How do offbeat schools raise funds?

Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
By: Robb NorthCC BY 2.0
My son goes to a small community school with an offbeat philosophy which makes many traditional fundraisers a wrong fit for the families. Things like craft fairs and seed sales do well, but coupon books and competitions less so.

What are fundraising ideas that could fit a group of diverse parents that lean toward things like environmentalism, art, and non-commercialism? — Brooke
  1. Auction/silent auction where members offer services, art, etc.? It's a winner for our somewhat offbeat church.

    14 agree
    • I was totally going to say this. Our band used to do this since our school was traditional but the band program did not have funding for cross-country trips. Parents brought desserts, the community and parents donated items to be auctioned (both silent and loud auctions), and then the bands played. If you can showcase the students in some way to help demonstrate why funding that school is awesome, that can help. You could even auction off things like dinner with a couple interesting people, hosted at someone's house. You get to attend a dinner party with this fascinating person! (Obviously it needs to actually be a fascinating person and a bit of a celebrity in some way, but still.) Art, gas, snow removal, all cool things. Also, if there are any writers, you can auction off naming a character. I know that's popular on the interweb.

      And, as I just alluded to, you could always take it to the net. It's harder to do since you may need to deal with shipping and people far away may care less about your cause, but a few items that might have a wider appeal could be done that way. Then get family and friends to spread the word.

      2 agree
    • Our elementary school used to have an annual auction. A local artist would volunteer to help each class or grade (depending on the size of the project) put together an art project that would then be auctioned off. Parents would bid pretty high to get their kid's work. In first grade we made a huge painting of flowers out of our finger prints, which my parents bought. In second grade they bought the bathroom set that I helped paint (hand painted rainbow curtain, rainbow bathmat, and I think there was a trashcan). I remember one class made an awesome dolphin (our school mascot) mailbox, which ended up double cool because we would drive past the house that bought it on our way home from school. There was also an artist who helped us make a dolphin mosaic that ended up hanging in the school itself.

      In addition to the art projects, you could also use this as a chance to do canning tutorials by having the kids help make pickles and jams that then go into gift baskets. Or have them prep those just-add-wet-indredients baking jars (eg: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/brownie-mix-in-a-jar-ii/).

      What was cool to me about this approach to the auction format is that parents aren't just bidding on a nice piece of art. They are bidding on a nice piece of art that *their child helped make.* Also, the kids feel actively involved in the process, even though we didn't get to go to the actual auction. And the final products were good enough that even non-parents might want to take home something that particularly caught their eye.

      4 agree
    • This is a great idea! We have so many talented families, I bet we could gather some really neat items.

      1 agrees
  2. My older son attended preschool at a community school that sounds similar to the one you're describing. They did not have any fundraisers in which the students were encouraged to sell products, but had two big events (Halloween and May day) in which all the parents and students volunteered, sold tickets to, etc that raised money for the school.
    My younger son's school does a fundraiser before the holiday season in which you can purchase all VT (where we live) made products. They made great Xmas gifts. Maybe you could find a similar catalog for your area?

    1 agrees
    • My elementary school wasn't necessarily offbeat, but the PTA really shied away from kitchy fundraisers, and this is a big thing they did to raise money. Every year, there was a Fall Open House, a December Craft Fair, and a Spring Festival. My favorite was always the Fall Open House – the school charged a small entrance fee which gave you a certain amount of tickets (you could then buy extra tickets) that allowed you to participate in the activities. There was a cake walk (cakes were made by parents), face painting (service was donated & done by a parent), and apple cider pressing (hosted/supervised by a parent, kids could press their own cup of cider). There would also usually be a silent auction going on throughout the night, and refreshments were done bake-sale style. The Spring Festival was pretty similar, but with a Spring theme instead of a Fall one. When I got older, I would usually go back to my elementary school & volunteer at these events (usually at the face-painting booth!). They were great. A lot of the items that were up for auction were craft items that kids themselves had made in class & chose to put into the auction (no child was forced to, but anytime we had a craft project in class, there was usually the option to make an extra to be saved for the next auction). it was pretty cool to see things we had made be bid on. There would also be big class projects that would get bid on, like the two first grade classes made a "United States" quilt, where each kid had a state & got a square piece of white fabric to decorate in a way that represented their state. Parents sewed the squares together so the states would be in alphabetical order on the quilt. There was usually a similar kind of quilt up for auction at every Fall open house. A mini silent auction was also usually held at one end of the craft fair.

