Picture this: You make your usual yearly sojourn for new school clothes. You fill the dressing room bench as usual—with polo shirts and cargo pants, belts and sweaters—and head to the register with whatever fits (and, of course, is also cool). Your selections are rung up and folded, and you pay a grand total of $400. Guess what? You just earned $28 for your kids' school. On the way home, you pick up a video and a pizza. That's another $1 for good old Anyschool Elementary.

How is this possible? Welcome to scrip.

The concept is simple: Schools purchase gift certificates, or scrip, from popular retailers at a discount, which the retailers are happy to give because they're guaranteeing themselves customers and some goodwill advertising. Parents then buy the gift certificates from the school at face value. The difference in price is kept by the school. Parents spend the scrip at the retailer, where it's worth the full face value; they haven't spent an extra dime to help the school, nor have they had to change stores.

And school earnings can really add up. The most successful scrip schools get hundreds of thousands of dollars per year from scrip. Typical schools with modest programs can earn $3,000 to $10,000 without an undue amount of effort.

Some quick math is the best way to demonstrate the earning potential of scrip. Say a family with one child in elementary school and one in middle school spends $1,200 on school clothes every year. The school gets a 7 percent discount on certain retailers' scrip. During that year, the school would make $84 (7 percent of $1,200) from one family's clothing bill. Now consider what that same family might spend on pizza and gas and toys, items with typically higher discount percentages. And don't forget holiday shopping. Multiply that family's earnings by, say, 20 families, and you have $5,000 or more for your school.

As with any outside vendor your group may work with, you want to make sure your scrip vendor's business is sound. Some signs that a scrip vendor might be in trouble include missed delivery dates, long holds for customer service, and increasingly frequent reports that the company is "reviewing its orders with merchants." But groups can reduce the likelihood of falling victim to a failing company by being cautious, staying on top of orders, and even splitting orders among several brokers.

"Don't be afraid to ask financial questions about the business," recommends Dave Burgess, vice president at Great Lakes Scrip. "An open line of credit, the fact that a bank is willing to loan them money, is usually a sign that it is a healthy outfit."

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Scrip Tips

While the impressive returns from scrip are very real, there's still no such thing as completely pain-free fundraising. Where scrip gets high grades for its earning potential and for the fact that parents don't have to spend an extra penny to help your school (they don't have to buy or pay more, they just have to buy differently), successful scrip volunteers do spend a lot of time on their programs.

But though the prospect of starting a huge new fundraising effort may be daunting, a scrip program can be run more simply. Follow these pointers and you'll be on your way:

  • Choose your scrip broker carefully. Scrip from national retailers can be purchased at very similar discount percentages from all the scrip centers, but the real differences crop up on the list of second-tier or regional retailers. Be sure a scrip center's retailer list is a good fit for the shopping habits of your supporters before deciding on a scrip vendor.

  • Start small. The beauty of scrip is that it doesn't take hundreds of supporters to see solid rewards. Nearly every school has 10 to 15 folks who take on the bulk of the volunteer duties. If you can get this core group to purchase, you can earn thousands. And from that success you can slowly add more people and more retailers to your mix.

  • Grow slowly. Add to your core group one friendly face at a time. It makes managing your program easier, and it's realistic. You may be a regular Shakespeare when it comes to writing fundraising letters, but folks don't readily send in weekly checks in exchange for gift certificates. There's a show-and-tell element and some hand-holding required for each new regular. Remember: You're asking supporters to change a long-held pattern. It's not nearly as simple or as widely recognized as a candle sale.

  • Consider profit-sharing. Almost all of the big scrip schools—those making $50,000-plus per year in scrip earnings—use some element of profit-sharing to encourage/require participation. A typical scenario allows a family to apply 10 percent or 20 percent of the dollars it raises toward school tuition or an activity fund. This option is obviously more common in parochial and private schools, but it has been attempted in public schools where the "share" percentage can be credited toward a particular homeroom or activity. Some schools even require that families purchase a certain amount of scrip or face an additional activity fee. Such programs certainly increase participation and earnings.

Despite the initial difficulty of getting people to change their shopping routine, in the end scrip works for two reasons: The participating retailers are stores where your supporters already shop all the time, and your supporters can help your school without spending an extra dime. It's a nice combination. If you can find a group of supporters (even just a small core group, at first) willing to change their shopping habits, you could be on your way to a successful scrip fundraiser. And your shopping trips may never be the same.