Catalog Sales: Profitable, Easy To Run

Tips for success, dos and don'ts, and easy ways to increase profits for your next catalog fundraiser.

by Christy Forhan


Product fundraising is probably the oldest form of direct-contact fundraising for schools. Some product sales companies have been around for 50 years or more. And more companies have entered the market in recent years as school districts cut back on their funding and PTOs look for ways to supplement the coffers.

Quite simply, product fundraising works, which explains why it is so popular. School and youth organizations raise $1.7 billion a year through product sales, according to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. There may be other forms of fundraising in the PTO world, but product sales are still the bread and butter of school fundraising—and catalog sales are the most popular form of product sales.

Keys To Success

Product fundraisers should be approached like any other important PTO project. Start with planning, get organized, and then manage the project to completion.

Set a goal for your fundraising effort. Determine how much your PTO wants to earn and how the money will be spent.

Consider your community and what kinds of products people would like to purchase.

Be aware of the timing of your sale. Allow two full weekends for the sale period, and avoid overlapping with other school activities that might distract attention from your promotions.

Evaluate several companies and select one that offers your PTO the best quality of product, customer service, profit potential, and support for your volunteers.

Recruit a few good volunteers to run the sale. One of the major advantages of catalog fundraising is that it can be done with only three to five volunteers.

Take advantage of your fund­raising representative’s experience, especially if this is your group’s first catalog sale.

Work with your principal, sales representative, and PTO leadership to design an energetic kickoff program to motivate the kids to support the sale.

Send parents a letter explaining the goal of your fundraiser, the important deadlines, the name and contact information of your project chair, and the proper payee for checks. Keep the instructions simple.

Customize student rewards. Product fundraising companies usually offer prizes to students based on sales volume. This type of incentive is nice, but students really get energized when they have a chance to win a pool party or watch the principal have his head shaved.

Engage the teachers in your plans. You will need their help distributing catalogs and collecting orders.

Promote your fundraising goals to everyone involved: students, parents, and staff. Nicole Eubank, a fundraising consultant with Entertainment Fundraising, suggests using a variety of ways to communicate with parents, such as phone chains, broadcast email messages, and letters mailed home.

Distribute catalog packets at the end of the day so they can go directly into students’ backpacks.

Build in time for late orders, and be prepared to accept them.

Stay with it till the end. Your project committee should be involved daily—collecting early orders, distributing mid-sale prizes, making announcements over the PA system.

Hold some form of celebration assembly for students at the end of the sale.

Be sure to thank parents for their support, report the results, and let them know how the money will be used.

Dos and Don’ts

Don’t run too many fundraisers, and don’t run more than one at a time. No matter how “easy” or “optional” a fundraiser is, every one contributes to the numbing effect known as “fundraising fatigue.” Your parents want to feel supportive, not exploited.

Do consider what other groups in your community are doing. You don’t want to find out too late that you’re running the same catalog sale that the neighborhood preschool completed just last month.

Do ask your company representative for free samples and show the products to your parents. Offer free treats or door prizes from the catalog at your curriculum nights and PTO meetings.

Do explain the sale to school staff members. Don’t assume they read the catalog packet or get the same newsletter your parents receive.

Do be specific in communicating your group’s fundraising goals.

Don’t be afraid to propose a personal dollar goal per student. Parents appreciate knowing what’s really needed.

Do stick with what works. According to fundraising consultant Amy Hobley of Innisbrook, “Parents vote with their money. If your parents have been supporting your fundraiser in the past, there’s no reason to think it’s time to change companies.”

Top 5 Ways To Increase Profits

  1. Get creative with your sales rewards. Don’t be afraid to invest in some really special prizes, like MP3 players for the top sellers. Consider encouraging class-to-class competition. Offer a prize for teachers so they’ll encourage a high rate of participation. You want to motivate the students to encourage their parents and friends to buy from their catalog.

  2. Defer payment until item delivery. Most fundraising sales are run on a prepayment basis, but experience proves that you’ll make more money if you allow customers to pay when the items are delivered. The downside to this is that collections can extend for weeks, and in some extreme cases you might never collect payment.

  3. Start early. There’s a fairly short window of time in the fall for a traditional product fundraiser. The pros know that the earlier you roll out your fundraiser, the more you’ll earn. So if you have the option of running your sale in early or late fall, pick the earlier date. Just be sure to have some non-fundraising contact with your community first so they know your PTO is all about involvement, not just money.

  4. Make the catalog sale your one-and-done fundraiser. Tell the community exactly why you are raising funds, exactly how much you need, exactly when the profit will be spent, exactly how the fundraiser will benefit their kids, and exactly how much you hope each child will raise. Promise your members that this will be the parent group’s only fundraising activity for the year if the goals are met, then live up to that promise.

  5. Make it easy for parents to participate. Parents don’t look forward to selling candy or wrapping paper, but they do want to support your group. Give clear instructions and contact information in case of questions. If the sale feels like a hassle, parents may toss aside the catalog.


How do we pick a fundraising company?
Collect information from several companies. Compare the quality of their products, their attention to customer service, the level of profit, the incentive program, the workload for your volunteers, and the professionalism of their representatives. Be sure to check references, and don’t base your choice solely on profit percentage.

Aren’t catalog fundraisers passé?
Product fundraising typically gives you the highest return for your volunteer hour. Other forms of fundraising, such as auctions and carnivals, have gained in popularity recently, but PTOs still count on product fundraising for its reliability and ease, and catalog sales are the most popular product fundraisers.

How many volunteers do we need to run our sale?
Most product sale fundraisers can be handled by three or four committed volunteers.

How much should we expect to make from our sale?
Your profit depends on many factors, some of which are out of your control. But to make a rough projection, estimate the number of students who will participate, multiply that number by an estimated average total sale per student, and then apply your profit percentage.

How often should we run a product fundraiser?
Avoid fundraising fatigue by limiting the number of product fundraisers to one or two per year, preferably one in the fall and another in the spring. Don’t run them back to back even if they are for vastly different products.

New and Trendy

The Internet and email allow for online order entry and mass announcements to your parent community to promote your sale and your PTO.

“Green” fundraising is gaining popularity. Some companies are promoting their eco-friendly practices so PTO volunteers in turn can share the information with students and parents.

Some groups, recognizing the key role moms play in the sales process, offer a thank-you incentive. The idea is to recognize moms for guiding their students through the process.


# Jennifer 2009-08-25 19:34
Definitely find a company that works with internet. Families can then take a look at products online and don't have to worry about catalogs. They can also email their friends the link as opposed to visiting family and friends to show them the catalog.

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