How I Simplify: School Fundraisers

I skip the wrapping paper, magazines, and candy, and donate directly to the school.  American parents cannot escape scholastic fundraising cycles.  Whether our kids go to private, public, or pre-school, we are asked to round out budgets for desks, smart boards, and even teacher salaries.

Virginia and her third grade class learned about D.C. by making models of its monuments

I believe in supporting education, and I have dedicated my time (sometimes enormous amounts of it) to help my kids’ schools and preschools.  And because our family has benefited greatly from the free education that our cities, counties, states, and our country provide us, I also feel obligated to help financially.

But it never felt right to me to squander the good will of my friends, neighbors, and relatives by asking them to buy the over-priced, under-quality goods in the fundraising catalog.  My children are the ones benefiting after all, so isn’t it my responsibility to help, not my neighbors who have already paid taxes to that end?

To avoid the embarrassment and assuage the guilt, I would end up buying a bunch of stuff I didn’t need, just to support my fellow PTA volunteers who were doing their best to help the school. Finally, after years of eating bad chocolate, buying wreaths I didn’t need, trying to get people to subscribe to magazines, and giving away cheap doodads as Christmas presents, I decided to stop.

When I was presented with another coupon book to sell (50 percent of profits go to our school!), I hemmed and hawed and finally just wrote a check to the PTA.  As I explained in How I Avoided the School Fundraiser and Still Felt Good About It, the school got 100 percent of our money, and I kicked the guilt.

Enrico and I went to our first school auction party last year — the theme was 80s Prom. We won tickets to a backyard barbecue party thrown by parents at the school and a tour of the U.S. Capitol. All the laughing at big hair and bad music benefited the school too.

Michelle Singletary, personal finance columnist for the Washington Post, has a similar philosophy and I thought she expressed it so well in her book, Spend Well, Live Rich:

I … object to having my children or myself used as unpaid salespeople for professional fundraising companies. Believe me, I understand the psychology behind all this selling. It’s not easy to get folks to fork over money, even for a good cause. I also realize this type of fundraising is successful in providing money for needed school supplies and activities.

But seriously, how many of us — without the guilt — would spend $11 for a five-ounce Coca-Cola mailbox tin filled with mixed candy? I know I would never pay $7 for several sheets of wrapping paper, which most of the time aren’t long or wide enough to cover anything I want to wrap. How about paying $11.50 for a tin of animal cookies? Personally, I think we parents should agree to stop peddling to one another. If you want to give money to a school, fine. But this routine of “I buy from your kid, you buy from mine” is maddening.

As a result, my husband and I just write a check directly to the school or parent association. That way they keep 100 percent of the money.

— Michelle Singletary, author of Spend Well, Live Rich: How to Get What You Want with the Money You Have

This year, Enrico and I were able to give a lot more than in years past.  It feels right to give back to a system that has helped us educate our children.

Direct donations — in any amount — are simple, less wasteful, and don’t turn human relations into commercial transactions.  I bet that the schools and teachers and PTA don’t mind at all if we don’t buy wrapping paper. As long as we help.

How do you handle school fundraising drives? Let me know in the comments.

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  • Joe Kuipers April 29, 2013, 7:29 pm

    We have three kids in school and have been hit by every fundraiser known to man. I think most parents hate fundraising because so many of the products the kids are asked to sell are low quality or junk food and are always overpriced. In most cases, buying a $10 to 15 bag of junkfood or cookie dough that’s worth $5 is the same thing as writing a $5 to $10 check. The problem is, the $5 to $10 check gets split with the fundraising company, so your generous $15 didn’t donate near what you were made to think to your school AND you got stuck with a bag of junk food you didn’t really want.
    We created a company called PaperFunds to sell things people need at the same price they’d pay at the grocery store. No one gets ripped off, and they only need to buy items they’re going to have to buy within the next month anyway. Our program works because we bulk deliver the toilet paper and paper towels straight to the school from the factory, and the school keeps the “retailer’s” profits for simply supplying people with products they actually need.
    I invite any feedback or comments at and please feel free to check out our website at There are ways to raise money without getting the “I know I’m getting ripped off, but it’s for a good cause.”

