Since the Hamilton Action Team was formed at Chicago’s Alexander Hamilton Elementary two years ago, the parent group has established good working relationships with businesses up and down the surrounding streets. A dance studio donated space for a fundraiser, and other businesses provided products or services that were raffled or auctioned at Action Team events.

The businesses helped the group raise more money for the school while the parent group provided a low-cost way for the companies to advertise to potential customers. The arrangement works so well that nationwide, nearly three-fourths of small-business owners contribute to education through cash, in-kind donations, or volunteer hours, according to a 2005 report by the National Federation of Independent Business.

Supporting community organizations is one way locally owned businesses can set themselves apart from big-box competitors, explains David Bierce, an NFIB member and president of the Henry Bierce Co., a Tallmadge, Ohio, hardware store. “You have to ingrain yourself in the community or you’re going to become obsolete,” Bierce says. His company has contributed money toward an elementary school’s purchase of an interactive white board and supports school athletic programs.

The businesses that surround Hamilton know it’s in their best interest to connect with community schools, says Action Team president Brent Peebles. “It’s real easy to say ‘We have 300 students that are right around the corner, and you’ll have access to the parents,’” he says.

But the group’s attempts to get local business support haven’t always gone so well. When they asked businesses to buy annual sponsorships, leaders soon learned that they needed to adjust their expectations. “A lot of the mom-and-pop stores that are in the city, they just couldn’t donate a thousand dollars or even $500,” Peebles says. “There are probably 30 schools within a five-mile radius of us,...so these businesses get hit all the time by different schools.”

Instead of writing checks, a neighborhood wine shop donated a case of wine and a restaurant gave a certificate for a free dinner. A grocery store donated fruit, and a beverage company provided drinks, allowing the group to make a small profit from concession sales at one of its free events. In return, the businesses were recognized on large signs at events and received links on the parent group’s website.

“If you really promote the sponsors and the people that are donating with PR, that’s where you’re going to get a lot of feedback,” says Jill Buice, copresident of the Hood Avenue Primary and Fayetteville Intermediate School PTO in Fayetteville, Ga.

Promoting sponsors could be as simple as giving plaques that can be publicly displayed or thanking them in newsletters and event flyers. Some parent leaders write thank-you letters for publication in a community newspaper or invite the newspaper to take photos at the event.

Buice recruited the local Best Buy store as a school business partner. For the PTO’s spring auction and family picnic, the store donated more than 20 items it had set aside during inventory, including a flat-screen TV and a desktop computer. More than 30 employees helped supervise the outdoor carnival activities. The store was recognized as an event sponsor on all promotional materials.

The PTO also received many smaller donations from locally owned businesses and a $1,000 grant from Wal-Mart to defray event expenses. “There are a lot of resources out there,” Buice says. “The main thing is being persistent [and] explaining to them what you’re looking for.”

Getting to Yes

Dave Cobb, managing partner of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant in Norwood, Mass., firmly believes in giving back to the community that has supported his business. The restaurant’s waiting area is filled with plaques and certificates from schools, youth sports teams, and general community groups thanking him by name for sponsorships and donations of food. But he can’t say yes to everyone who asks.

“We get so inundated with people looking for donations,” he says. “We also have to look at it as a business.”

Any kind of publicity a parent group can offer helps, Cobb says, even if it’s just acknowledging the company on letters that go home to parents. And the more details you can provide about the exposure you can give the businesses, the more persuasive you will be. If the donation will be mentioned on signs at the event, have an estimate of how many parents will see them.

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

Bierce suggests preparing for conversations as if they were business meetings. Give details about how a donation will benefit the school and the business; if they have supported your group in the past, remind them how it was used.

Hamilton Action Team leaders keep track of information like this in a spreadsheet that lists contact information, details previous donations, and notes which businesses have been unresponsive to past requests. The spreadsheet is later used to prepare thank-you letters to send to donors.

Building Relationships

Another reason these parent groups have been so successful soliciting business support is that they maintain the relationships long after the fundraisers are finished. After the Hamilton Action Team spread the word that a local restaurant had donated food for several events, teachers made a point of patronizing the restaurant for an after-school meeting. “We’ve now sent business his way for him being able to set us up with a couple of fundraising activities,” Peebles says.

The Hood Avenue Primary and Fayetteville Intermediate School PTO invites employees from Best Buy to events throughout the school year; 15 employees went to the back-to-school barbecue. The school is also working to implement a mentor program with the store.

Bierce notes that the schools in Tallmadge do a good job of involving business leaders in the schools, periodically inviting them to talk to students. “The more engaged we are in the schools,” he says, “the quicker we are to get our checkbooks out.”


Tips for Connecting With Local Businesses

Do your homework. Know the name of the decisionmaker and be able to answer questions about your group and event.

Put it in writing. Take a letter describing your request in case the appropriate person is not available.

Be respectful of their time. Don’t call a restaurant during peak hours. If a manager is too busy to discuss your proposal, plan to come back at a more convenient time.

Let them know what’s in it for them. Detail how the business will be recognized for its contribution. Try to quantify how many people will see promotional materials.

Say thanks. In addition to public recognition, send a personal thank-you letter. If your group is a 501(c)(3), provide your employer ID number; businesses may be able to write off some donations.

Maintain the relationship. Patronize businesses after the event and continue to thank them for their support. Invite donors to attend school events or ask them to speak at career day.