The coupon-book sale at Percy Priest Elementary in Nashville, Tenn., isn’t making the money it used to. In an effort to boost sales, the PTO switched to a local competitor for a year but then switched back to the national company this year. They tried combining the sale with an annual pledge drive. And they added an incentive that the winning classroom could slime the principal. None of these changes helped.

On top of that, the sale requires a lot of time spent cheerleading. “We’re constantly working with classrooms and teachers to get children to sell,” says Courtney Stevens, PTO copresident for fundraising and membership. “And there are parents who absolutely don’t want to go door to door selling the books.”

Information is a key tool in solving a problem like this, says Elisabeth Jonas, owner and president of Encore Fundraising, near Atlanta. “If your profits or sales are going down over a period of time, it’s important to first of all research why by polling the parents and asking them how they feel about the product and the fundraising program they’ve been doing,” she says. “From that feedback, the PTO may determine that the customers who are buying the products to support the school may not see value in what they’re purchasing.”

That’s exactly what happened at Percy Priest, where parents voiced their dislike of the coupon-book fundraiser in both a PTO questionnaire and a town meeting. They suggested other options, two of which are being tested this year.

As a result of this process, the new sales already have buy-in. One is a consignment sale of children’s clothing. The PTO distributed guidelines about how parents should price and tag the clothing. Consigners and teachers could attend a preview sale; then there was a full-price sale for one day, followed by a half-day, half-price sale. Parents kept 60 percent of the proceeds, with the PTO getting the rest.

The other new fundraiser involves selling items printed with original art. The art teachers worked with each grade level on a particular style: The third-graders did hieroglyphic drawings, while the fourth-graders created self-portraits, for example. The images were then sent to a company that returned the artwork on refrigerator magnets, along with an order form from which parents could order T-shirts, mugs, and mouse pads. The PTO also asked parents to order a ceramic tile for a school display of all the art. The school collected about half of the total sales.

Together, these two fundraisers in their first year matched the coupon book, so it’s likely that they’ll soon replace it.

Making a Switch

Money isn’t the problem with the long-standing fundraisers at Audubon Charter School in New Orleans. The sale of wrapping paper, a tradition for 10 years, netted $10,000 on its own. The PTO also sells candy and cookie dough. But volunteer help for these efforts is hard to come by. And there’s the group’s desire to focus on fundraising that builds community, not just the bank account. So the group added an adults-only gala of food and drink at a local events facility, with tickets priced at $100 a person ($45 each for teachers and administrators). “We’re hoping this will be annual,” says fundraising Cochair Jolynn King, who admits that some people initially cringed at the high cost but got past that reaction fairly quickly. “It’s not difficult to pull off. People go out a lot in New Orleans.”

If it’s successful, it will supplant the candy and cookie dough sales, which won’t disappear but will instead be offered to interest groups in the school, such as the fifth-graders, who are fundraising for a trip to France.

Special events are a good supplement to product sales, says Vickie Mabry, associate director of the Atlanta-based Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. “Rather than just hitting the same people with similar programs and projects, consider expanding your audience,” she says. “Rather than overburdening the school community, do a special event to draw in a new audience.”

At Velma Hamilton Middle School in Madison, Wis., the move away from a traditional fundraiser stems from a desire for a steadier stream of revenue. The annual farmers’ market has been a fall holiday tradition for at least five years. But if market days take off, the farmers’ market will be history.

One advantage of the new fundraiser, from which the school keeps a percentage of its sales of prepackaged foods, is that it brings in revenue each month rather than once a year. It also requires less volunteer effort. And parents from one of Hamilton’s feeder elementary schools were already familiar with the program, making for an easy transition as well as a clear sense of the fundraiser’s possibilities within the same community, says PTO President Alan Kim.

Sometimes a fundraising switch can occur in stages. At Towanda Elementary School in Illinois, the PTO has hosted a chili supper and basket raffle for at least eight years. “It’s successful, but some feel like it’s getting old,” says Martha Rients, the fundraising chairwoman. “There’s some feeling that we need to revamp how we’re doing things.”

There’s discussion, for instance, of changing the menu. There’s also talk of downsizing or eliminating the baskets, which are created and donated by classrooms, individuals, and community businesses and organizations. The themes range from spa (nail polish, hair products, and gift certificates for a manicure and a massage) to overnight getaway (dinner and a hotel stay) to sports (dinner and tickets to a pro basketball or baseball game). Most recently, the profit on 85 baskets was $3,500. The PTO believes that a different approach might bring in more money per item, that the excitement and competitive nature of an auction might generate more spending. So this year, they’re adding a silent auction of up to 10 items to the evening; if it goes well, it may substitute for the baskets.

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

Other times, all that’s needed to energize a group’s fundraising sale is a different product. At Academy International Elementary in Colorado Springs, Colo., the PTO has been offering wrapping paper and entertainment coupon books for years. “We’re thinking that our parents and kiddos are getting tired of selling and buying the same things,” says President Laurie Uddenberg. One sign that this is the case: Parents have wondered aloud about the possibility of hawking something else. Another sign is that it took an extra push—setting up a table at a Sam’s Club—to sell the same number of coupon books as in previous years.