  • Karen March 3, 2013, 9:53 pm

    Scout popcorn was actually a big reason why my son discontinued BSA membership. He started as a tiger and ended after becoming a bear, when they eliminated the collector tins.

    Our school in Nc does cookie dough, Christmas wrap, chocolate bars, and school logo items. I try to put in about $10 per for each one. The school is also sponsored by local restaurants every 2-3 months in which the get a percentage of that night’s profit. We attend all except McD’s and the Dads breakfast. We help when we can, but disadvantaging one self or making it a job kinda defeats the purpose. My son doesn’t care about the prizes. He’s a preteen so unless it benefits him the way he wants…evil kid!

    I would not be likely to write a check outright because we don’t make enough to use a tax write off. If I’m handing over a check, I’m way more concerned about where that money is going. Our school just got about 35 Chrome books and a charging cart, which is shared by about 500 students so I know our school needs money and that its going to the right place. I also know my fifth grader wants $300 so he can spend the night in DC as a school field trip. We spent $50 each last year to ride to Raleigh because I didn’t want him going That far alone and now DC? I wonder where funds go, but it doesn’t matter as much if I’m getting a McMeal or Papa John’s pizza for retail price anyway.

  • Marsha February 5, 2013, 9:35 am


    Great article! I dislike fundraisers! However, sometimes parents can not give cash to a school. Are they too be looked down upon because it’s either 10 bucks worth of food, school supplies, gas, etc.. or give to a school that asks for straight donations? How are those situations handled and do you think if a parent finds themselves in this situation, they should just be upfront with their situation and communicate this to the PTA and teachers? I happen to be one of those parents:). I find that schools pressure students more than anything to donate money and it is maddening because this makes my child feel bad. I work really hard to instill the love of learning in my kids, learning does not end at the school… the Universe is spectacular and as a parent it is my job to teach my children to follow their bliss. I am a full time student pursuing a degree in health studies and I am doing my part by raising my kids to be awesome individuals which in turn makes the teachers life much easier. A parent whom cares about their child’s education and goes above and beyond to instill the love of learning and to appreciate the Universe is priceless. I also fully understand teachers are underpaid, however it is no secret that teachers are underpaid and under appreciated, it is not for the faint of heart… but… it’s a choice one makes. There are children in war torn nations that fight to just sit under a tent to learn… I will be grateful when people stop living within the confines of their own minds and embrace what is really important…

  • Jaime Cruz January 16, 2013, 10:04 am

    We do gold buying parties! We set up at the school and people are asked to buy nothing! They simply bring me old/broken/unwanted jewelry and I buy it. The school gets 10% of everything I buy!

  • Gladys October 27, 2012, 4:46 am

    I think the whole donation scene has been way over done in a lot of areas. Am really looking forward to learning alternatives between extremes of too much and too little.
    Let’s don’t forget that a little selling may be good for a budding career down the road.
    One teacher solved her “buying” issue by purchasing only from the first child that came to her home. Maybe we could think outside the box and come up with solutions within the system. Only one really good fundraiser a year that includes something for everyone to participate at their level of ability whether it is selling, donating items, time, participation or cash. To meet a predetermined amount. Or how about an ongoing cycle of events where older elementary children could provide monthly night out for parents at the school (with proper supervision) and money charged for that of course goes to the school for a dedicated purpose. Looking forward to reading about other ideas. For now I am going to check out Grubwise – smells like a winner to me:)

    • Jay October 27, 2012, 1:52 pm


      We really couldn’t and wouldn’t be doing this without the input and passion for this issue from parents like yourself. Feel free to call us up, tell us some of the things you’d like to see anytime during business hours. Grubraise is yours.

      We’re really focused on connecting the dots. We know that based on all averages combined, that if a family orders food for delivery, or take-out, just 6 additional times per YEAR, their school will raise upwards of $15,000. Parents, and parents alone (not neighbors and friends) spend around $3 billion each year on school fundraisers. Where does this money go? With grubraise, it goes right around the corner to your favorite restaurants. We want to keep as many dollars in local communities as we possibly can.

