Peer to Peer: Fundraising

Mike Lawson • Fundraising • August 20, 2014

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Directors nationwide share fundraising strategies that work

Fundraising is one of those peripheral activities that can add a tremendous amount of strain to a director’s already full workload. On the other hand, it also serves to enable fantastic opportunities and resources for individual students and the ensemble as a whole. In an ideal world, the fundraising activity is one that students enjoy participating in, doesn’t take too heavy a toll on either the director or the students in terms of planning and execution, and, of course, brings in enough profit to make it worthwhile. As an added bonus, the right campaign can also be a great bonding experience, as well as a chance to build community awareness about your band.

SBO recently reached out to music educators around the country, asking directors to describe the campaigns that work best for their programs, how to keep students engaged, and any tips they might have for maximizing the profit-to-effort ratio.

If you’re looking for new activities that can bring in some much needed funds or road-tested fundraising advice from your peers, read on.



“We sell our services as performing musicians for local events and parties. This allows our very rural community to secure high-quality entertainment while supporting the students. The students know the goal of the fundraising is our annual tour to the ‘big city.’ They recognize that the more gigs we get, the fewer dollars they have to provide. Many years we’ve fundraised the entire cost of the trip.

“Selling professional musical services is effective because you are approaching organizations rather than individuals. Organizations are more likely to have the deeper pockets needed to pay for live music than individuals.”

Robert Lacey, Valley High School, Orderville, Utah



“We sell advertising pages in a yearly program book. To get the students excited, we list the projects we want to fund and give them specific techniques to sell the ads. I’ve gotten tired of selling products that I have to distribute. The distribution feels like more trouble than it’s worth, especially because we have to give more than half the money to the vendor.

“Find something that the students and parents can easily support and requires the least amount of effort. This is pretty obvious.”

Stephen Crawford, HSPVA, Houston, Texas



“Our program book brings in over $7,000 in ads, which ends up in almost $4,000 in profit after expenses and printing the book. The book is a nice addition to our concert series. The students earn 25 percent of their ads back to help pay for their trips and other music department expenses.

“We try not to sell junk and only put our name on products that are actually of value. We tend to over fundraise because the program is underfunded and our community is not affluent, so students need as much help as they can get in order to go on trips, et cetera.”

Cynthia Napierkowski, Salem High School, Salem, Mass.



“We have hosted a marching band festival for almost 40 years. It is such a tradition in our community that former students and band parents return each year to help organize and work the event. Students seem to love working as band runners, concession workers, program sales, and getting to watch and listen to the bands.

“We always have a post-event meeting to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and make notes for next year. Don’t be afraid to change things!

“I think nickel-and-diming your community wastes time and misses out on potential big support. A potential donor may be able to contribute hundreds of dollars if approached correctly, but feels that they have done their ‘community duty’ if they bought a program ad for $50 – go big!”

Byron Dawes, Theodore High School, Mobile, Ala.



“We work at the community 4th of July celebration doing face painting and selling glow-in-the-dark necklaces. The city doesn’t allow anyone else to do whatever it is you do, so there is no duplication. Starting around 3:00 in the afternoon we set up, and the whole thing kicks off around then. We are pretty busy painting faces – nothing fancy – all day long and then when dusk starts to set in, we start selling the necklaces. We are supposed to stay until the fireworks are over.

“For the students, I believe there are two motivating factors. First off, it is a lot of fun. It is such a festive occasion, and everyone just seems to have a good time. Secondly, they know that this is the single most effective fundraiser we have, and if they don’t support it, we lose money we will really need during the school year.

“I like to choose as many service-type fundraisers as possible, rather than selling something. However, one fundraiser we do involves holiday greens, and we choose to have them shipped directly from the vendor to the client, and not having to distribute the product is a big plus.

“Try to keep it fresh. If one thing is not all that successful, don’t beat yourself up over it, just move on. I remember one campaign I personally championed, and as it turned out, it was not a good fit for us, and it was a one of those ‘move on’ situations. While we all would like to find the ‘one’ that does it all for us, running a series of smaller fundraisers that are successful will still get you there in the end.”

Kurt Stalmann, Santana High School, Santee, Calif.



“We do citrus fruit sales; it’s a tradition. Students and parents take orders and deliver the items. We don’t do much in terms of product fundraisers, and really work to limit those ones we are involved with by encouraging solid participation. Everyone must do something – even though we can’t require participation, our attitude is that all should contribute if all will benefit.