The PTO officers have been drained by the intensive volunteer efforts required for their existing sales. So the plan is to try a cookie dough fundraiser, first as a supplement. This new idea initially raised concerns about food allergies, but a list of ingredients sent by the sales representative, along with samples, convinced parents that the cookies would be safe. If the new product is a hit, eventually it will replace whichever of the other two fundraisers is deemed less lucrative and less popular.

This approach demonstrates the kind of tweaking that Mabry encourages. If something’s not working, she says, “I wouldn’t jump ship. Just maybe repaint the ship. It doesn’t have to be the same product or the same time of year.”

A New Tradition

If you do make the tough decision to give up one fundraiser to try another, there’s always a risk. But there’s also a big potential payoff—and possibly the start of a brand-new tradition. At Isaac Newton Christian Academy in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the PTO had sold frozen desserts and pizza for years. It was a dependable, though unexceptional, fundraiser. “The feedback from the other parents was that they felt it had reached its peak,” remembers parent Marie Van Aartsen. “It wasn’t really different from what other schools were doing in the area. People liked the product but felt it was higher priced at $14 or $15 per item.”

Several years ago, Van Aartsen and her family moved to Wisconsin, where their children’s school sold homemade deep-dish Dutch apple pies. When the Van Aartsens came back to Cedar Rapids eight years ago, they brought the apple pie concept with them.

“We proposed the idea to the board, and they were very receptive,” she says. “It served two key principles: It created a fellowship opportunity to do something with a common interest and benefit for the school, and it was a fundraiser that could grow over time.”

The board agreed to replace the pizza and frozen dessert sale with the apple pie fundraiser. Still, there was apprehension about the very labor-intensive process. Could an assembly line of volunteers really make a ready-to-bake pie in less than 15 minutes? That was the time limit for the whole process—from coring and peeling the apples to placing the covered and double-bagged pie in the freezer truck. Any longer than that, and the contents of the pies got too sloppy.

To convince the planning committee that this new fundraiser could work, Van Aartsen organized a practice session several months before the fall event. The planning committee members assembled to make 25 pies. “The trial run got people excited,” she says. “After making the pies, we baked them and ate them. It was a real neat feeling of accomplishment that we actually made these pies and they were good.”

The rest of the school community also had to be convinced. “People were skeptical at first, as they are anytime you do a fundraiser for the first time,” Van Aartsen says. “When they got there, they realized it was fun, and they actually looked forward to it.” Although every family was required to participate for five hours, no one had to make any sales—another factor that won support. And the proof is in the numbers. In the first year, 2001, this school of 230 students sold 3,200 pies; last fall, that number reached 5,800 pies, which sold for $10 each, for a profit of about $40,000.

Not only has the fundraiser grown each year (including the recent addition of online sales); it also has raised awareness of the school among the general community. Van Aartsen’s daughter got a job at a grocery store, and a customer asked what school she went to. When the girl mentioned Newton Christian, the customer said, “Oh, you’re the school that bakes the apple pies.”

Keys To Making a Switch

  1. Survey parents to find out which fundraisers they like and don’t like.
  2. Ask for suggestions about new fundraisers. Ideas that come from parents already have some support.
  3. Try the new fundraiser as a small supplement the first year to gauge parents’ interest.
  4. When you decide to dump one fundraiser, make a big deal. Emphasize to parents that you’re asking less of them, and make clear that this is possible because of their support for the new fundraiser.
  5. Build excitement for a new fundraiser with a trial run or kickoff celebration.

When Your Fundraiser Falls Short

As a rule, you shouldn’t run more than two or three fundraisers a year. Running too many inevitably brings diminishing returns. The result: More work for less money.

When you don’t make as much as you expected, it’s best to reevaluate your plans and look for ways to save money. However, sometimes you just can’t avoid the need to fill in the shortfall. It can be as simple as selling concessions at school events, such as games and concerts. If you don’t already do a collection program like Box Tops for Education, starting one can be helpful. Here are some other ideas to supplement your fundraising.

Restaurant Night. Many chain restaurants will let you organize a PTO night. You get a share of the receipts from supporters of your school who dine there on that night.

Sports Night. Ask local sports teams or theme parks about fundraising opportunities for groups. They often have programs offering groups a percentage of ticket sales, and the event makes for a fun social activity for families and community members. Some smaller sports venues even allow nonprofit groups to run a concession stand for a night and keep the profits.

Spiritwear. Sell school logo T-shirts, especially if kids dress for regularly scheduled spirit days. Buying in bulk can net you $5 profit per shirt. You’ll have less risk if you take orders first, but you’ll sell more with printed samples that people can examine.

Commemorative Bricks. Sell bricks, tiles, or stones inscribed with the name of the donor for a permanent wall or walkway outside the school. This can be a lucrative moneymaker when you have a construction project, such as a new playground.

Camp Fair. Invite local and regional camp representatives to set up display tables at a camp fair at your school for a flat fee ($100 or higher is a typical rate for a three-hour fair on a weekday evening). You can also sell food and drinks to bring in extra money. Likewise, some groups have had success setting up a scrapbooking fair, with a group scrapbooking session plus vendors offering their wares. The key is to make sure there is community interest before you go through the work of organizing an event like this.