      One thing we are thinking hard about is a point you raised relative to it actually being a good thing for a kid to go out and learn the ways of communication. We would love your input on the good and bad ways to “prize-ify” fundraisers. We want to create incentives for kids to go out with parents and knock on doors to get neighbors to order out more. We’ll create a way to track things so that credits can be awarded to accordingly. This approach is a confidence builder. This is especially valuable in children of younger ages. They will never hear “no sorry kid, I simply do not eat food…” At worst it should be “sorry my kid is doing this too!”

      For a 9 or 10 year old to say; “gee I am really good at this” may be the seed planted for something special. How many children have had their confidence broken by doing these fundraisers where they have had the desire to win, but unfortunately were not successful? How has that affected them psychologically over the long run? Why are these corporations raking in billions of dollars at the expense of our kids? Enough is enough.

      Call us anytime! :-)

  • Jay October 25, 2012, 3:12 pm

    School fundraisers are broken, and we’re fixing them by allowing parents to support their kids’ school, while in the process performing one very basic act they are already accustomed to; feeding their kids.

    No more giftwrap, candy, magazines, etc. Just order for delivery, or for take out, delicious meals prepared by the restaurants you love. Your favorite restaurants schedule “give back hours” and when you place an order during those times, your child’s school raises money. Check out grubraise, or give us a call to learn more. It’s 100% free, 100% of the time, for all schools.

  • CelloMom September 9, 2012, 9:12 am

    It’s nice to have the option to write a check instead of foisting sugar and paper onto our relatives. But you need to consider: most schools have a diverse range of parents, some of whom are cash-rich but strapped for time, while others are time-rich but would have trouble writing that extra check.

    I’ve always thought that the fundraisers are a way to allow time-rich parents to contribute their time rather than their money, in order to fundraise for the school. No need to sell sugar or stuff: At our school auction parents contribute hand-made items, or chess lessons, or gardening help; these are always immensely popular. Contributions from beloved teachers bring in a premium: a tea party with an early-childhood teacher, or going to a basketball game with the sports&games teacher.

    • Amy September 12, 2012, 1:14 pm

      Dear CelloMom,

      I completely see your point. Not everyone can write a big check, but I think it’s really OK (and it may work out almost evenly) for people to donate a small amount of money if they don’t want to participate. I also agree that there are other fun, rewarding and relatively waste-free ways to raise money for a school, like the auction items you mention, and I wish there were more like it.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts,

  • Beth September 8, 2012, 9:29 pm

    I agree with Amy’s comment above. The catalogues are a waste of paper. My daughter entered a private preschool last year. The director brings in a dance teacher and music teacher twice a month for the kids. They love it, but she has to fund it outside of the regular tuition. We got a catalogue to sell frozen foods, including giant buckets of cookie dough during the first week of school. I went to her and wrote a check. She said several parents donate directly to fund these programs. I serve on the board and help raise money for tuition assistance, too. It’s very challenging and extremely time consuming, but worth it for the families we help.

    I will definitely just give some cash to the Girl Scouts next year!

    • Amy September 8, 2012, 10:11 pm

      Hi Beth,

      Oh no, not more cookie dough. That stuff is dangerous!

      Thanks for sharing your perspective as a member of preschool board. Fundraising for sure is not an easy effort.

      Take care,

  • Gretchen September 7, 2012, 9:09 am

    I appreciate this blog entry more than you know! I’ve boycotted “sales” fundraisers in the past and donated directly instead. This year, with two children in school, they BOTH came home with PTA fundraising packets on the first day of school. What a waste of resources! Into the recycling bin they go… with a donation in return. I really think in this day and age, groups raising money for their causes, etc. need to be more resourceful and thoughtful about how they execute their campaigns to reduce waste. Really, aren’t there enough tchotchkes in the landfills already?

    • Amy September 7, 2012, 9:53 am

      Hi Gretchen,

      How disheartening to see two packets coming home on the very first day! I love back to school, but the fundraising obligations fill me with dread.

