Event: Fall Festival
Group: St. Philip the Apostle School PTO
Location: Pasadena, Calif.
Amount Raised: $67,000
Notable: Novelty booth raised $5,000 selling Silly String, confetti eggs, and more

Not so long ago, the big attraction in a small town was the annual county fair that got set up for a few days, entertained the community, and then moved on. Before theme parks, this was the only way for kids to enjoy the thrill of carnival rides and the excitement of games, flashing lights, and a little independence from their parents.

At St. Philip the Apostle School in Pasadena, Calif., a similar event comes to life each fall. Take away the rides and focus on stage talent, and it's just the right mix for a great family night out and a phenomenal fundraiser.

Safe, Simple, and Fun

Host a talent show featuring the likes of a Lucille Ball impersonator, an American Idol contestant, and a chimp used in movies. Add a healthy dose of musical acts, a haunted house, games, and party food. That's what St. Philip's fall festival is all about.

"We work hard to keep the festival interesting," says Scott Dopke, festival chairman. "Over the years, we've tried different games, such as a pingpong tournament, soccer-kicking contest, bingo, and karaoke. We've rented inflatables—moonwalk, giant slide, mountain climb, and bungee jump—to see what the kids enjoyed. It changes every year so families can look forward to something new."

And they don't forget the younger set. "With so many siblings attending, we realized we needed a dedicated place to entertain them. We created the peewee pumpkin patch that is off-limits to older kids so parents can let the little ones play without worry," adds Dopke.

Indeed, what makes the festival such a success is its track record in mixing things up. Rather than scheduling one big-time but expensive act, St. Philip offers dozens of smaller attractions so visitors can wander from one to another. Parents love it because they can socialize with other families while their kids explore on their own in a safe environment. Children enjoy the independence and camaraderie that a fair has always offered.

An Eventful Evolution

Dopke knows intimately how the festival has changed and grown over the years. He manned the cleanup crew when his daughter was a kindergartner in 1999, and soon he was in charge of the whole event. "When I started, we held a three-day festival, which presented big scheduling and volunteer challenges," he explains. "We found that we could make the same amount of money in one day as we could in three. One time, we experimented with a formal, sit-down buffet using donated food, but went back to carnival-type food the year after. Of course, we kept getting donations from local restaurants and grocery stores, which helped a lot."

The festival is typically managed by a new PTO parent volunteer each year under the direction of the PTO president. Dopke saw a number of problems when he took the job as festival chairman. A primary one was the generator: "It made a huge amount of noise, and it was the first thing you noticed when you walked in. We ran wires overhead to tap into the school's electric supply, which worked much better. It made for a much more pleasant atmosphere, and we saved the rental costs of the generator."

Get school carnival ideas, planning basics, and tools to promote your event

Next up: the focus. Emphasis shifted from rides to the stage, games, food, and the holiday boutique. "Above all, we wanted to create an event where parents could safely bring children of all ages for a fun time. We sought to make it similar to a nice party at a friend's house, with fun things to do for each age group," Dopke says.

One of the biggest attractions is a talent show that is open to all of the children of the school, plus kids who have graduated. The parish also runs a "health ministry" booth that provides free flu shots, blood pressure screening, and health workshops for parish seniors.

Advice From the Trenches

St. Philip is a Catholic K-8 school that educates about 450 economically and ethnically diverse students. "As a private institution, we try to keep our tuition costs down. To that end, the PTO raises $158,000 for the school's operating budget plus another $8,000 for sports programs," says Patty Stoddard, PTO president. "We do this via five fundraising events, with the fall festival being one of the largest."

The 2005 festival netted $67,000. In the five previous years, the PTO raised between $50,000 and $80,000 in profits. That's a phenomenal amount of money for a single event. Here are some of the ways this PTO does it:

Selling raffle tickets. The St. Philip parents on a reduced tuition plan are required to purchase $100 in raffle tickets, and parents are billed if they don't sell them. Parishioners are also sent two 12-ticket booklets to sell. The PTO challenges students to sell tickets, offering prizes for the most sold. St. Philip offered a grand prize of $2,500, plus $500 and $100 prizes.

Making volunteering mandatory. At St. Philip, parents on reduced tuition are required to donate six hours of time. Typical jobs include planning, setup, running booths on the day of the event, and breakdown.

Being aware of first impressions. If your festival looks and sounds chaotic, it will turn off families. The St. Philip PTO makes sure there's enough room for the activities, as well as areas where kids can be active and parents can relax.

Enlisting the help of older kids. "We have our parish Life Teen program run our haunted house, and they love it," says Dopke. "Plus we return a portion of the proceeds to their program."

Publicizing appropriately. They advertise in regional papers, place banners outside the school and local businesses, and include announcements in church bulletins.

Thinking community involvement. Ask for donations, offer sponsorships, and when possible provide publicity for organizations and businesses that help out. Ask to put up posters. Accept gifts of food and goods if money is an issue. "We've had a lot of fun with sponsorships," says Stoddard, "such as one booth that was hosted by 'Mothers of Just Sons.' "

Selling what kids want. The festival's novelty booth raised nearly $5,000. Silly String and confetti eggs were the two top sellers.

Keeping it fresh. Mix up activities from year to year. Keep some of the tried-and-true, but publicize what's new.

Getting younger families involved. Put kindergarten and first-grade parents in charge of something to make them feel included and garner new ideas.

"Most people are happy to lend a hand or give a buck toward a good cause," Dopke says, "but they won't volunteer if you don't ask. Pick up the phone! And give people a chance to give of themselves."

A Fair Share of Festival Tips From St. Philip PTO

  • Know your audience. Make the event something they will enjoy and share with friends.
  • Think fun and relaxation. Those are two things that everyone can use more of in their busy lives.
  • Plan for different age groups. Toddlers need a safe place to play. Older kids need activities that will hold their interest.
  • Consider a one-day festival. It works better for planning and for scheduling volunteers.
  • Create areas of focused interest. Too many activities can be disconcerting. Find a central point, and work out from there.
  • Offer a good mix of spectator and participatory activities. Children need both to avoid becoming either overstimulated or bored.
  • After the event, examine what worked and what didn't, and make changes accordingly.
  • If possible, make volunteering mandatory. For big events, you'll need the help.