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Test Your Fundraising IQ

What the experts say—and you should know—about product fundraising.

by Evelyn Beck


With so many fundraising options available to PTOs, it’s easy to second-guess your decisions. Did we choose the right company to work with? Did we have our product sale at the best time?

We asked fundraising pros, board members of the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers, to weigh in on some common fundraising questions. AFRDS members make, supply, or distribute fundraising products sold by schools and other not-for-profit organizations. Take our quiz to see how your answers compare.

How do we know a fundraising company is reputable?

a. Check references.

b. Go with your gut feeling.

Answer: a. It’s crucial to check references. Ask for schools that are similar to yours in terms of size and demographics, and schools that have worked with the same rep you will be working with.

When you do receive references, check to see if the company has longevity with a group or school. “Find someone who works with the same groups year after year,” says Roger Coutu, owner and president of a fundraising company in Connecticut. “They’ll be retained if they’re doing a good job.” Consider it a significant red flag if a vendor won’t supply references.

Likewise, “if a pitch sounds too good to be true, it is,” cautions Lisa Dieltz, secretary of AFRDS. She also suggests checking out a company’s social media sites like Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter to see what you can learn about it.

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

What do we say to parents who tell us they’d rather just give us $50 or $100 for the year instead of us holding fundraisers?

a. “That’s a great idea! We’ll just ask for cash and cancel all our fundraisers.”

b. “Are you crazy? That will never work!”

c. “Participation in fundraisers is always optional. If you’d like to make a donation instead, we’d gladly accept it.”

Answer: c. Don’t turn down parents who want to make a donation, but think twice before canceling your regular fundraisers.

Dieltz, who co-owns a Minnesota fundraising company, has no problem with parents asking to make cash donations: “I say give them that option. Parents who feel that way will most likely not participate in the fundraiser anyway, but other parents cannot afford to [donate] yet still want to be a part of the generosity and support to the school. I have found that the schools that we work with that offer donation to their parents as an option create a much more positive overall perception of the school’s fundraiser.”

Do certain fundraisers work for big schools, and are others better suited for smaller schools?

a. Yes

b. No

Answer: b. No, not necessarily. “If done properly, the most popular kinds of fundraisers will work with any group,” says AFRDS board member Nick Kukta, vice president of an Ohio fundraising company. “Nine times out of 10, it doesn’t come down to the size of the group. It comes down to the sales representative and the parents helping run the sale. From a school’s perspective, large or small, they need to get parents and sponsors behind fundraisers from the start.”

What are the best times of year to hold fundraisers?

a. There’s no single best time.

b. Don’t worry about the timing. People should support your school at any time of year.

c. Try to find a time when other schools and youth groups aren’t also fundraising.

Answer: a. What works for any one group depends on a number of factors, including your school calendar, what other fundraisers are being run in your town at the same time, and even the weather at the time of the fundraiser. However, the most common time to run a product sale is in the fall, typically shortly after school starts, followed by the spring.

Kukta figures that 70 percent of his own business happens in the first six weeks of school. One reason is the need for groups to raise funds early in the year to support their work. But mild weather tends to help with selling—people are outside and events like picnics can provide sales opportunities.

To stand out from the pack and avoid fundraising fatigue for your customers, Kukta suggests, “run a sale in your area when everybody else isn’t.” Networking with PTO and PTA leaders in your community is a good way to find out when other schools plan fundraisers. And some districts require school groups to report this information, so you may be able to get a list from the superintendent’s office.

What are some of the expenses that can eat into a fundraiser’s profits?

a. Shipping costs

b. Prizes

c. Participation penalties

d. All of the above

Answer: d. “Some companies will charge or pass along a fee if the school has 1,000 students and only 50 participated in the fundraiser, and some will stagger profit based on sales or participation,” says AFRDS president Kurt Koehler, president of a Pennsylvania fundraising company. There can also be a charge for brochures when participation is low, says Dale Silverman, who owns a fundraising company in Tennessee. But the real problem with lack of participation is simply less money coming in and thus less profit.

There are other possible charges, such as for shipping or prizes. Be sure to ask about all costs before selecting a fundraiser.

We can’t give students prizes as a fundraising incentive. How can we get kids excited and motivated, then?

a. Tell students participation is mandatory.

b. Get creative. Ask the principal to dye his hair or do another stunt if students meet their goal.

Answer: b. “The only gratification a kid gets from fundraising is a prize,” Silverman says. “You’ve got to motivate kids to let them come home and be excited.” Statistics show a significant difference in the success between schools of similar sizes, he says; the ones that run prize programs do about twice as well as those that don’t.

The word “prize” can be interpreted broadly. “All types of rewards work,” Dieltz says. “Principals and staff that go the extra mile to do fun incentives not only create a teamwork environment but make it something the students remember and feel a part of. Duct-taping a principal to the wall, human car wash, sleeping on top of the school, dyeing their hair, or almost anything they come up with will make the difference.”

What’s a good first fundraiser for a new PTO or PTA?

a. Get people’s attention with a trendy new product.

b. Pick a proven product that other schools in your area aren’t selling.

c. It doesn’t matter. Just pick what you like.

Answer: b. According to Mark Van Wyk, owner and president of a Colorado fundraising company, familiar products are safest. “Go with tried and trusted products that have proven to work in this industry over the last 10 years,” he advises. Examples are cookie dough, frozen food, magazines, gift catalogs, and candy bars. “Don’t try to be the pioneer that’s going to pick a brand new item,” he says. “As you learn more, then maybe in year two or three you can try something a little new or different.” Which items work best can vary depending on the school level. Elementary students, he says, do well with gift catalogs. Selling in-hand candy is effective with older children. It can also help to survey school parents to see what they will support. But limit your survey to a few choices. Otherwise, it will be difficult to narrow down the results.

How can we figure out ahead of time if a fundraiser will be profitable for us? Is it better to choose a company that offers 50 percent profit rather than 30 percent?

a. It’s anyone’s guess.

b. Ask for a detailed breakdown from the fundraising company.

c. Instead of the profit percentage, ask about gross profit.

Answer: c. “It’s really not the percentage amount that determines a successful fundraiser; it’s the amount you actually put in the bank,” Dieltz says. “You need to look at the total package of what they offer, what type of incentives, and what type of profit the company has done with a similar-sized group in the past. Past results are the best indicator of future profits.”

She offers an example of a company that provides a fundraiser kickoff, a great product, and customer support—and they offer you 40 percent. “With their history and proven ability to motivate the students, you will certainly make more than a company offering 90 percent that does not have the know-how or support to get the total sale to the same level,” she says. “For example, with the first company with 500 students and their proven history of $100 profit per student, that would equal $50,000. The school’s take at 40 percent would be $20,000. Now let’s take the same school with 500 students with a company that’s offering 90 percent with no history and hoping for $30 per student. That’s $15,000 total sale and $13,555 profit. Ninety percent profit did not make you as much as 40 percent profit.”

Originally posted in 2015 and updated regularly.

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