      A few big city schools our kids have attended have asked straight-out for a large donation per student. Many parents I’ve talked to would much rather write a check and be done with all the hoopla. It just seems like a lot wasted energy and time, in addition to resources, as you say.


  • juanita September 6, 2012, 1:42 pm

    I am so glad to hear that I am not alone in this!! :)

    It just makes so much more sense to me. The only selling we do is for girl scout cookies.

    Great post!

    • Amy September 6, 2012, 2:28 pm

      Hi Juanita,

      You are so not alone! It would be great if parents could band together and find other ways to raise money.

      We have done Girl Scout cookies too, but the last year, I was reminded of how similar it was and how much of a pain to collect the orders and deliver the cookies. Oh well, some things you do for love.


  • Sara Tetreault September 6, 2012, 11:38 am

    Hi Amy! We’ve dealt with this at both the elementary school and middle school that my kids have attended. At the middle school, we’ve had success with eliminating fundraisers completely that involve kids selling. Our PTA set up an Amazon affiliate account and parents (and out of town relatives) can shop and the PTA gets a percentage. We also had to cut back on the budget but that was fine, too. The “food” products that get sold in these fundraisers is some of the least healthy around. Our school district supposedly has a policy against it but it’s not enforced very well.
    Love the ’80s photo!! Very fun.

    • Amy September 6, 2012, 2:26 pm

      Hi Sara,

      I’m so impressed that you were able to make some real change by eliminating the sales altogether. And you’re so right about the stuff being so unhealthy. It’s kind of ironic that schools are the ones peddling this stuff to make ends meet.

      p.s. Seeing that 80s picture again made me eager to find out what this year’s auction theme will be!


  • Samantha @ Digital Zen September 6, 2012, 10:56 am

    I love your 80’s costumes, great job! And it looks like you had a lot of fun too. This advice is terrific. Less waste, less guilt, more money for the school. Now, how to avoid all the other schools’ fundraisers without guilt..? My neighbor’s kids come around and I always buy something – even Krispie Creme doughnuts when I was trying to lose 5 lbs. Then when they arrived, no one was home to eat them and they were stale by end of day. It would have been better to give him $10 for his school and please, no doughnuts!

    • Amy September 6, 2012, 2:23 pm

      Hi Samantha,

      Good point. We get solicitors all the time, living in the city, and I find it extremely hard to turn them away.

      What a shame about the stale doughnuts!


  • Stacy September 5, 2012, 9:54 pm

    I’m willing to bet your PTA would rather you donate too. Who wants to separate out goods to kids who sold all weekend, right? One year we made the mistake of selling cookie dough…then it was a mad rush to find freezer space for all the boxes not retrieved. Checks are good. They don’t require refrigeration.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 10:04 pm

      Hi Stacy,

      Good point. Processing all those goods is a lot of work for the volunteers, whereas depositing a check (even if small) is quick and easy — no strings attached.

      Plus — man, oh, man, that cookie dough rarely survives long enough to get baked around here. Dangerous!


  • elizabds September 5, 2012, 9:52 pm

    Grateful for your article because instead of getting peeved that just today I received an official invitation to my daughter’s largest fundraiser (basically a party with live music and a silent auction), instead I’ll choose be grateful that I’m not hawking wrapping paper and buying waxy chocolate. (I’ve had experience on the obligatory “buy” end of that scene with coworkers). Thanks! (And now on to figuring out how to bring bilingual education to my daughter’s elementary!…)

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 10:02 pm

      Hi Eliza,

      We finally went to our first auction and it was actually really fun. We had to pony up for the tickets, but there was no pressure to buy once you are there. We even found quite a few things that we wanted and would have bought anyway, so it was a win-win.

      Good luck with the bilingual program — that’s important.

      Take care,

  • a grandmother September 5, 2012, 9:45 pm

    This has been a problem for 20-30 years so I am so glad to see that some of you are speaking up about a really bad practice. I think it started with Girl Scout cookies. I would hate to see that baby thrown out with the bath water because I still have a soft spot for them; it is a part of our culture. But I wish all the rest would go away.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 10:01 pm

      Hey there grandmother,

      Wow, I can’t believe this fundraising deal has been going on that long. Kind of disheartening that we haven’t conquered it yet.

