First, there’s the school wrapping paper sale. Then Girl Scout cookie sales. Then the big spring gala. They are all worthy causes, of course, but how do you budget for seemingly constant school fundraisers, especially if you have multiple kids in different schools?
As shrinking state and federal budgets take their toll on schools, parents are stepping up and funding more of the extra programs that enhance their schools—programs like partnerships with local theater companies, field trips, and new computers for classrooms.
For some families, it’s hard to balance multiple requests for time and money. But parents don’t need to break the bank to support their schools, experts say.
“No one is expecting a parent to go into debt for a fundraiser,” says Tim Sullivan, president and founder of PTO Today, a magazine and website for school PTOs and PTAs. “Fundraisers work best when there’s a broad base of modest support. As a parent, you’re not solely responsible for funding the field trips. No one’s expecting a parent to hit the credit card and be paying it off for six months because a kid needs a field trip.”
Even small contributions help support a good cause, says Laura Mueller, fundraising chair for her school’s fundraising group, Friends of Bell School.
“With our school being a public school, parents have to fund all the extra programs to make their school great,” Mueller says. “They need math books, projectors, technology—anything that helps teachers do their jobs better. I feel if I make our school great, that’s my priority. That’s where all of my money goes.”
For school fundraisers that sell products, like wrapping paper or cookies, typically 40 percent to 60 percent of the money raised goes directly to the school, Sullivan says. Of the remainder, some money goes to the actual product you receive (the wrapping paper or cookies) and some goes to a fundraising company.
Parents who don’t want another roll of wrapping paper can choose to give a cash contribution to the school or PTO instead.
“There’s not a school or PTO that wouldn’t take a cash donation. Support is support; it’s great,” Sullivan says. While the wrapping paper fundraiser might be counting on a certain amount of sales volume, “if you want to support [the school] any way you can, go for it.”
Mueller’s school, Alexander Graham Bell School in Chicago, runs a “wish list” fundraiser where parents can direct donations to a targeted fund, like a fourth grade poetry residency, a sixth grade technology fund, science fair materials, or art supplies.
“People all want to know where their money goes—every single dollar,” Mueller says. “We work really hard, and there’s a huge administrative team to make sure that every dollar goes where the parents want it. It’s not going to overhead or administrative costs, but it’s actually going to a book. That’s rare for a fundraiser.”
Not many schools offer such a targeted approach, but parents can talk to their school or their PTO to see if a targeted “wish list” fundraiser would work in their community.
Parents can also ask the PTO how many fundraisers it runs each year. Then parents can set a yearly donation budget and choose whether to participate a little bit in each event or make a bigger contribution to one event, if they are able.
Many parents need to balance requests from extracurricular activities too, Sullivan says.
“More typical for a family with budgeting concerns is: ‘I’ve got four kids. I’ve got three soccer teams, three basketball teams, two different schools. I can’t be the lead fundraiser for eight different causes,’” Sullivan says, speaking from his personal experience. “We wouldn’t make it with so many kids and so many activities. There aren’t enough hours in a day or dollars in our pocket to do it all.”
Sometimes it takes a village to complete the whole picture.
“Both time and money are different for every family. There are families who have no extra time and no extra money. And there are families that have both, if they’re very lucky,” Sullivan says. “I talk about it with PTOs a lot. There are some PTOs that put things out there, like if you can’t help, then your kid doesn’t get the field trip. Whoa, hold on: The mom is working 50 hours a week and is alone with three kids. Her time and money is very different than yours.”
If it’s possible to contribute an amount that’s comfortable for you, it can help cover parents who aren’t able to contribute, he says.
“For me, working at a school, what am I volunteering for?” Sullivan asks. “It’s so all the kids can have great [resources]. Not only the kids whose parents can help…. We’re all in this together.”
A Chicago-based writer and editor, Eve Becker writes about personal finance, health and other topics. She is a former managing editor of Tribune Media Services.