“Having a few really solid [fundraising] programs per year is better than constantly being in fundraising mode. Also, selling the music program and the performances produced to the community is best – after all, you should already be performing! It’s just a matter of figuring out ways to make performances profitable.”

Bradford Rogers, Oldham County High School, Buckner, Ky.



“Homemade Strawberry Donuts: we make and sell 13,000 dozen! It’s successful because we have a good product, people look forward to them once a year, and we have a weekend festival that brings in lots of customers.

“All of our students start working at the donut booth when they are 6th graders and learn all of the different jobs as they become older. We frequently have alumni come back that weekend just to work at the donut booth!      

“The key is to get the word out. We use radio, newspaper, TV, online advertising, and social media.

“Sometimes the feeling is that any money is better than no money, but if you continue to pull on the students and parents to make money with little or no gain, they will eventually become burned out and not helpful in the pursuit.”

Kathy McIntosh, Troy High School, Troy, Ohio



“Our most successful fundraising campaign is a discount card sale through EMI, Inc. In general, this company solicits local businesses to offer deals that will be included on the annual ‘Band Card’ for one year. Discounts range from buy-one-get-one-free pizzas to 20 percent off any purchase. The local businesses are not charged a fee to be included on the card, but must agree to honor the deals for one year. We sell the discount cards beginning the week before Thanksgiving and end the sale at Christmas Break. We have branded the discount cards as Band Cards and market them as great stocking stuffers for the holiday season.

“Our students receive credit in their student accounts for each card sold. For many, simply selling these cards during a four-year period will almost pay for their band trip to Florida, which we take every four years. The students don’t mind selling these cards because we limit our fundraising activities to this sale and a spring sale each year. They also don’t mind this sale because all they have to do is let people know they have them and they usually sell out of their allotment by the end of the day.

“I think the keys to any fundraising campaign are to simply limit the number of sales done annually and to do it at a time of year when the students are least busy. Limiting the length of the sales is also helpful, as the students tend to put things off until the last minute. Facebook has been a great tool for our students and their parents.       

“I generally avoid sales that won’t produce at least $2,500 in profit. Some programs do a different sale every month, it seems, and instead of generating a lot of profit a few times a year, they rely on a little profit many times a year. This generally leads to burnout for both the student sellers and the director in charge of keeping an accurate accounting of each sale.”

Russell Smith, Shelbyville High School, Shelbyville, Ind.



“We have had great luck with t-shirt sales. We are able to design shirts that are attractive with a positive message at an affordable price. We have found that people are willing to support our organizations at a higher level when they are able to have something to show for it! The students know that it saves them fee money and helps to improve the level of equipment we are able to provide.  

“Promote the campaigns well in advance. Make promotions annual projects, and supporters will look forward to them. People honestly are eager to help you out when asked. However, they appreciate planning and advance notice, and don’t do well with surprise and inconsistency.”

Timothy W. Anderson, Carl Schurz High School, Chicago, Ill.



“Our most effective fundraising campaign would be our annual fall semester Sherwood Forest Farms holiday wreaths. We have been selling them in our community for almost 20 years. This fundraiser works for us because we’ve been doing it so long it has become branded with being part of the band, it is a high quality product, and because the company can ship nationwide, we benefit from alumni sales.   

“My student leadership team picks one fundraiser that we do to benefit the band as a whole for a specific goal. The other fundraisers we do I keep an individual journal (CHARMS) to track their profit that students can use to spend on trips, spirit wear, uniform parts, and so on.

“These days, I won’t look at a fundraiser if it is not at least in the 40 percent profit range and all costs are revealed up front (including: shipping, taxes, minimum sales orders). If the company can pre-sort orders, that is a major plus.

“I have found that my best practices have been to:

  1. Plan all the fundraisers for the year and put them in the band’s calendar, just like scheduling a concert.
  2. Keep them short – about two weeks is the longest we’ll run one.
  3. Make sure the fundraiser has a purpose/goal.
  4. The product needs to be of quality.

“As for pitfalls, know what the actual profit margin is and weigh that against the time and effort needed to run it. Know upfront if minimum sales orders are required, and also make sure it is a reliable and quality product – returns and refunds are a real pain.”

Duane Chun, Buena High School, Sierra Vista, Ariz.



“Plant/Flower sale: we sell bedding trays, flowers, and hanging baskets, taking orders in mid-winter with delivery during the first week of May. We have a contract with a greenhouse that delivers very high quality plants. The prices are a bit higher than Wal-Mart or other discount places, but the plants are so much nicer that we actually get people contacting us to place orders ahead of time.