      I do love Girl Scout cookies too, and you’re right, there are a lot of similarities. I guess we get fundraiser-weary when we are hit with sales pitches from so many directions.

      Thanks for your thoughts,

  • Janknitz September 5, 2012, 8:43 pm

    I hate these sales with a passion!!! I understand and support the reasons behind them, but I don’t have the time to bug neighbors, relatives, and friends or supervise my child door to door (competing with every other child in the neighborhood). In fact, since so many nieces and nephews are around the same age and have their own school sales, we have a mutual pact NOT to bug each other in the family. And because of my professional setting, it’s not appropriate for me to sell to people in my office. I’m happy to donate directly instead. But . . .

    They put ENORMOUS pressure on the kids to sell, sell, sell. There are daily and weekly prizes for turning in orders, incentives for having the most sales, and class parties for classes with 100% participation and for classes that sell the most. This means no matter how happy WE are with our direct donations and resisting the overpriced junk, our kids are made to feel horrible for not turning in orders, and big orders at that.

    Last year, there were cute rubber ducky prizes for every kid that turned in orders each week. It created a huge have and have not situation between the kids who got their rubber ducks and the kids who had none. Even teachers were given special “teachers only” rubber ducks to stir up enthusiasm in their classrooms. These incentives really cause some kids to feel left out. If possible, I will buy one thing, provided it’s something I will really use and the price is not too unreasonable (it’s all overpriced, in part to pay for those rubber duckies and other incentive prizes!).

    My daughter doesn’t complain, but I know it bothers her. I know how difficult fund raising is, but this process is really awful!

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 9:59 pm

      Hi Jan,

      I was dismayed to hear your story about how kids are made to feel bad if they don’t sell, and competitions are set up that pit kids against each other, and even teachers against teachers. I’m sure it’s the fundraising companies that put schools up to this; it’s part of the whole deal, because it helps them sell more products and boost their bottom line.

      I guess one thing that parents could do in this situation is to offer some kind of reward to the child who does not participate. Like, “I’m sorry we’re not doing the sale, but with the time and money saved, I want to take you out to the park for an ice cream,” or something that else that emphasizes together time over materialism.

      Thank you for sharing your story,

  • Clare@doingitsimply September 5, 2012, 7:30 pm

    Oh how I love this! (she says with two large boxes of chocolates to sell sitting on her kitchen bench…)

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 8:38 pm

      Hi Clare,

      Selling stuff is a pain, isn’t it? Almost makes you want to just eat the chocolates yourself…


  • Stephanie September 5, 2012, 1:02 pm

    I am a PTA president this year for my child’s public school and I can tell you with confidence that we don’t mind this at all. In fact, I actually do the same thing. We are not selling anything this year. We are doing a mathathon for this very reason. It promotes excitement for academics and all of the money that we ‘raise’ is coming directly to us to use for betterment of the school. We also did a time with teachers auction at the back to school event and that was very successful. Parents are very willing to give money for their child to have a cool experience with their school teacher or staff.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 1:18 pm

      Thanks, Stephanie, for telling us what PTA presidents really feel! And let me take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate you and people like you for taking on that huge responsibility, for all of our benefit.

      I like how you are not even selling anything this year, but focusing the fundraising on a community-building event. I love that you celebrate teachers by auctioning off time one-on-one time with them, and that parents can show kids how much they value education by participating this way.

      Thanks for sharing, Stephanie,

  • Tragic Sandwich September 5, 2012, 12:44 pm

    I love this. We already use this technique with the raffle tickets our daughter’s day care asks us to sell as part of their annual fundraiser, and I think it’s a great idea to carry that over to other kinds of fundraisers as well.

    • Amy September 5, 2012, 1:16 pm

      Hey T.S.,

      Great idea to apply the concept to fundraisers as well. I didn’t want to enter our school’s fundraiser because one of the prizes was an iPad, and I don’t even want one free. Donating money is a way to show support and not get the goods you don’t want.

      Thanks for writing in,