      • Oh! I forgot to mention, the most popular item every year at the Fall silent auction was always to bid on the "Principal for a Day" certificate, where your kid could choose a day in the next few weeks to spend a day with the principal, acting as the principal for the day. Usually the school would set up that day so the kid-principal could choose to add extra minutes to recesses, and have a dessert served at lunch (these were usually baked goods made & donated by parents). It was cool, though, because they also used it as a teachable moment for the child acting as president to learn a little about leadership skills.

        3 agree
        • Our elementary school had a very successful silent auction. Each class made a project for the silent auction ( either a group project like a quilt, or an induvidual project, that each student made.) Some of the most popular things (with kids for parents to buy us) was lunch with your teacher. The teacher would take the kid out to lunch one day. I did it several years and love it. There were also lots of parent and community donations: restaurant gift certificates, staying at someone's vacation house, products and services from local businesses, especially parent owned ones.

    • This school is so small that it would probably have to find another (free) venue to host something like this, but I do think an event would be good not only for the fundraising but also for community building, which is one of their goals.

  3. The first thing that popped into my head was doing a "farmers market." If you have people with big gardens of veggies or flowers, soap makers or folks who knit scarves. They could donate time and goods for a sale.
    Also if you have a lot of aspiring artists, you could do an art auction. Either of these would be things I would like to participate in even if I don't have kids in school.
    Hope this helps get the gears turning!

    3 agree
    • The school actually has a GIANT garden– it would be neat to sell their produce at the farmer's market, but I know they would need to deal with insurance and the like. So I am not sure how much of that they would want to go through. It would be so cute to have a booth with the produce and hand-made products from parents.

      • Check the business & health regulations carefully, in my province, raw vegetables do not need special licensing to sell directly to consumers at temporary markets such as farmers markets or farm stands.

        • I actually researched this for the school already and the word is we do need coverage, even for farmer's markets. Usually it's an extension of homeowner's coverage because most market sellers grow at home, but it gets tricky with school insurance.

  4. I so wish we had a school like that around here. My oldest just entered the local public school system and I can say that so far I'm not at all impressed. BUT…that's a whole other issue. 😉

    Perhaps a student art auction would be an idea. Or have the students make their own "coupon" booklets for X-amount of hrs. volunteering at a charity or helping in the community. The parents can pay per coupon to "sponsor" the child. Something like that, maybe. Or a bake sale or cookoff? Another idea around the holidays – ask local businesses/artists/crafters to donate items and have the parents and kids put together gift baskets for auction. Hope this helps!

  5. Having a group of people come together to cook and then selling whatever you made is always a good one. I've bought pies from both a local Montessori preschool that way and also from our synagogue's youth group. Thanksgiving is a great time to have a pie sale but really, pie is great at all times of year! A pi day (March 14) pie sale would be extra awesome.

    2 agree
    • I love the idea of a Pi sale! The school focuses on "school life as real life", too, so finding ways to tie activities like this into their curriculum would be great!

  6. What about a dinner/luncheon, it could be a cookoff like suggested above, but different dishes could meet different dietary needs, and everyone could learn more about eachother… Or depending o the level of the students, maybe THEY could be the ones cooking?

    • I love the idea of students cooking, although most of the people I know with strong dietary needs would probably sit out on a meal even if the students tried to cook for special diet needs. I know a few people who are seriously sensitive to cross-contamination of wheat 🙁

  7. I went to a school with a strong art bias; we would raise funds by doing school plays. (Up to 6 plays a year!!)

  8. I went to an alternative high school where parent involvement and working in the community were requirements for enrollment which lent to a few labor intensive fundraisers. The biggest successes were a silent auction, a road race, a student work drive (services were sold to people in the community) though that might be a parent based activity if your kids are young. We also had a monthly open mic, that was free, but accepted donations for snacks. The big thing for all of them was that they opened up to the larger community and not just the school.

