrap, candy, etc. Can raise 60 percent to 70 percent of your annual budget.

The Key: Choose carefully. Focus on your mission, not the money or product. Publicity is crucial; shout from the hilltops.

Look Out For: Don’t get caught in the profit percentage trap. Service, product quality, and reliability are just as important.

Events

Spaghetti suppers, school family (fun) nights, etc. More important as involvement-builders than as moneymakers.

The Key: Focus on fun, involvement; events can be powerful for your group and school.

Look Out For: They often take strong organization to be done well. Typically, events are not large moneymakers.

Collections

Box tops, labels, inkjet cartridges, etc. These programs let you turn trash into cash.

The Key: Pick the right programs for you; not all are created equal. Active programs (contests, prizes, etc.) work best.

Look Out For: Don’t do them all. You don’t want to become known as that always-on fundraising group.

Passive/Partnerships

Retailer credit cards, grocery receipts, scrip, etc. Supporters shop and you earn.

The Key: Little downside, especially with grocers. Make the case for participation clearly to your best supporters.

Look Out For: Don’t expect to break the bank; strong returns require very strong, constant promotion.

The Extras

T-Shirts, bumper stickers, kids’ art, etc. You have more choices than ever.

The Key: Choose wisely and decide which ones best fit your group.

Look Out For: Don’t overdo. Running four or five sales a year is too much.

Second Big Sale

Like the fall fundraiser, many groups turn up the sales heat again in the spring, often with less of a holiday focus.

The Key: Can work well, especially if centered on an event or tradition. (Mother’s Day flowers, anyone?)

Look Out For: Do you need it? Consider working to increasing fall profits by 50 percent instead.