How I Avoided our School Fundraiser and Felt Good about It

Almost as soon as our kids start bringing home math sheets and reading logs, they bring home order forms and collection envelopes for a magazine drive, a coupon book, or a wrapping paper catalog. Children (and parents) are supposed to sell as much as possible to make money for the school.

I wish I were a better saleswoman. This is an example of my best pitch: “You don’t want to buy any Girl Scout cookies, do you?” Yes, I’m commerce-challenged (hence yet another reason I need to be a frugal mama).

The other problem with school fundraisers is the school part. I love everything about it: from the classrooms (tiny desks filled with school supplies, the calendars and job charts, the smell of pencil shavings and crayons and old books) to chatting at drop-off with the parents and teachers, to the worksheets and homework organizers (I’ve always loved filling in forms). School touches both the child in me and that side that gets deep satisfaction from seeing everything in its place.

So when my daughter brought home a coupon book for local attractions and restaurants, which we were supposed to sell to friends and family, I was in a bind. Fundraiser: yucky. School: yummy.

In my mind I went over who I could sell these coupons books to. We just moved here, but I could surely rustle up some people. Then I remembered what happened last year. I wanted to help the PTA with the magazine drive so much that I delved into my address book and sent out emails to half the people I knew.

I think perhaps one person renewed a subscription, which would mean about $10 for the school. Was bothering my friends and family and possibly squandering a bit of good will worth it? I decided, no.

So I started to write a check for the $20 coupon book (I usually end up buying stuff myself to make up for my lack of entrepreneurial spirit, which highlights my lack of business sense even more), but then I thought — I really don’t want this coupon book.

Wondering why a frugal mama doesn’t love coupons? I’ve talked about why I think grocery coupons are a waste of time, and even though there are some high-value store coupons that are worth saving, the reason I didn’t want the restaurant and entertainment coupons is because I find they:

  • keep the focus on spending
  • are hard to keep track of, thus creating physical and mental clutter
  • induce me to spend on things I didn’t naturally choose based on location, quality or charm
  • are, frankly, a little embarrassing (especially when used to pay for a romantic dinner)

If I want money to go to the school, why don’t I just make a donation?

And that is what I did. Instead of $10 going to the school, all of my $50 went to the school. Before I would have felt guilty about not selling more or buying more, and annoyed that I had spent my money on something I didn’t really want or need.

This time I felt a tiny bit bad because I didn’t participate on the PTA’s terms, but then I realized it was a win-win: they got more money from me than they would have if I had just bought one coupon book for myself, and I got to support my children’s school in a way that felt right to me. In the end, the school got needed funds, and I got peace of mind.

Am I the only one with this dilemma? Please tell me no in the comments section below.

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  • BILLIE September 9, 2016, 11:41 am

    Here is my real problem with fundraisers. They peer pressure children into selling this overprices junk. Trips to the gym or auditorium to see who won. The children who don’t sell enough are made to feel like failures.. Bullying at its best. My granddaughter school even post pictures of kinds with “GREAT KINDERGARTNER” You know for the kids that SELL the most. They give out crappy prizes in front of the whole school. What are you saying to the kids that don’t sell enough. They aren’t good students.. They don’t care about their school or aren’t “team players” and lets be honest five year olds are NOT the ones selling this stuff. So basically your are holding parents hostage sell this or we will damage your childs self esteem. Great lesson

  • Jessica October 12, 2015, 4:05 pm

    What’s weird is that I always ask to do a direct donation, instead, and have been told every time that it isn’t allowed. The fundraising vendor has controlled the donation channels with their contract with the school, or whatever organization, so that doing business through them is the only way to give. I would love to help fill in the holes voters and legislatures are leaving in schools’ funding for my nieces and nephews. But to give money to a company that’s going to take the majority of the cut, only to give me unhealthy food and a heavy dose of information sharing to other mailing lists… How is that helping them? I’m the bad guy that says “No thanks” if donation isn’t allowed. I won’t be made to feel guilty about it anymore. Why is everyone so OK with companies profiting off underfunded school systems, while asking kids and their parents to do all the work? And it’s not just that. All the activities are asking for this stuff too. Between my coworkers’ kids in dance and cheer, and the schools that need money… it’s starting to feel like everything kids are in is crowd-funded through a candy or magazine company. I saw one the other day for Krispy Kremes! Who the heck wants to order a $25 box of donuts through the mail?

  • Mary Jo September 27, 2015, 7:14 pm

    You wrote what I experienced at my own children’s schools. I had a small support network, and was feeling pressure for hitting them up all of the time, so was buying the minimal amount of stuff rather than selling it. I was fed up, so I proposed donating the profits directly to the school.