    Now, my daughter goes to a similarly structured elementary school where they host dances for the parents and local restaurants and instead of going to the parents often go to local sponsors to help fund specific events or needs. One thing that has also helped is that when the school needs something they ask parents to donate the actual item instead of asking for the cash to buy it; a lot of people seem to prefer this – however that may be because we are a very rural community where money is tight for a lot of people but the requested item is already in the house and can be more easily given.

    • This school does a lot of item-specific requests as well. There are so many people with an old rarely-used basketball hoop, why buy a new one? They do require X-hours parent involvement, too, but I think the organization and communication is still being worked so that the school's needs and the volunteer's abilities can match up.

      I love the idea of taking it out into the community. Do you have more examples of events and activities for this?

      • A popular thing in my area seems to be a fundraising night at a local restaurant. The school publicizes it and the restaurant donates a certain percentage of income for the night (usually like 10%) to the school.

  9. An event you can sell tickets to like a contra dance, concert or talent show, costume ball, dinner, brunch, picnic, overnight camping adventure.

  10. The fundraisers we have completed for our school include a fall festival, where we had parents donate at the door (we will encourage a dollar amount per child/family next time we do this, since parents weren't sure what to donate and gave only a dollar or two). We provided crafts for the kids to do and entertainment from a local children's musician and snacks and beverages.

    We have also put on a trike-a-thon, which did well. We setup 2 tracks, one for the littler children (under 5) and a larger track for the big kids. They pledged to complete a certain number of laps and then collected pledges from friends and family. We awarded prizes to participants who collected certain levels of pledges ($50 got a temporary tattoo, for example). We also had a bake sale, silent auction of donated items and someone from the police department doing bike and helmet inspections. This was a successful fundraiser for us.

    We are currently prepping for our Valentine's spaghetti dinner, which is a dinner with appetizers, dessert and a glass of beer/wine. We had a local musician offer to play music and the location is donating their space and we are using volunteers to serve and prep food.

    We are also planning to start hosting movie nights – we don't necessarily plan to collect a donation for attending this event, but perhaps concessions could be provided for a small fee (as an idea). We will also be doing quarterly festivals, like our fall festival to celebrate the changing of the seasons and bring families together for a celebration.

    1 agrees
  11. This is all very interesting!
    My mum works at a non-offbeat school in a very low income area of a city and fundraising is also a challenge for them, but in a totally different way.
    If they try sales of any kind, no-one buys stuff. Turn it into some kind of competition/raffle/game where they can win the exact same thing as was being sold and the parents are WAY more interested and spend lots more money, strange huh?

    1 agrees
    • That is interesting, Mich. I wonder if some of the out-in-the-community type events others have mentioned would fare well?

  12. I went to a small, private all-girls Catholic High School and there were two fundraisers a year. The first was a Holiday boutique, where teachers/parents/alumni donated crafts to sell. The biggest seller was a handmade doll that wore the school uniform. There were dolls with every hair color and type so every girl could feasibly have one that looked like her.

    The second fundraiser (as others have mentioned above) was an adults-only (parents and alumni) auction where prizes were auctioned off (both silent and live). All items were donated by parents/alumni.

    Additionally, as part of all this, each parent was required to donate 10 hours of time a year to the school working one of these functions (or making dolls, crafts, etc.) or there was an equivalent dollar amount that you could donate (or an equivalent amount of something to be auctioned off/sold).

  13. I was so sick of the fundraisers at our school and talked with the PTO about it. The lady said they were hoping each family would sell $30, giving $15 to the school. I wrote her a check for $25. I don't need any more wrapping paper and I get that the PTO needs money to help supplement the education provided by the school.

    I say all that because I think that at least half of the parents out there, especially at the kind of school you have, would be more inclined to directly pay than a traditional fundraiser, and it is so much less money, time, and waste!

    4 agree
    • This school did do a drive where it straight-up asked for $X to help with school supplies throughout the year.

  14. I'm a teacher at a very offbeat school that does a lot of fundraising. We do a lot of what was already mentioned. We do a spaghetti dinner/silent auction/performance, a chili cool off/performance, and a nut sale where we purchase the nuts in bulk and have school parents package it into 1 lb bags (we make more money this way!).

    • A nut sale combined with the local-products sale would be so cool. We have a lot of locally grown pecans and pine nuts amongst other awesome local produce (ahem, New Mexico green chiles, ahem.)

