Kids Are (Still) Key to Fundraising

Pam Pyples/Darby Creek Elementary

The success of your fundraiser can hinge on how you communicate with students.

by Evelyn Beck


Fundraising is changing. Not that long ago, students did most of the selling or asking for donations. The conventional wisdom was to offer a few cool, expensive prizes, like a bike or flashy electronics. The idea was that kids would be motivated to sell more because they would really want one of those prizes.

Today, parents do a lot of the selling. Communicating with them directly is important to your fundraiser’s success, but the methods of communication have changed, as well. Facebook and texting are replacing printed flyers and even email. And of course, the ability to sell or take donations via the Internet has greatly expanded the potential audience for a school fundraiser.

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Despite all the changes, one aspect remains constant: Getting kids excited about a fundraiser can be a powerful force in building your bottom line. Kids are still major influencers in the process, whether or not they actually do the selling. And students who have a little success and are celebrated for it in one fundraiser are more likely to want to participate the next time around.

Fundraising experts say the more kids (or their parents) who participate in a fundraiser, the more successful it will be. In other words, you’re better off getting most people to raise a little bit each than having a handful raise a large amount while many people raise nothing. The key is getting as much of your school population on board as possible.

Set the Stage

Many parent groups hold product fund­raisers soon after the start of school in the fall. With all the forms and flyers students bring home in the first few weeks, it’s easy for an announcement about a fundraiser to be overlooked. If possible, draw more attention to fundraisers by making an announcement at back-to-school events about the upcoming fundraiser. If your school sends out automated messages, ask whether the PTO can send a reminder to families that way.

Think about the best way to reach students. As you send emails or flyers home to parents, hang posters about the fundraiser where students can see them—on the school doors or outside a high-traffic area like the cafeteria.

It’s never too early to start building some buzz about your biggest annual fundraiser. Months before the fall kickoff rally for its color run and fun fest, the Red Mill Elementary PTO in Etters, Pa., ran a teaser on a TV in the school lobby showing a blast of color powder and the words “Coming October 2015.” “That was to get kids interested and to think about it over the summer,” says PTO president Brian Maneely.

Kick It Off

A kickoff rally marks a fundraiser’s start dramatically, making students aware and getting them excited about the prizes they can earn. Kids who really want a prize are likely to ask parents to help them reach a certain fundraising goal. But not all parent groups can hold kickoff rallies.

“The biggest problem with kickoff rallies is getting the administration of the school to let you do it,” says Roger Coutu, owner and president of Jeannine Fund Raisers. “Show them that by doing a rally, sales are increased. Therefore, if the sale is bigger, you don’t have to do as many fundraisers.”

If the loss of class time is a concern, consider alternatives. The Michigan Avenue Elementary PTO in Cleveland, Tenn., used its morning closed-circuit TV show to launch its annual fall catalog sale. Acting silly, PTO members threw a large beach ball around, and students demonstrated the prizes kids could win, says PTO president Becca Brnik.

At the kickoff assembly for its fall sale of collegiate tumblers and cookie dough, the Belton (S.C.) Elementary PTO showed a video about the mobile gaming truck students who sold 10 items or $100 could visit. Students could also earn a chance to play field games like Booger Wars (dodgeball with bean bags). “They went crazy when they saw that video,” says PTO president Caressa Baker. “I heard students saying, ‘I want to go home and sell so I can go to the truck.’”

To engage students at a rally, Nick Kukta, vice president of fundraising company Great Western Reserve, suggests asking questions to make sure they’re paying attention and explaining how much of the money raised goes back to benefit them directly. Announcements about prizes are more effective when made near the end of a rally. “Wait until the last five to seven minutes to cover all the prizes so they leave excited,” Kukta says.

Build Momentum

It’s important to let parents know why you’re fundraising. If you have some specific programs or events you’ll fund or something that you’ll purchase for the school, communicate that to parents. Those kinds of specifics are much more motivating than communicating the amount you hope to raise, or using a general call to action like “helping the school and the kids.”

Students can also get some motivation from understanding the goal of the fundraiser—that they are raising money to buy a new playground structure, for instance—so offer frequent reminders about the reason for the sale. Keep students engaged with classroom competitions. You might offer a popcorn party to the class that raises the most and make announcements about the contest standings. If your principal is willing, plan a silly stunt for when the fundraising goal is reached. Some principals have kissed a pig or had their heads shaved, for example.

Prize incentives are most effective when most or all kids can earn them. The goal is to get all families participating, so creating reachable goals works best. A group incentive like a principal stunt can really get kids excited.

Kids are also motivated by individual prizes they can win, especially if the prizes are distributed during the fundraising campaign to help build excitement. The Michigan Avenue PTO employs a variety of  incentives with its fall catalog fundraiser. The most popular this year were tiny plastic foxes that attached to a lanyard. “We called them wolverines, our mascot,” Brnik says. “Those trinkets caused our sales to go through the roof.”

Students could earn up to eight of the 18 different foxes and received one during the sale each time they brought in a coupon signed by a parent saying they had met a certain sales quota. In addition, anyone who submitted a coupon was entered into a daily prize drawing. Each winner’s picture was taken and posted on the PTO’s Facebook page. Awarding the prizes while the sale was going on built momentum and awareness and fueled participation. Participation in the fundraiser grew from 25 percent the previous year to 42 percent.

Finish Memorably

A special event at the conclusion of a fundraiser is an effective way to bring the school community together while celebrating success. It can also make the fundraiser part of a memorable experience.

At Michigan Avenue, the class with the highest average sales total per student gets to adopt an ani­mal through the Smithsonian Institution, receiving a stuffed animal version and literature about the ani­mal for a year in return for a cash donation by the PTO. The second place classroom gets a karaoke party during lunch.

These kinds of prizes offer experiences that children won’t get to do at home, says Kukta, citing other examples like limousine rides or tickets to a local water park. “Kids that really participate will get to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily get to do,” he says. “And those who get close will try harder next year.”

Sometimes the silliest activities create the biggest buzz. At Hannah Crawford Elementary in Crestline, Ohio, every student who participated in the catalog fundraiser (selling items ranging from wrapping paper to food mixes) got a piece of duct tape to stick their principal to a wall in the gym. “Duct-taping our principal was probably the best incentive this year; they loved it,” says PTO vice president Tonya Hoepf.

The annual walkathon at Darby Creek Elementary in Hilliard, Ohio, finishes in stages. On the day of the closing rally, students take the raffle tickets they’ve been given based on their total pledge dollars and drop them in boxes by preferred prizes, including gift cards, toys, book sets, and bicycles. At the rally, the winning names are drawn. The classroom that raised the most money receives a trophy.

“There’s a lot of cheering. It’s crazy, very loud, and exciting,” says PTO vice president Kimber Whanger. After school that day, all students and their families are invited to a free private party at the local roller skating rink—a way to close out the monthlong fundraising effort and celebrate what kids have accomplished.

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