The 6 Rules of School Fundraising Etiquette

The 6 Rules of School Fundraising Etiquette

You're ready to do anything when it comes to making sure that your kids get the very best education ... but are you sure that you're prepared to handle the wild-eyed members of the school fundraising committee?

From candy bar sales to silent auctions featuring private concerts, schools have devised all sorts of ways to pay for themselves—and it can be quite the overwhelming experience.

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When my daughter started preschool, the fundraising was intense. Most of the families were dual income, and they didn't mind writing a few extra checks. My (broke) friends and I were totally put off by this, so we ended up joining the fundraising committee—something I swore that I'd never be caught dead doing. But we wanted to change the way things were done.

Whether you're tasked with bringing in a certain dollar amount for your school's committee or you're just being hounded by hopeful neighbor kids, being on either end of the fundraising plea can leave you feeling beleaguered and hum-buggy in the extreme.

Here are some tips and tricks to navigate the murky waters of fundraising etiquette:

Dealing With the “Ask”

Many private schools let you know ahead of time that, in addition to tuition, you'll be required to either fundraise or donate a certain amount, which is otherwise known as an “ask.”

1. Know What’s Expected

"They were pretty up-front about it," says Maya Rose, the mother of a kindergartner in a San Francisco private school. "They said the donation was 'strongly encouraged.' I said to my husband, 'Strongly encouraged means we don't have to, right?' He shook his head and said, 'No, that means we're writing the check.'"

RELATED: Mompetition: Hitting Moms Where It Hurts

There’s no penalty for not doing the requested fundraising, so if you're impervious to guilt, you're in luck. Of course, as your kid spends more years at school, you may find that you want the programs waiting for funds—and become a wild-eyed fundraiser yourself. Stranger things have happened.

2. Get a Tax Break

Public school fundraisers are often tax-deductible. The National PTA and many local PTOs are set up as non-profit organizations for this very purpose. So if your kid comes home with a catalog full of crappy stuff you'd rather not buy, ask questions. Those fundraising catalogs usually give a certain percent back to the schools, which is typically 20%. If your kid is being told to sell $100 worth of stuff, you may choose to write a check to the school for $20, and bypass the painful ordeal, still coming out ahead. Just make sure to ask for a receipt letter for your tax file.

If the club or organization isn't a non-profit, your donation won't be deductible. However, you might be able to justify your purchases as a business expense. For instance, you can deduct $25 per business gift given to clients. So if you're comfortable sending out tubs of caramel popcorn as a holiday gift, go nuts. Get it?

Meanwhile, Stephanie Roth, a partner at Klein & Roth Consulting, which trains grassroots organizations in effective fundraising, says, "Private schools usually set up as a non-profit organization, so people who donate will get a tax benefit." In fact, one inside source confirmed that some private schools deliberately set up their tuition schedule so that part of the tuition is essentially tax-deductible. It's a back-end way of making private school slightly cheaper, which is why many families go with a direct donation at the end of the fiscal year.

3. Know How to Say "No"

If you're on the receiving end of fellow parent pitches, what's the best way to decline? Roth has some great phrases for victims of fiscal fatigue:

  • "I'd love to, but I can't right now."
  • "I've made other commitments for my giving."
  • "I've reached the limit of my giving for this year."

Most importantly, acknowledge the fundraisers' efforts: "I appreciate what you're doing, and I know how hard it is to raise money. I'm just not able to give right now."

When You're the One Doing the Asking ...

1. Remember the Impression That You're Giving Your Kid

One father says, "I don't like the values taught to my kids of this constant wheedling for spare change." Sadly, at many schools, kids can get turned into little robot-salespeople, especially when they're filled with the idea that they're letting down their school if they don't bring in bags of cash.

When I was a kid, going door to door was humiliating: All the Girl Scouts were released upon their neighborhoods on the same day, so by the time I got to any given door, they were tired of the sales pitch, and hiding with the lights off.

If your kid is asked to sell stuff, look for the lesson in the experience. Can she sell something other than catalog crap? Maybe she's artistic and can find a creative way to solicit funds. Is he too shy for the hard sell? Work together on public speaking or help craft a great letter.

RELATED: 7 Mistakes Parents Make Teaching Kids About Money

If it undermines your values to have your kid equate money with success, turn that into a teachable moment. If you simply can't or aren't willing to finance their fundraisers, explain (in an age-appropriate way) the concept of budgeting, and why you plan to put your money elsewhere.

2. Let People Know Where Their Money Is Going

"There's no accountability for the money we raise," says one father of a grade-schooler. At my own daughter's co-operative preschool, we're given a spreadsheet that shows the yearly budget, and the cost of the "extras" we love, like the tutor who teaches pre-K readiness skills. This allows us to say, "Help us pay our drumming instructor!"

RELATED: How to Get the Most From Your Child's Teacher

Similarly, present your pitches as: $X will buy three books for the library, and $Y will pay for a month's worth of subsidized lunches. If you don't have access to the school budget, you can ask the head of your PTA for an annual report or a treasurer's report, which is public information. And be creative! Your school librarian knows how much books cost, and your band director knows the price tag for uniforms.

3. Try Passive Fundraising Instead

If you're being pressured to participate in dumb fundraisers, think in terms of "give or get," rather than feeling obligated to write a check. Instead, you could contribute by organizing a fundraiser like "shopping night" at a local store, in which a percentage of that evening's profits are given to the school. It's a great community builder in addition to being a sweet way to raise money.

Other ways to passively fundraise: I signed our school up for the Fresh & Easy Shop for Schools program, which only requires that you collect receipts (the school gets $1 for every $20 worth of receipts). There are also programs like escrip.com—you register your credit cards, so any spending you do will effortlessly earn a percentage for your school.

The moral of this all? As Roth puts it: "It's fine to ask, and it's also fine to say no."

Unless I'm asking, in which case … don't you want  a raffle ticket?

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