    Our school ended up offering either profit donation or selling the fundraising items. There were enough families that wanted to do both, so it worked for us.

  • Debra September 11, 2015, 8:55 pm

    Amen! Big argument with my daughter today over her team’s fundraiser that is expecting everyone to sell 25 boxes @ $18 each or $450 worth of cookie dough. We have a small family and do not want to hit up the neighbors who will in turn come around to us for their next fundraiser that isn’t even a charity. My daughter got upset when I reached out to ask what % of the cookie sale actually goes to the school. She was made to feel obligated to not only sell, but, the full 25 boxes. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be a true team member. I tried to explain that the school only gets a portion of each sale and that’s it’s better (less stressful and more practical) to write a direct donation. Moreover, does everyone really need cookies and ones you have to bake? I applaude you for the bravery in posting your honest thoughts. Thank you!

  • Dave July 26, 2015, 11:04 pm

    I feel your frustration. I’m the last one to argue for serial fundraising, and I get extremely frustrated by fundraising companies that give 25% profit or less. Some companies even insist that you pick up the order from their warehouse yourself!
    – I should stop here, and confess that for the past 16 years, I’ve owned a school fundraising company, We CARE! Coffee Company-.
    I remember a time when the school ran one candy bar fundraiser a year. Period. The school’s programs were fully funded (for the most part) so, one fundraiser was all that was needed to pay for “extras”.
    Since there was just the one, it wasn’t hard to encourage the students to take part. No one thought twice about children going door to door, because everyone knew their neighbors.
    Nowadays, it seems like school fundraisers overlap (actually, if you have 1 child in music or sports, then they probably do overlap).
    The biggest challenge I see for my clients is the chicken and the egg dilemma. Schools run multiple fundraisers because they don’t raise enough money with one. However, families won’t participate because they’re burned out by repeated fundraisers. You can bring an order form to work only so many times, after all!
    What’s the answer? The best idea I think, is to fully fund the schools. However, since that isn’t likely to happen this year, then here are my suggestions for schools to be more successful with their fundraisers;
    1. Schools need to focus. They need to choose the critical projects that they want to fund, and commit to work hard to reach those goals.
    2. They need to limit the number of fundraisers to just 1 or 2 per year (and choose their partners carefully! Are the items overpriced? Will the company provide sales education and support?).
    3. They need to commit to promoting the hell out of these fundraisers. Volunteers need to be willing to send out emails, share on social media, and yes even pick up the phone, to make sure that no one can claim “I forgot”.
    4. They need to be extremely clear about what the school will gain if they reach their goal, and what’s at stake if they fail. Then, they need to be clear that if the goal isn’t met, they are going to have to do without.
    5. They need to reach out to the community beyond their families, through TV, radio, newspapers, and local online news sources.
    I think of these things as the absolute minimum that a school or school group should be willing to do, to be successful. If it seems like a lot of work, well, just how important is the thing they’re raising money for? It seems to me that if you’re going to ask your community to step up and work together to reach a common goal, then you should be willing to work even harder to promote it.

    To be successful, a school should try the following;
    – I know it’s difficult to get folks to volunteer to help out. So, figure out who the hard workers at your school are, and ask them for help directly.
    – I’m not a fan of giving away prizes (they don’t usually work, anyway). Instead, try daily recognition of those students who have put in some effort to support their school.
    – Discourage door-to-door selling. Talking to friends, family and colleagues should be enough. Some fundraising companies provide an online store, so friends and relatives who live out of town can participate.
    – Also, they shouldn’t discourage donations. No matter how large the % the company is giving, it can’t match 100%. That’s a win for the school.

    A fundraiser can be a lot of work. A commitment. It can give students valuable experience and skills that they will need in the real world (presentation skills, motivational skills, goal-setting, handling money, etc…).
    It shouldn’t be an “us against them”, or an “Ugh, not again!” experience.
    Okay, I tend to wax “Pollyanna”. However, when school families and staff work together and reach their fundraising goals, it provides far more than just financial resources. It can be a source of accomplishment and pride for the whole community.

    • Mary Jo September 27, 2015, 7:11 pm

      You have such good points here. If one school hears you, you’ll have helped scores of families.

  • Jennyfer January 5, 2015, 7:57 pm

    Schools are starting to move their fundraisers online so their students won’t have to sell anything anymore. Piggybackr is an online fundraising website that is specialized for youth and also safe for all ages. Schools would be keeping more of what they raise and students won’t have to go door-to-door selling products anymore.

