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Fed Up with Fundraisers

Sick of buying (and shilling) overpriced stuff to support your kids schools? You're not alone. Here's some insight – and alternatives.

Rebecca Bates is no fan of school fundraising sales. "I pretty much hate them," the Rochester mother of three says. "I do understand their purpose, and I have no problem giving money. But I usually don't like the product, I certainly don't need it and it's super overpriced."

In the best of times, receiving piles of fundraising packets and lots of pressure to buy overpriced wrapping paper, candy, frozen foods and cookies can be vexing to parents. In tough times, it can be downright stressful.

When Jill Kathan of Livonia was preschool shopping for her 3-year-old daughter, she learned one school would require parents to sell $150 worth of cookie dough each year. "I think when parents feel they are obligated to donate, they get an attitude and they don't want to do it," she says.

An informal survey of Detroit-area schools shows many school groups continue to use direct sales to raise funds for everything from field trips to playground equipment.

At Leonard Elementary School in Troy, parents are inundated with all manner of fundraisers, from the annual fall wrapping paper sales to weekly bagel sales in the classrooms. PTO President Shelly Volek estimates her group runs up to 20 separate fundraisers each school year.

"There's the constant struggle of what's better – one big fundraiser or a million little ones," Volek says. "I guess I'm of the school of a bunch of little ones, so that you can spread it across people and keep everyone involved. The more, the merrier."

Thanks to parents' volunteer efforts, Volek says the PTO raises about $45,000 a year to spend on student services and school equipment that benefits the kids.

While it's impossible to ignore the benefits of vigorous fundraising, it's also clear that not every school can rely on parents to put in dozens of volunteer hours or have the money to pay for so many goods and events. And some parents just don't think it's worth all the hassle.

So what are local schools and parent groups doing today to make their fundraising simpler and more meaningful? Check out these 10 fundraising alternatives.

1. Just write a check

At Saline High School, groups raise their own funds – but the PTO doesn't bother with organized events or sales. At the beginning of the year they simply ask parents to write checks to the PTO.

"We call it our Hassle-Free Fundraiser," says Saline High PTO president Diana Watches. "Twenty-five dollars or more is wonderful. Some people are very generous, but people just do what they can and we appreciate it."

2. Make money by shopping

Several stores have created simple ways for community groups to raise money – just by going shopping. By registering a Kroger shopping card online, parents can target Kroger Community Rewards dollars to a nonprofit recipient of their choice.

Kroger's Dale Hollandsworth says Community Rewards raises about $2 million a year for nonprofits. "It is our way of giving back to the community and engaging customers into more community activism," he says.

Scrip cards are another popular, simple fundraiser. Parents can order gift cards for use at various stores, and the school receives a small percentage of the card value. Visit the Great Lakes Scrip Center at www.glscrip.com to learn more.

3. D.I.Y. events

Why give 75 percent of your fundraising dollars to some distant company when you can create your own event and keep most of the dough? One of the most popular events cropping up at area schools is the Fun Run.

North Elementary School in Newport, Mich. holds a Fun Run – much to the delight of parents. "There's nothing to buy and no catalog to look at," says Melanie Young, mom of a North Elementary second grader. "I always buy something, whether it's a box of candy or a magazine. But this was promoting the health of the kids, so that was a better incentive for me to donate – and it goes right to the school."

Each child receives a class T-shirt, which Young says they all love to wear to school again and again.

4. Selling local products

Before the holidays, the Mayfair Co-op Preschool in Farmington Hills sold teas from Wixom-based Community Tea House. Mayfair mom Katie Bonus took advantage of the sale. "That's what we gave out to all of our family members as Christmas gifts," she says. "It was great because we were buying local and supporting the school at the same time. And the tea is delicious."

Community Tea House Owner Alice Gambee loves doing the fundraisers. "I think because of Michigan's economic situation, people do want to support the local businesses."

5. Educational value

Do kids learn anything when mom and dad sell PTO cookies at the office? Not really. So how about holding events that teach kids something important? Farmington Hills' Alameda Early Childhood Center used its Trike-A-Thon to teach students about bike safety while also raising money for playground equipment.

"They sent home little license plates for the kids and pamphlets about bike safety they could decorate. The kids really enjoyed it," says mom Kathan.

6. Raising money for charities

Fundraisers can also teach generosity and caring for people outside of the school community. Following the earthquake in Haiti last year, the students at Berkley's Norup Middle School decided to raise money to help rebuild an orphanage there. They held a pie-throwing event where, for $1, students could throw a whipped cream pie at their principal and a few teachers. The brave staff and thrilled students raised $475 for Haiti.

7. Useful services for parents and students

Just in time for Christmas, Hamilton Elementary-Middle School in Detroit offered families reasonably priced photo packages with holiday backgrounds or with Santa himself. Teachers helped organize the event so that siblings could be in photos together, saving parents even more money.

School counselor Margaret Wilson says they didn't raise a whole lot of money. "This was our first time, so in the future we'll raise more," Wilson says. "I don't want to do candy sales and that sort of things. We may not bring much money, but it will be enjoyable for our children."

8. 'Green' fundraising

Saline High School mom Deborah Heilman is in charge of fundraising for the school's Students Against Destructive Decisions organization. She wanted to select fundraisers that were Earth-friendly and easy. "I kept thinking about what could make life easier for parents, instead of selling door-to-door," Heilman says. "And where do all those products end up?"

In addition to selling the convenient Scrip gift cards, the group collects small electronics that might end up in landfills and sends them to a recycling organization for cash. The Colorado company, called Cartridges for Kids, accepts inkjet cartridges, video game consoles, PDAs and more, and disposes of them safely. Heilman collects items from local businesses, students and parents.

"I box it up and they give me the postage, pick it up and then send me money and recycle the stuff," Heilman says. "It's easy for us, keeps stuff out of the trash and we're saving the Earth!"

9. Poker nights?

Did you know the Michigan Lottery allows legal poker games to benefit nonprofits? Parents from Mayfair Preschool in Farmington Hills host them. So do the Troy Athens High School Band Boosters. These events are generally less like a casino night in the gym and more like a bingo night at a designated site. Players can come from the school community, but also the card-playing public.

"It sounds strange, right? A preschool hosting a poker night?" says Mayfair mom Katie Bonus. "But it was great for us." Bonus was involved in two four-day poker events. Each event raised about $1,000 for the school. Learn more on long-time Michigander Joe Cole's site, Cards for a Cause.

10. Open a store

The mother of all school fundraisers in the Detroit area has to be the Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop. Started 16 years ago as a garage sale held at a school, the concept has grown beyond imagination.

Today the district PTO leases a 12,000 square-foot building in an area of Ann Arbor called Resale Row. They accept donations of clothing, furniture and most everything in between from parents, the community, area businesses and colleges.

2010 was a particularly successful year for the shop. They were able to donate nearly $276,000 to Ann Arbor Public School clubs and organizations.

And the benefits don't even end there. Donations to the store are tax-deductable for parents. The second-hand products are being recycled and are inexpensive. And the shop now employs 19 full- and part-time employees.

"It's an exciting time to be involved here," says Ann Farnham, a Thrift Shop board member. "At a time when the schools are really feeling the pinch, we were able to step up and help out the schools and groups. It couldn't be better."

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