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Sean McCauley, an elementary school principal in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been at his job for six years — and doesn't remember ever asking his students to participate in a fundraiser, the kind in which children and parents are asked to buy and sell overpriced soaps, calendars, candies and magazine subscriptions to family members, friends and co-workers.
It's not that McCauley wouldn't like to raise money for Ethel M. Taylor Academy, where he oversees about 300 students in a school in the middle of a Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority project.
Ninety percent of the students' parents and guardians have incomes under the poverty level. Every child receives a government-paid breakfast and lunch, and 15 to 20 percent of the student body is considered homeless, either living in a shelter or camped out at somebody else's home.
"We've been approached by fundraising organizations, but we always tell them that our families aren't going to be able to do that," said McCauley.
That has meant McCauley's school couldn't take advantage of the aid many others get from their fundraising. The nonprofit Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers website indicates that schools raise nearly $1.4 billion annually, which pays for everything from athletic-team and band uniforms to playground equipment and computer labs.
But increasingly, thanks to technology and some creative thinking, schools with fewer resources are able to join the pack. Even schools that are relatively flush are changing the way they raise funds.
"School fundraising, especially public school fundraising, is in the midst of a sea change," said Michael Montgomery, a fundraising consultant and an adjunct professor at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich.
During the 1950s and '60s, school fundraising became somewhat mainstream, utilizing annual carnivals, car washes and dances — not to mention ubiquitous vending machines. By the late 1970s, as school budgets continued to shrink, it was commonplace to entice students with prizes for selling the most candy, linens, posters or whatever companies could come up with. (In 1997 the industry began to discourage door-to-door sales after an unsupervised 11-year-old boy in New Jersey was lured into a house and killed.)
Today schools around the country ask children multiple times each year to sell everything from flowers and candles to Tupperware and T-shirts.
"Some schools hit you up to the degree that the parents get kind of a glaze over their faces and they don't hear you anymore," said Sarah Barrett, a school-fundraising consultant based in Studio City, Calif., and the author of "A Mom's Guide to School Fundraising."
To cut through the glaze, students and schools have had to innovate. A couple of years ago an Illinois school had students selling fertilizer from an alpaca farm, and in recent years poker tournaments have been popular.
Then last month the boosters of an elementary school in Lucama, N.C., held an auction for a rifle. Critics immediately brought up last year's mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., but the controversial auction raised $7,000.
Online fundraising has helped level the playing field for lower-income schools, says Jeremy Burton, chief technology officer for Razoo.com, an online giving and fundraising site. PTAs for poorer schools may not be able to get money from Mom and Dad, but getting uncles and aunts to donate can be easier — or even complete strangers if a school's message resonates with the public. "You can expand your reach," Burton said.
To date, 157 PTAs have raised approximately $614,000 on the site, he said.
But in general, schools like Ethel M. Taylor — which doesn't have a PTA — don't receive the benefits that school fundraising brings. The downside is obvious, Montgomery said, since "private fundraising for public schools has the potential for enlarging rather than remedying the disparities in American public education."
But some scrappy schools aren't waving white flags; instead, they're eschewing traditional sales and trying other approaches.
"A lot of schools, across the spectrum, have done more reaching out to corporations, trying to get them to donate supplies or money. And some communities have created educational foundations that raise money for all of the schools in the districts," Barrett said.
However, some communities don't want to share money. Several months ago in California, the Santa Monica–Malibu school board indicated that it wanted to take some of the funds raised by Malibu High School to disburse among some less affluent schools in the district. They were met with dissension from the Malibu High parents.
Which is why it may be better for a low-income school to simply go it alone. A year ago McCauley asked his school's resource coordinator, Molly Luken, to set up a fundraising vehicle, the Soaring Hawks Foundation.
In the past year, the foundation has raised $15,000, some of which was spent last summer. Using a matching grant from a local bank, Soaring Hawks bought more than 100 children bicycles and bike helmets as rewards for passing a state achievement test. Before the foundation was created, if the Ethel M. Taylor Academy raised money, McCauley had to first get a number of signatures approving the funds — a process that could take weeks. With Soaring Hawks, which has a board of directors, spending money on students can occur, if needed, the same day.
If the foundation hits its stride, McCauley has big plans for it. On his wish list: hiring a school librarian.
"We haven't had a librarian for two years," he said. "Because of state cuts, which trickled into our district, we had to let her go. A librarian would be a great resource for the kids," McCauley says. He also someday wants a sign outside the school to post messages alerting the community about what's going on in classes.
But that, like the salary of a school librarian, is a big-ticket item. Outdoor signs, which need to be secured in the ground, can cost about $30,000, McCauley says. A sign would help link the school to the rest of the community; it never helps a fundraising program if the students are invisible.
"Some people drive by, and I'm not sure they even know this is a school," McCauley said.
From funny cat pics to the news business, Internet entrepreneur Ben Huh is driven by the same philosophy