  • Shawna October 8, 2012, 9:48 am

    Amen!! When I started with my now 14 year old daughter in elementary school, I was totally turned off regarding the fundraisers. Like you, LOVE school, hate spending $30 for crap and only seeing a fraction of it benefitting my child’s school. Unfortunately my husband and I were poor students at the time and just donating money wasn’t really an option :(. Donating TIME, however, was another story. So, I decided to propose an alternative to the standard yearly fundraisers. I convinced the school to let me hold a silent auction. Each class picked a theme basket and parents donated items that fit their child’s class theme. I then obtained donation letters from the school and went out to local businesses and asked for support. The donations came rolling in! I even got signed footballs from the local college football coach an players ( and where I’m from that’s huge! It sold for $175 by itself!) To round it off, I had each class make a quilt square and then assembled a quilt made by the students. It was beautiful and sold for $150. Who wouldn’t want something so beautiful made by their child, or grandchild?? The best part? The ONLY overhead was spent on cellophane wrapping and ribbon to make the baskets. The school got to keep all of the profits! We held it the same night as the annual community food festival, so tons of the community were there. Each class basket had business gift certificates and donations to “sweeten the pot” and they were hugely successful. In the end we raised 1000’s more than we ever did selling cookie dough and wrapping paper. It was a lot of work, but after the first year, more people saw the benefit and volunteered to help. It a well oiled machine now and takes minimal effort on anyone’s part. AND – no door to door!!!

    • Grandpa April 10, 2013, 6:48 pm

      I know it has been a long time since the first message was posted but as an update to fundraisers I wanted to share my displeasure.
      I also do not like school fundraisers because of the money donated only a small part ever reaches the school. The rest of the donation is to some company that you have never had a desire to finance and keep solvent. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good companies out there but my job is not to make them money when I donate to schools. Usually the best fundraiser only delivers 50% or less to the school. Some fundraiser companies do actually come to the school and run the activities or provide students with “teaching kids leadership skills, etc.”, but who has approved these lesson plans for our public school students? I can download a lesson plan for advising leadership skills easily and it did not cost me anything.
      This is not about any particular fundraiser company but rather about the school only receiving a small portion of donated funds by people wanting to donate to schools. Most people do not realize how little of their donated money actually gets to the school, or any activity, they donate to. This also goes for the fireman fund, sheriff boys fund, boys/girls clubs, scouts, or any activity using a separate fundraiser company so they do not have to do the work themselves to raise the funds they want. I have even asked the school board how they would like to donate $100 dollars to me and I will give $50 to the school of their choice and I would keep the other $50 for my effort in the fundraiser. No takers yet.
      This is totally about getting a good result of the donations made and not providing money to a company you don’t want to support in the first place, or even know where that company is located. One thing I do believe is, if all or most of donated money would go to the school then more donations would be given when needed. I go out of my way to make sure more of my money is going to the purpose I want to donate for before I donate it. Schools should feel the same way about the community dollars they ask for.

    • Bee Funded March 19, 2014, 10:47 am

      We agree with a lot of you parents and grandparents. That is why we set up a new Crowdfunding site that allows schools to add a campaign and parents can donate what they can throughout the year. The benefit to the school is huge! They get almost 95% of the funds raised where traditional fundraisers average 50%. That’s way more money for the schools! It’s great for the parents and students that simply don’t have time to sell traditional fundraisers. Check out the site and be sure to let your school know there’s a better way!

  • Tara Pryde September 25, 2012, 1:30 pm

    AMEN Sister!! I decided a few years ago to stop participating in these fundraisers, which turn school children into salesmen for private companies, many of whom make more money per item sold than the school does. I DO NOT NEED any more cookie dough, candles, wrapping paper, or magazines. I WILL NOT ASK my friends, who have children and tight budgets of their own, to buy this crap. I just write a personal check directly to the school equivalent to the amount they would receive from the fundraising goal and know that my money is going directly to the cause I support, and not to someone else. My kids have better things to do with their time than line someone else’s pockets.

  • kaetra October 13, 2011, 8:38 pm

    I’m not buying a $16 votive candle to give my kid’s school $2. That is crazy. I’m not selling anyone I know a $16 candle to give the school $2 either. I’m also not buying a $5 box of cookies to give the girl scouts 50 cents. Fundraisers are absolutely fine, but the crazy expensive stuff with a low % given to the benefactor is not. Sending kids out to sell stuff door to door is not OK with me either, nor is hawking overpriced garbage to your friends, family and co-workers. 16″x24″ roll of giftwrap for $10?!!! But it’s for the school! Um, no thank you sir.
    I want to see what the money is paying for as well. My kid’s school has a 50 inch plasma TV in the office that runs a looping PowerPoint Presentation of photos of the school that you are standing in. I am not joking. Too often the money is spent on crap they don’t even need.
    So, do a fundraiser but make it something reasonable, don’t hawk garbage and tell us what the heck you’re raising money for instead of just “the school”.

