Sometimes it feels like fundraising is complicated. For sure, there is nuance. Handling cookie dough differs from pitching gift wrap or organizing an auction. And a silent auction is different from a live one. But boiled down, just a few basics hold the key to 95 percent of your fundraising success. Get these things right and you’re likely to do well. Get them wrong and no magic fundraising trick will solve your woes.

It’s About the Cause

Barack Obama broke fundraising records by talking about change and what an Obama administration would do for our country. The American Cancer Society focuses on the scourge of cancer, the friends and family members we all have lost, and the promise of a cure.

The best fundraisers never say “We need $1 million.” Instead, they focus consistently and repeatedly on their cause, and the dollars follow. Does your parent group continually emphasize the importance of parent involvement and the events and materials you provide for the school community? That needs to be front and center all year round.

Yes, good-tasting cookie dough sells better than bad-tasting cookie dough. But what you sell is far less important than why you sell it. Too many groups miss that fact or assume that parents get your cause and don’t need reminding. We all know that cancer is a devastating epidemic, but the American Cancer Society never stops reminding us of both the continued need to fight it and the good work the organization does. Parent groups should take note.

Connect and Serve First

If I could only ask one question before guessing about a particular PTO’s fundraising success, it wouldn’t be about the average income of that school’s parents or the products they sell. It would simply be “How many families attend your family events?”

If the answer is a perfunctory “Eh, we get a few families a couple times per year,” then I’d guess that group raises a few bucks a couple times per year. But show me a group with large, successful family events throughout the year, a group that focuses on serving families and building community—I’d wager that group sees strong fundraising success, as well.

You might reason that you need big fundraisers to afford the family events, but it’s not a chicken-or-egg issue. Serving families doesn’t have to be expensive (a Family Reading Night or Family Game Night can be virtually free for everyone), but it does have to come first.

When parents connect with your group and are served by your group, they’re much more willing to support your fundraisers. Most parents could buy the gift wrap or cookie dough (or dinner out, in the case of an auction) for less money from the local store or restaurant. Their willingness to buy from you isn’t about getting a deal; it’s directly proportionate to how much they appreciate and connect with your group and your cause.

Fundraise Less (but Better)

The natural extension of those first two points is this final one: You can’t focus on the cause if you’re always focusing on parents’ wallets. Likewise, parents don’t connect well (and they certainly don’t feel served) if you’re trying to reach into those wallets all year long.

Ironically, the solution to making more dollars more efficiently is to fundraise less. By picking just a few efforts with real potential and then putting more resources—volunteers and attention—against them, you can earn more money while avoiding a reputation (often well-deserved) as just a fundraising machine.

As a leader, you need to be ready to say no to well-intentioned but harmful additional efforts. I know the Tastefully Simple or Southern Living reps (often very nice parents) want to help—but just say no.

You want to be known for your good work, you want to connect, and you want to bring in more volunteers. All three are more difficult if you’re fundraising all the time.