Questions to Consider When Developing Fundraising Strategies

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Notes from the Backpack Podcast

Join PTA For Your Child

By David G. Bauer

As allocations for federal and state education budgets stagnate and decrease, school fundraising is becoming increasingly important. To make up for flagging support from tax dollars, parents and school officials with little or no fundraising experience are being saddled with the responsibility of generating financial support for schools' programs and projects. For many who are entrusted with school fundraising, coming up with fresh ideas for effective fundraisers is the main concern. Meanwhile, establishing an overarching plan for fundraising efforts is often overlooked.

The following seven questions will help you analyze fundraising strategies and activities and help you select those that best meet your students', school's, and community's needs. If your school or PTA already has a fundraising plan, use these questions to evaluate its effectiveness. These questions will also help you create a set of fundraising guidelines (or help you strengthen the guidelines you already have).

1. What values provide the basis for why you are raising funds?
Fundraising efforts should not be focused on technique or on copying the latest craze in school fundraising. Instead, fundraising efforts should be focused on why the fundraising needs to be done. The first step in planning your fundraisers for the year should be to identify the need, the opportunity, or the problem to be solved. For example, if you are raising funds for new playground equipment, playground equipment is not the problem. It is the solution. Lack of safe playground activities that allow for healthy exercise and play is the problem, and the symptoms of that problem include overweight children and poor academic performance. Fundraising volunteers—including PTA leaders, parents, school staff, and sometimes students—need to understand the relationship between raising money and solving particular problems.

Once you have identified the problem and solution, identify the values or concerns that a prospective donor must have in order to want to give to this cause. For instance, in the playground example, the donor needs to value or be concerned about student health, exercise, etc. Ask volunteers to identify groups in the school and community that have expressed those key concerns and values. The best fundraiser may involve partnering with a service club or organization that shares those values and would like to work with the school or PTA to solve the problem. (If your PTA chooses to raise funds for a major project like a school playground, be sure the PTA turns the funds over to the school district for the purchase, installation, and maintenance of the project.)

The final step in the planning process is selecting fundraising strategies that align with the identified values and that attract potential donors' attention to the need or cause. In other words, the theme of the fundraising activity should highlight the need and values. In the playground example, it would not be appropriate to have a bake sale, since activity, exercise, and healthy body weight are key values. If there are any food sales, only healthy choices, like fruit, should be available.

The issue of appropriate fundraising strategies arose when my son's high school technology club auctioned off a snowmobile to raise money to purchase computers and Internet access for a local senior citizen housing facility. It's easy to figure out the values involved in this fundraiser, but it's less clear how a snowmobile helps highlight those values. The snowmobile was chosen because a student's parents had donated it. While I do not like to look a gift horse in the mouth, this auction item did little to focus attention on the goal of this laudable (and philanthropic) service-learning project.

Here is another example to think about when considering values-based fundraising: A 6th-grader who lives next door to me asked me to buy candy to help pay for a class trip to the state capital. When I asked why the state capital, he said they were going to learn how our government works. I gave him $20 and asked that he stop back and let me know what he learned. He said okay, then told me that my $20 would buy 10 candy bars. I stopped him in his tracks by refusing to take the candy. I told him I wanted all of the $20 to go for the trip. He looked perplexed, and said his teacher's instructions were to sell all the candy; therefore, I must take it. I refused again, and talked with him about the trip's value and the math—no product to pay for means more money for the trip. We then brainstormed a new approach. I suggested he ask relatives, friends, and neighbors to invest in his civic education by helping fund his class's trip to the state capital. He would ask people if they wanted to buy the candy only if they needed an extra incentive to support the cause.

All of us use our time and money to reinforce what we value. Are your fundraising strategies based on values? Do your volunteers understand the values and the need?

2. What is the cost per dollar raised for this fundraising activity?
Efficient fundraising incorporates the cost per dollar raised as part of the fundraiser selection criteria. The math is quite simple: just divide the expected costs by the anticipated revenue. In almost all product sales fundraisers, 50 percent or more of the revenue (sales) goes to provide the product. When you look at the other costs involved, like the cost of making posters, the cost per dollar raised is even higher. In addition, when calculating cost per dollar raised, you should factor in how much of the students', parents', PTA organizers', teachers', and advisors' time is required—even though time is not a direct cost. Ideally, the estimated cost per dollar raised should be calculated each time a strategy is considered.