“To motivate the students, for every three items sold, that student gets to pick a ‘Mystery Cash Candy Bar’ – they choose a candy bar from a box that has a folded piece of paper attached to it. The paper might be blank, or it might say that you have won a dollar, $2, $5, or $10.            

“If you find a unique quality product, it will sell itself. Too many organizations already sell Florida citrus, cheese and sausage, or cookie dough. Unique sales get attention!

“Try to keep the successful fundraisers consistent – sell during the same time period and offer delivery on the same approximate date each year so people can plan. For instance, our plants and flowers are always delivered on the first Monday in May. People know they can plan on using these items for Mothers’ Day gifts if needed.”

Jan Hare, Delphos St. John’s, Delphos, Ohio



“We have worked with both Century Resources (regional) and First Class Fundraisers (our local fundraising company) for many years, yearly for our ECA accounts and also when we are trip planning, and have had excellent results. We have known and worked with both area reps, who are experienced and effective in presenting the program to our students and getting them involved. And the delivery/follow-up is easy and thorough.

“The biggest factor is to get students to realize why we/they are raising money and that it is important. It’s always easier when raising funds for a trip, as all profit then goes into the student account, but they also see the need and realize the benefits for our groups, as this is really our only source of ‘income’ for the year. Middle school kids love the rewards, but high school kids have the ability to understand need and commitment. Money seems to be the most effective reward for both MS and HS, so we try to be as generous as possible!

“If the group can understand and buy into how much will be made if everyone sells some rather than a few selling a lot, it makes a lot of sense. But of course we always like and appreciate the big sellers.

“We know that selling is not for everyone, we just present it to them to give their best effort and understand that everyone will benefit and we appreciate their help, even with a minimum sale. The big sellers will always come through, because they enjoy it. I’ve seen presentations that “require” everyone to sell a certain amount, and that will turn some kids off – asking for their help rather than telling them works best for us. Stressing exactly where the profit will go and that everyone will reap the benefits does help.

“Kids are smart and usually will buy into doing their fair share, but we try not to overdo it. The older they get, the more they have been through selling and just need pertinent, updated, interesting, and honest reminders.

“In terms of prepaid versus pay upon delivery, we’ve done both many times, and while the prepay is usually safer and less hassle with bookkeeping, I tend to prefer the pay upon delivery, because sales will usually be fewer from a prepay due to potential customers not having money when approached for a sale. As for most effective products to sell, I’ve found that as long as it’s good quality and there is a comfortable low to high price range, a nice selection of “something for everyone” works well. Our local company has excellent butterbraids, cookie dough, and pizza products, which are a bit higher in price but offer more profit, and we love that they can deliver something needed the same day.”

Janet Priest, Frankfort MS and HS, Frankfort, Ind.



“We have a very successful fruit and meat sale. Students and parents take orders for about two weeks. The product arrives for us the last week of school before Christmas break. The customers or the students pick up the products at the band room.

“We keep each student’s account separate. The student receives about 90 percent of the profit for his or her account. The student’s credits can be spent towards bands trips or other expenses that are incurred while in band.

“When selling the fruit, we decided just to order the full cases of fruit and split them into half cases ourselves. We simply take the top off of the case box, flip it over, and count out half of the quantity in the full box. This allows us to profit more by not having the company divide the fruit into multiple size boxes. Be sure to try to collect all of the money before the product is taken out of your classroom.”

Tom McGarity, Cedartown High School, Cedartown, Ga.



“We do a stock sale that yields more than 90 percent profit. Parents and students love it. Students are done in three days, and there is no door to door and no product to mess with. Students love prizes purchased from local merchants by parents. My largest profit was over $30K. Most years it runs around $20K. Grades 6-12 participate – around 350-400 students.

“All stock sales, past the first two, go toward each student’s individual travel account in high school. The younger students love the prizes they can pick from.

“Stop selling products. Sell service and the fact that the monies given are deductible. More of the donation stays at home and is invested in the children.                  

“To get it right, prepare, prepare, prepare. Have all details organized and all staff on board. Positive, parent-driven communication has made a difference over the years. I schedule the stock sale during the busiest rehearsal time of the year. Since all sales are done by phone or email, the families make their contacts going to and from rehearsals.”

Ron McHone, Sheridan Schools, Sheridan, Ark.



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