  15. I attended a high school for the arts, and one of the biggest fundraisers was the "Stars Return" gala. I suggest looking into school alumni-see if anyone has a unique talent or service that could be used as a way to raise funds for the school. Proceeds from the gala would go back into the school, and the majority of the artists would share funds raised through sales of books, art, cds, etc. This was also a great way to discover all kinds of amazing talent, and allowed alumni to expand their own networks while giving back to their high school community.

  16. My itty-bitty Waldorf school sold bagels during snack-time and after school. We got day-old bagels and sold them for $1/bagel. We also did pizza fridays, and sold the pizza for $1/slice. (Prices reflect how long ago that was)
    While these items might not be healthy enough, they could certainly be substituted for more desirable foods, with similar kid appeal.

  17. Use art classes to have the kids design and paint/draw/collage pictures that can then be scanned and turned into greetings cards to be sold?

    • That would be sweet. There are a bunch of local markets here that sell cards like that, too. There are also websites like this one that will print their artwork on mugs, coasters, etc.

  18. My daughter attends a K-12 charter school here in Anchorage,AK. I've been pleased to see what they do, it's a lot of what has already been mentioned. First – they have a school store that sells coffee!!! 🙂 I also saw waffles advertised for sale on the walls of the school. The students run it. The school has also partnered with a local coffee roaster/coffeehouse chain to have a special blend made for the school. Proceeds go to the school. Students sell popcorn for 50 cents a bag after school, and I know my daughter is ALWAYS begging for some. They do also have a "habitat" where they grow things and the students work there and learn about environmental conservation and such things. I don't think they have food though, it had gotten neglected recently and some parents are trying to revive it. Also, in the Fall the school has a Fall Carnival with games, a dance for the older kids, and various other things going on. They just had a dinner/auction this last week to which they sold tickets (grandparents get in free!), proceeds from that go to the school of course. They also have the more traditional fundraisers of the wrapping paper/knick knack variety as well. I've been impressed with the school and all the things they do overall. It's a great place!

  19. Our cooperative preschool holds an enormous rummage sale/silent auction every Spring. It takes a lot of organization and beating the pavement to get donations of goods, but we raised almost 5,000 dollars last year. For a school with only 25 families we were really happy with that- something that seems to have really helped our sale was moving it from a Sat/Sun sale to Fri/Sat – I guess we never realized how much rummage sale traffic a Friday can bring! We also have a holiday market booth one weekend in December where all the members create products (this year we even had someone doing charcoal portraits) We don't make as much from that- but it's a great community builder, and everyone buys all of their holiday gifts : ) Good luck!!

  20. It might be worthwhile to connect with some local youth organizations that offer lessons to incorporate in an auction? Try to see if local dance studios/piano instructors/art studios/martial arts studios/ymca classes might be willing to donate a certificate for a set number of lessons or instruction time – it could be a good way to advertise for local businesses and I have a feeling many parents might like the idea of having their children try out a new activity without having to commit to a semester or months worth of class time.

  21. I work at an arts integrated community school and one thing we do to raise money for our art program is have an big art show displaying all the students art work from the year. Admission is free but we auction off or sell a student made item. Last year every kid made a mug in art class and at the show we sold the mugs to their parents with root beer floats in them as well as floats in paper cups. Two years ago each class decorated a rocking chair and we auctioned them off.

    We also apply for grants like crazy!

  22. Our local Farmer's Market just had a fundraiser/ awareness-builder (to stop a mega quarry) and called it SOUPSTOCK. Chefs made huge batches of soup, ppl brought their own bowls and for a $10 ticket, you could have 3 bowls of soup. It sold out!
    http://www.soupstock.ca/

    1 agrees
  23. How about a used book sale? Ask people to donate used books. The library or local used book stores may be able to donate from their discards or "free" shelves as well.

    1 agrees
    • We just did this for our son's school library. We raised about $170, which for a tiny library is definitely welcomed but still pretty low for the amount of work that went into it. We had to find homes for the leftover 400+ books, too! If we had it in a more public space it may have raised more. There's only so many books the parents of a small school can buy.

  24. What about a bottle drive? Some places give money for recycling old bottles and cans and that wold teach about recycling which is important to environmentalism.

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.