3. Does this fundraising strategy give donors options?
Many well-intentioned fundraising strategies neglect to give prospective donors freedom to exercise their values as they see fit. Does your fundraiser allow donors to give more of their money and/or time if they want to? Many requests have one fixed price. You may do better by allowing a donor to determine his or her own level of support. Donors want to be able to give their help, time, and money according to how much they value your orga-nization, goals, and programs. Make sure your fundraising organizers understand that donors are free to decide:

  • How much they should contribute,
  • How often they contribute, and
  • What their level of involvement will be.

4. If students are involved in the fundraising activity, are they learning about the concept of philanthropy?

Does their involvement focus on giving or on getting? Philanthropy has become an important concern in our lives, and a compelling force in our economy. When people think about the U.S. economy, most think about only one sector—business. However, there are two other sectors—government and philanthropy. Our schools generally focus on preparing students for the business sector. Seldom do our students get exposure to (or encouragement to pursue) careers in philanthropy, even though much of our nation's job growth is in the nonprofit, philanthropic area. We must help students realize that philanthropy is important to our society, and that the giving of resources such as time and money provides meaning to our lives and service to our fellow beings. Many current students will find employment in one of the 1.2 million nonprofit organizations in the United States and enjoy a great sense of self-worth. Their counterparts in business will also find meaning in their lives by donating time and money to these nonprofits.

Review your school's fundraising efforts to see if they encourage an understanding of the concept of philanthropy and the role that giving plays in the lives of solicitors and donors. Consider this: According to the Giving USA Foundation, a philanthropy research group that publishes an annual charity survey, individuals provided 75 percent of the $248.5 billion donated to nonprofits in 2004. Ninety percent of that total came from households with incomes of less than $100,000. Many think that the wealthy gave it all, or that foundations and/or corporations donated it. The truth is that corporations donated only 4.8 percent of the total donated to nonprofits in 2004, and foundations only 11.6 percent. Everyone involved in your fundraising efforts must have the facts on philanthropic giving in order to make decisions regarding to whom and how to target their fundraising. They must know that corporations are not the primary donors; individuals are!

Today's student is tomorrow's donor and member of service clubs, religious groups, and nonprofit boards. The sooner students realize that their school fundraising efforts are practice for the rest of their lives, the more seriously they will take these activities.

If your school or PTA focuses only on the fundraiser itself and the getting of money, consider how you can change your fundraising efforts so they provide a learning experience related to true philanthropy. Parents may want to ask their schools about offering service-learning projects and including philanthropic concepts in subject areas such as social studies, civic education, and history. This is not about religion; it is about social concern for our fellow beings, our community, and our planet.

5. Does this fundraiser involve incentives or prizes for sales?
Sales incentives focus a fundraiser on competition and getting something, rather than on values and giving. In my work with nonprofits, I have been amazed by how powerful these gimmicks can be. I knew one club advisor who was quite insistent about holding a candy sale; I understood why when I discovered that there was an advisor bonus—an airplane ticket to Orlando!

6. Have you looked into the integrity of the corporation offering its support?
Partnering with a local corporation can be a very beneficial fundraising strategy. It demonstrates community support and creates awareness about the school's needs. However, it is important that you evaluate any company with which you consider aligning your school or PTA. Companies want to be viewed as good corporate citizens that support schools, but this can be a double-edged sword. If the company is implicated in a scandal, your school's or PTA's image may suffer.

7. How will this fundraiser and the projects and programs it supports benefit the community?
School fundraising activities should positively affect the community—the school community as well as the larger community. Of course, we can argue that having better schools improves the community, but how do school and PTA projects (club activities, art programs, athletics, music, theater, technology, etc.) affect a community? Whenever possible, explain the connections between your project and the world outside the school. In some cases, you may want to alter the project's primary focus so that the fundraiser is more community-oriented.

By using these questions as a guide, you can brainstorm effective fundraising strategies that will both raise the money your school and community require and educate your students about the value of philanthropy.

Raising funds for projects at your school should not be approached with fear and trepidation. Fundraising can be a learning opportunity, and each activity or strategy should be thought of as a "friend-raiser" and a chance to reinforce donors' values concerning education, learning, and our nation's youth.


David G. Bauer is president of David G. Bauer Associates, Inc., a consulting firm that provides grant-seeking and fundraising seminars and materials. Bauer is the author of eight books on resource development, including The Fund-Raising Primer and The Teacher's Guide to Winning Grants. For more information, visit or call (800) 836-0732.