  • Sharon October 6, 2011, 7:45 am

    Jessica, check your organic goods for boxtops..Cascadian farms brand does boxtops!

  • Sharon October 6, 2011, 7:43 am

    We have been opting out of selling and doing a direct donation for uears..who needs more gift wrap chocolate or things around the house..this way the school/charity gets 100 percent..I refuse to go and sell people stuff they don’t need or can’t afford but of course i support the cause!!

  • Melinda October 6, 2011, 7:08 am

    Oh, how I wish I had found this post a week ago…before I spend $62 dollars on magazine subscriptions and wrapping paper that I didn’t want or need, and before I sent an email asking close friends and family to do the same. An email I still don’t feel good about. Thanks for the wonderful, and simple advice! I will definitely be taking a page from your book next time! (not the coupon book)

  • Clay Boggess February 8, 2011, 8:28 am

    Donations make sense on paper however they usually don’t end up working as well as regular fundraisers do over time which is why most schools end up going back to working with a fundraising company or doing their own in-house fundraiser (i.e. a school carnival). Simply giving money may seem to work for the short term and is initially fueled by people’s frustration with the perceived drawbacks of conventional fundraising; yet apathy soon kicks in and the money stream soon dwindles. Plus since donations are voluntary, a lot of parents just don’t bother to donate at all. One important component that is often left out of the equation is the enthusiasm of the students. They are the ones who will continue to drive a sale year after year.

    • af September 9, 2013, 11:52 pm

      Only if the parents can afford it, and if someone has more than one kid, I guarantee they won’t do it because it’s too hard getting people to buy from more than one kid. They’d rather just donate money to the school on behalf of all their kids.

  • another Amy January 22, 2011, 6:10 pm

    I’ve recently come to the same conclusion after buying $35 worth of boy scout popcorn – tasty, but way overpriced and not helping my attempt at eating healthier. Now when I get approached by the scouts or a school sale, I look at what I might WANT to buy and instead give that $20 or whatever directly to the organization. Some groups aren’t allowed to take direct donations during a sale (girl scouts are one, I know) but if you can get in contact with the scout leader or PTA president they can usually tell you something the group needs that you can “sponsor” (craft supplies, etc).

    • Amy January 31, 2011, 6:07 am

      Hi Amy,

      I too bought that Boy Scout Popcorn. Boy that was steep!

      Great idea about asking to sponsor something that a group needs.

      I appreciate your thoughts!


  • Jessica January 13, 2011, 11:08 am

    I’m glad I am not alone with having this guilty decision. My son is only in preschool now but they do school fundraisers and actually have one ocming up for Pizza Hut. Well we eat an organic diet and Pizza Hut is far from that so I have considered just donating some money instead and I think I will do that. They also do the Campbell’s Soup Labels and Box Tops and we don’t buy any of that stuff either so I feel bad. I’m going to call the school director and make sure I can just make a donation instead since some of you have mentioned that some schools refuse donations (which is the dumbest thing ever) Thanks so much!!!

    • Amy January 18, 2011, 8:11 pm

      Dear Jessica,

      Thanks so much for writing in. I’m glad to hear there are others out there who share my feelings about school fundraisers!

      Best wishes,

  • Kelly Maguire November 8, 2010, 7:17 am

    I did this exact same thing with our first experience with G’s Kindergarten fundraiser. It seemed silly to spend $50 on things I didn’t want when the school would only get a fraction of that amount, so we just made a donation to the PTA!

    • Amy November 9, 2010, 10:42 am

      It’s good to know I’m not alone! Thanks, Kelly.

  • Sarah Hickok November 3, 2010, 10:48 pm

    Oh, and there’s always this little idea which is very controversial: raise taxes a few hundred dollars per year per household. What a concept. If wanting to pay my gov’t $$money for better schools, libraries, fire fighters and police makes me a crazy socialist, then so be it.

    • Amy November 3, 2010, 10:54 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      Yes, I agree that it’s a little weird that our public institutions don’t have enough money to create quality programs. Other countries don’t have PTAs (and probably police fundraisers either). I love the community of parents that a PTA creates, but it would make it so much simpler if we didn’t have to raise money.

