Where's The ''Fun'' In Fundraising?
By Kathreen Francis

Fundraisers are a necessary evil for most centers. The profits no longer buy the ‘extras’ of your preschool or daycare center - they are counted on to provide necessities, but that, in turn, has created an environment of high-pressure sales and stressful volunteering. It is easy to become caught up in the objective and risk losing sight of the goodwill of your families.

Personal experience and surveys tell us the same thing: most of us would rather opt out; many of us don’t like participating and only occasionally enjoy purchasing. Paradoxically, product fundraisers bring in an average of $2500 per school, with many schools exceeding $10,000 or more. According to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers (AFRDS), in 2005, schools raised approximately $1.7 billion dollars through product fundraisers, like cookie dough (a popular sales item) and other organized sales items we have come to expect from our schools.

In some school districts, fundraising parameters are being imposed from their boards of education, like no junk food, no door-to-door sales, and no competitive incentives. They often keep careful watch that the parent organizations coordinating the fundraisers are legal and operating within IRS guidelines. Independently operating preschools and daycares may have as much or more financial need, but often have less guidance, leaving them susceptible to unscrupulous vendors, legal liability and avoidable burnout.

Here are some ideas to help you begin developing a reasonable, yet profitable fundraising strategy:

1. Make sure your fundraising group is legal. Whether you work for a for-profit or non-profit school or center, you MUST check to ensure your parent group is operating within the expectations of the IRS and state tax laws. It’s illegal to solicit funds or donations if you are not designated a tax-exempt, 501c3 organization. If your parent group is not properly organized, the school may be held responsible for any unpaid taxes or misappropriated funds. It is important to check with the IRS and your state’s attorney general for guidance. These are laws the government takes very seriously and consulting an accountant or attorney may be your surest bet.
2. Be sensitive to the financial situation of children in your school and provide a variety of options for fundraising. There are families struggling to provide the basic necessities, therefore, luxury items such as expensive gift wrap or tins of caramels are impractical and financially out of reach. Some children don’t have a network of family and friends who can afford expensive luxuries either. It is critical to keep your goals in perspective, making sure not to alienate financially stressed families. Merchant reward cards may be a good way for your school to earn money without asking people to buy things they would not ordinarily buy.
3. Don’t offer ridiculous incentives for the ‘biggest seller’. Many fundraising companies offer cruises, cash and other large prizes for the top sellers. K-12 districts have seen incidents of violence among children competing for prizes and in some cases demanded that all incentives, even classroom parties, be stopped. A school might reward a parent by offering a week’s worth of tuition or dinner gift certificate- modest, affordable ways to show appreciation without encouraging crazed competition. Keep the monetary goals in perspective and remember that the team you build among families and staff is as important as the dollars you raise.
4. Know the fundraising schedules of the schools around you. Fall fundraisers are very popular, but if you are competing with similar gift wrap at the same time as other schools, your effort may get lost in the shuffle. Sometimes it makes more sense to wait out the autumn hustle until other campaigns have concluded. If you are looking at magazine sales or a ‘garage sale’, other times of the year will work just as well, if not better.
5. Similarly, remember that many of your classroom children have older siblings with fundraising obligations. Multiple, simultaneous fundraisers can put a huge burden on your families and a financial strain on their friends and coworkers. This is a sure way to develop fundraising fatigue. Families can only support so much and business associates will not buy the same things over and over again.
6. Remember that parents are selling to other adults. Toddlers and preschoolers will not be banging on neighbors’ doors peddling calendars or popcorn buckets. A cute delivery and sweet face is not going to unload trinkets. Grownups will be selling your fundraiser items to co-workers and adult friends and it is important that you find something that has real value to them. Gift certificate programs, magazines, and flower bulbs may not scream “child fundraiser,” but, then again, that’s the idea!
7. Think outside the box. There are literally thousands of ways to earn money for your school. Organized fundraising companies run the gamut from traditional products to merchant reward cards, coupon books, customized scratch cards, magazine sales, computer software, etc. The list is as long as your imagination. Don’t jump on the first vendor who approaches your school, no matter how promising it seems. Choosing the fundraising approach that best matches your family-base, will pay off in the long run!
8. If possible, seek out fundraising companies with a conscience. Some companies pride themselves on their progressive philosophies regarding human rights, global sustainability, support of local manufacturing, and other socially responsible policies. Many companies donate part of their profits to other charities. There are many good choices and a little surfing around the internet will yield a wealth of options.
9. Ask if there are ‘junk food’ policies in the local school district that ban unhealthy food sales. Consider the answer creatively. If there are restrictions, you may want to exploit the fact that other schools will not be selling cookie dough or caramel turtles and fill that void. On the other hand, you might want to support the principle and encourage healthier options. Either way, you will have thought out your own practice, which will surely improve your chances of success.
10. Have fun! If you are bogged down by the administration of a sale, stressed out about the outcome, or are having a difficult time getting parents involved, then it’s the wrong fundraiser for you! Yes, they take work and cooperation, but they don’t have to be horrible. Find your niche, streamline your operation, and start earning!

Kathreen Francis is a Legislative Aide in the Michigan State Senate with a special policy interest in 0-5 learning and K-12 educational/funding issues. She is also the parent of four active children who do a lot of fundraising!