I recently attended the AFRDS convention in Florida, the annual meeting of the fundraising industry. It’s every cookie dough and pizza kit and chocolate and gift wrap company you can imagine, all in one cavernous hall. There are hundreds of items showcased, from fire extinguishers to socks to cups to oven mitts. If parents need an item, it’s certainly possible to sell that item through your school and keep a piece of the sales proceeds.

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

I’ve been attending for nearly two decades and have seen every fundraising product you can think of. Trends change. The hot items come and go. Ironically, amidst all of these various great products, one fundamental truth emerges: The actual product you sell matters way, way less than you think.

Fundraising success is 95 percent about your good work and how much you’ve connected with your supporters and how well you’re communicating why your group is fundraising at all. The why matters so much more than the what.

Does your group fund every school field trip? Are you the reason every classroom has an interactive whiteboard? Are you working toward a new playground? Are you providing the essential support to teachers that allows those teachers to work their magic with 400 students every day? Do you create the community around your school (with your events and efforts) that turns a cold brick building into a place where families feel welcome?

That’s the magic ingredient of fundraising success. Are you communicating your cause enough? Most groups I see do not. Don’t get me wrong—selling a high-quality, popular product at a good price is far more effective than selling a low-quality, unpopular product at an inflated price.

But after that, nearly all of your promotion should be about your good work. Parents and supporters can almost always buy the same product you’re selling (or something similar) at a big-box store or online, often at a lower price. Your only advantage is your cause. It’s up to you to keep that cause front and center in all your fundraising promotion.

I was reminded of this recently at a fundraising auction I attended. After all of the listed live auction items were sold, the auctioneer reached into his pocket and pulled out five very basic ball-point pens. He then did a great job reminding the audience of the great work (the cause) of the host organization. And he sold those five pens for $80 each.

You don’t want to be the store or business that can only tout product and selection and sale prices as its key benefits. You’ll lose that battle to the professional retailers—and you’ll turn off parents, too.

Even your incentives can connect to your cause. Here at PTO Today, we’re seeing a nice increase in fun, school-related incentives that work (think: the principal duct-taped to the wall or a free book for every kid or a popular gym teacher sleeping out on the school roof). The big-box store can’t compete there. That store isn’t funding your playground, and no one gets excited about the store manager sleeping on the roof. You have to use your advantages.

As PTO and PTA leaders (and the fundraising company reps are guilty of it, too), we might forget this stuff because we have to spend time on the product details. We can start taking the cause for granted because we live it every day. This leads to brochures and letters home and open house speeches that are way more about buying the product than about the reason to buy the product—your kids, your school, your cause.

You can change that. If you want fundraising success now and into the future, you have to.