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Making a school fundraiser pay

The first big fundraiser I was involved in was when my son was in preschool. The first year he’d been there, it was the usual stuff: a raffle, Scholastic book orders. Then the parents found out the financial state of the school — it turned out there was a five-figure hole in the budget and no real plan to fill it.

Auctioneer and assistants, Cheviot, Ohio, 2004, by Rick Dikeman

Auctioneer and assistants, Cheviot, Ohio, 2004, by Rick Dikeman

That particular school benefited from the expertise of one of the moms — a Silicon Valley marketing pro. She gathered together the combined strength of the parent community (I did the graphic design), and we pulled off a very successful fundraiser.

Since then, I’ve noticed that the fundraisers I’ve been involved in have varied in success more or less in relation to how much the parents were willing to spend. Never have I been involved with a fundraiser with the scope and success of the first, though I have seen some of them work better than others.

The key seems to be the intent and scope of the fundraiser, not how good the event actually is. For example, one school we were involved with had a very nice auction. It was done really beautifully in a nice local restaurant, and the donated items were top-notch. But they hadn’t created any reason for people whose kids weren’t at the school to come, so it was limited to parents, grandparents, and close friends.

In that case, since they had an extremely generous and relatively wealthy parent population, they didn’t need to appeal to a larger population and the fundraiser was a success within what they were trying to do: create a really nice night out for the parents and teachers, a way to celebrate the school and its community.

Another school I know was frustrated yearly by what they saw as the failure of their auction to generate enough money to justify all the work. Like other schools, they had cute projects made by the kids, goods donated by local businesses, and a few big sponsors. But the parent population had shown itself unwilling, each year, to heavily attend the event and to spend much money at it.

But like the previous school I mentioned, they didn’t work at making the event something that non-parents would be interested in attending. Every school these days has its auction, and the parent community supports their school, and there’s no reason to go to other schools’ auctions. That school eventually gave in and realized that the auction was not an appealing event for their parent community.

So why was our preschool event such a success? First of all, we had highly motivated parents. Our school was under the threat of closing, and that got us going. Second, we didn’t create the sort of event our parents would want to go to, necessarily. We created an event based on the idea that we would get businesses to buy tables for their employees. Third, we marketed the event that way: not as a school fundraiser that other people might want to attend, but as a fun event that, as an added bonus, would support a school. Fourth, we were lucky to have some connections, but if we hadn’t been lucky, we would have had to work very hard to create those connections to get professional-quality free services.

It seems like all the schools that have fundraisers that are successful year by year have those characteristics in common. There are a couple of golf fundraisers that I know are very successful, though I have to admit that I haven’t paid any attention to them because I don’t know anyone who’s interested in golf. But those fundraisers have the common elements I mentioned above: they are presented as community events with professionally produced marketing and advertising, and there is no sense about them that they are school fundraisers. Instead, they are events that happen to benefit schools.

Similar ideas that I’ve seen have some success for schools have been a road race and a harvest festival, both which are presented as community events for families rather than explicitly fundraisers for the schools. One of the walk/run events has just started, but the idea is to get other non-profits, not necessarily just schools, to join in and get more competitors to make it a real community event. This is a great idea because it opens up the event and doesn’t make it feel like it will be an event where non-parents will feel out of place.

Monarch School in Santa Cruz is trying a new idea this year. They’re having a holiday craft fair which is open to any vendor. They are offering an event that is consistent with the school’s values and will appeal to parents, but will also be a natural thing for other community members to go to, whether or not they know anything about the school.

Wearing my Examiner.com hat, I’m happy to write about any school fundraiser that is designed to appeal to community members as a whole. I think that it’s important for all of us to realize that education is expensive. It’s time- and material-intensive and it can’t outsourced. No matter whether the school is public or private, has wealthy parents or poor, it’s got needs that can’t be financed with tuition or ADA funds. E-mail me at s…@sukiwessling.cm

Posted in Education.


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