Bake sales are a staple of K–12 parenting. Before your kids reach middle school, you’ll likely have baked (and bought) your weight in brownies, many times over.
As a parent with two kids in elementary school, I’ve volunteered for some fundraisers that our school holds. I’m all admiration for the dedication and organization that the PTA pours into these efforts to build a sense of community and fill in the gaps in state education funding. Fundraising is also a vital activity in private schools, which get little or no direct state support.
Fundraising is hard work, but all the more necessary since the 2008 economic recession. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that most states provided less funding per K–12 student in the 2013–14 school year than they did before the recession hit. These reductions not only resulted in less programming in art and sports, but also jeopardized many education reform initiatives. Fundraising can help offset public funding cutbacks by supporting school goals such as:
- New playground equipment, school infrastructure, and building improvements
- iPads and Smart Boards for classrooms
- Teacher mini-grants for learning materials and educational programs, such as Reading Recovery
- Creation and maintenance of school gardens
- Test-prep boot camps for the PSAT, SAT, and ACT
- Guest speakers to address parents and students on current issues
Traditional Fundraising Activities
Many tried-and-true strategies do raise funds for these much-needed activities — but their scalability potential is not great. Here are a few that have long track records of moderate success:
Bake sales, the traditional means of fundraising for schools, require volunteers to donate home-baked or store-bought desserts to sell. These days, bake sales are often criticized because they add more sugar to our diets; in fact, they’ve even been curtailed to a degree by the federal 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aims to lower the quantity of sweets provided by schools.
School food advocate Dana Woldow, founder of PEACHSF.org, set out to calculate how much money families spent to provide homemade items for bake sales compared to how much money these fundraisers earned for a school. Factoring in the expense of ingredients and labor, she was able to show that they are less effective than straight donations — without the time and effort!
Another traditional — albeit unpopular — method of fundraising involves students selling products like cookie dough, gift-wrap, or candy, with the proceeds divided between the school and the companies that provide the sale items. Families are, understandably, uncomfortable with this type of fundraising because it either requires parents to accompany their children as they go from home to home, or to permit their older children to go on their own; either way, these fundraisers are increasingly unpopular. What’s more, the percentage of revenue that schools actually receive tends not to be favorable to them.
Fundraising Ideas with a Difference
Given the limitations of traditional fundraising techniques, let’s consider other options — beyond bake sales or door-to-door solicitations. Here are several innovative strategies you might try in your district:
Sales of Services or Experiences
Ask parents to donate their time or expertise to provide a valuable service or fun experience. For instance, a yoga instructor and parent in our district offered one of her classes in a school auction. Another, who happens to be a financial advisor, offered a series of financial planning classes. One hundred percent of the proceeds benefited the school.
In a read-a-thon, kids sign up to read as many books as they can in a specified span of time — say, a month — and ask their friends and family members to sponsor them for each book they read. This idea also requires minimal organization, expense, and volunteer effort (except for your child!). It is a winning situation for kids and schools, and can often be coordinated with your child’s English teacher. Again, 100 percent of the proceeds benefit the school.
Partnerships with Businesses
Gyms, hairdressers, pizzerias, movie theaters, and other local businesses are often happy to offer promotions and give a percentage of sales revenues to the school. You can set up a private movie screening at a local theater, and include food and drinks. An afternoon kids’ movie show on a half-day of school brought in a great response for our district middle school. This type of fundraiser needs to be well-organized, from managing the relationship with the partner business to creating publicity for the event.
One truly innovative fundraising effort is that offered by the startup company Farmigo. It’s available to schools in Northern California and New Jersey. The company sources organic vegetables and other groceries from local organic farms (which receive 60 to 70 percent of revenues). They then sell these to the schools’ families. Parents place orders online over the weekend, and then pick up their produce at school — along with their kids. Schools receive 10 percent of the proceeds, while parents save a trip to the grocery store.
Parties for Parents
In these fundraisers, volunteers host parties (cocktail hours or dinners) at their homes, and other parents purchase tickets to attend. Often, local restaurants will donate the food or drinks, so the ticket revenue goes entirely to the school. Alternatively, a group of parents can prepare the food or organize a potluck. Either way, the proceeds benefit the school and offer a way to strengthen the school community.
Student Art Fundraisers
As most parents know, we will nearly always chip in to buy our kids’ artwork — and often that of other children, as well! You can partner with companies that transfer artwork onto T-shirts, mugs, key rings, and other items, and then sell these to families in the school or local community. Pictures of kids’ artwork can be used for calendars (with school-specific holidays and events printed on them), or on holiday cards that people can purchase as gifts. The school receives a percentage of revenues. These events can be set up online or at local venues.
Students can collect items such as used ink cartridges, office supplies, and drink pouches, and then sell these to a recycling plant like Terracycle, which converts the waste into products like park benches, bags, and plastic fencing. The organization will make a payment to the school or nonprofit of the students’ choice. It awards $0.02 for each qualified piece of waste that is sent in. That can add up if the effort is schoolwide.
Dance-Off with Teachers and Administrators
An event like a dance competition between teachers and administrators can be fun — for kids and parents alike — and raise a good amount of money through ticket sales. Volunteers can donate food, beverages, entertainment systems, and raffle gifts to keep expenses low.
Schoolwide Garage or Used Book Sales
A garage or used book sale (held at the school) — to which students and families contribute items — can raise funds with a moderate level of organization and little expense. Unsold items can be donated to a charity later.
Once parents understand the need for fundraising and all the initiatives that are supported by it, many are willing to “just write a check” — so that 100 percent of the proceeds go to benefit the school. Many people are also able to get a matching contribution from their employers to double their contributions.
Tips to Make Your Fundraising Efforts a Success
Lynn Scott, an experienced fundraiser at a Catholic school in Flushing, New York offers the following tips for successful fundraising:
Communicate with the parent community about your activities, and get them interested in volunteering. Find ways for parents who are too busy to volunteer to pitch in by donating goods or money. Chat with parents, and get to know them personally.
It is equally important to have good communication with school administrators and staff, especially if you want to use the school’s facilities. Be sure that all the spaces you use are left clean and undamaged after the event.
Successful fundraisers are the result of good planning. Make sure all the members of the volunteer team know what they are responsible for, and send reminders in advance. You can use applications like SignupGenius or BigTent to keep track of volunteer commitments and send automatic reminders via email.
Choose your fundraisers after considering what will appeal to your community, and price them affordably.
Spread the word about your event in advance through flyers, posters, emails, and social media, as well as personal communications.
Remember that the objective is to maximize the amount you earn, so set a budget, and stick to it!
For further advice, check out this article about volunteering as busy, working parent.
Cunha, D. (2014, October 22). Let’s Get Rid of Third-Party School Fundraisers. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
Education World: Administrator's Desk. (n.d.). Retrieved March 19, 2015, from Education World.
Leachman, M., & Mai, C. (2014, May 20). Most States Funding Schools Less Than Before the Recession. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Sullivan, G. (2014, August 4). Michelle Obama Isn’t Banning Bake Sales, Birthday Cake. The Washington Post. Retrieved March 23, 2015, from The Washington Post.
Truong, A. (2014, September 27). Move Over, Bake Sales: The New School Fundraising Model Sells Local, Organic Groceries. Retrieved March 19, 2015, from Fast Company.
Woldow, D. (2012, July 31). BeyondChron: San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily News » Do School Bake Sales Really Bring in the Dough? Retrieved March 19, 2015, from