  • Michelle November 2, 2010, 11:07 pm

    OK, when I first read your subject line, my first thought was “Et tu, Amy?” But when I read the post, I felt better. I’m a PTA co-president and this is something that I struggle with as well. I hate selling or sending my daughter off to sell; but I also know how hard PTAs try to find creative ways to raise money. In some schools (like ours), we have a lot of parents who can’t just open up their checkbooks and write checks; but who want to contribute. The option of selling to their neighbors gives them a way to participate financially. As far as I’m concerned — and I’m willing to bet that this is nearly universal for PTAs — they don’t care how you support their fundraiser, donations or sales, they’re just grateful for your support.

    • Amy November 3, 2010, 10:32 pm

      BelieveJay and Michelle:

      I appreciate your sharing your viewpoints. The point about some families not being able to opt out by writing a check is a very good one. I agree that this approach is not for everyone, but it helped me get out a bind, and I’m glad to hear that PTAs probably don’t mind, as long as they get some help.

  • BelieveJay November 2, 2010, 3:13 pm

    It seems fundraising companies always come out as the bad guys in situations like this but ironically it was their work that led to your donation.

    I can appreciate your rationale but if everyone were to do the same and donate directly, the problem created would be more evident.

    The millions of parents that don’t have the ability to pay would not be able to access the community, friends, neighbors or even out-of-state family and friends for assistance leaving just them to fund the school themselves.

    It just means that only the parents would be expected to pay and a lot of them wouldn’t without the excitement a school fundraiser creates.

    • af September 9, 2013, 11:59 pm

      Yeah they get in contact with others who can’t afford this stuff and just won’t buy it or have their own kids/grandkids to buy from. It’s a waste of time and effort.

  • Sarah Hickok November 1, 2010, 10:07 pm

    Our PTA actually came right out and said, “we’ll just take donations too, if you don’t want to do all the fiddling small stuff.” Yay. I agree with keeping it simple. I hope baby 4 is doing well.

    • Amy November 2, 2010, 12:05 pm

      Hi Cassie: Phew! I’m glad I’m not the only one! Funny how they don’t get it that you just want to donate, without getting something in return.

      Hi Leah, I know, who wants to keep hitting up the same people?

      Hey Paola: Vent away! I’m so glad you get it. I definitely don’t like the idea of door-to-door sales, but that only leaves friends and family, who I don’t want to keep bothering.

      Jen, Yes, I think the corporations that conceive of (and profit from) these fundraisers are really capitalizing on the cuteness of kids (and the kindness of neighbors). Most schools mix it up and have various kinds of fundraisers. I don’t mind buying some things like the photos or my kids’ artwork on magnets. Yes, they’re overpriced, but that’s where the school gets their cut.

      Hi Sarah, Wow, so cool — that’s a great way to offer parents an out. Our school in NYC asked for large donations to cover the costs of hiring teaching assistants in K and 1 grade. The only problem was they only got 30% participation, so they still had to do the other fundraisers.

  • Jennifer November 1, 2010, 10:01 pm

    I completely hate school fundraisers, and always have. As an introvert, it was always an excruciating task for me going door to door around the neighborhood trying to sell something that people just didn’t need. As a homeowner now, I hate to have to turn away young kids trying to sell things I don’t need, and we really don’t have the extra money. I wish schools would think outside the box a little bit more instead of relying on these methods.

  • Paola November 1, 2010, 9:50 pm

    I am totally with you. I am not good at selling stuff and I don’t like the idea of my second grader going door to door to bother the neighbors. And also, not having family members on this continent, who do I sell to? I’d rather make a donation to the PTA and avoid the ordeal. For the same reason I don’t like to feel obligated to give money to fundraisers of my husband’ colleagues’ kids… but it is often tricky… I just don’t want to start, so next year they don’t feel like they can send me two requests!!
    Thank you for letting me vent out!

  • Cassie November 1, 2010, 9:42 pm

    Finally…someone who thinks like me. Each year, I do this and inevitably receive a phone call asking me what I meant to order, as if I couldn’t possibly want to just donate money. In a strange twist, my niece’s school advised me they didn’t accept donations–I HAD to buy something. I, like you, love knowing that my money goes directly to the school to fund activities for my child and other students. Keep it up! Let’s hope others join in the madness!

  • Leah November 1, 2010, 9:27 pm

    i also suffer from this…this entry was definitely a good read for me. i will now take your advice! for my kids fundraisers, it’s the same 4 people on the list for donations…myself, my husband, my father, and my mother in law. each of which donates 5 dollars (totalling 20) which is given by a cheque written by me!
    thanks again for the great advice!