By Eliahu Sussman
When planning a fundraiser, there are two basic paths one can follow: using the traditional sales kits and campaigns laid out by fundraising professionals, or opting for unique, original events done in-house, organized by school personnel and music boosters. There are plenty of great reasons for going in either direction, and many music programs end up utilizing a combination of the two. Professionals can take the stress and guess work out of the planning process, while creating a unique fundraising activity or event can actually be both a whole lot of fun and a good moneymaker When it comes to unique, self-run events, the only limits are the inspiration and planning time by those doing the heavy lifting. To find out the key ingredients for success in distinctive fundraising events, CD reached out to three directors who run original events that account for substantial portions of their respective operating budgets.
One of the primary fundraisers for the choral program at Davidson High School in Mobile, Alabama, is an American Idol-style singing showcase. “It’s really not difficult, so that’s right up my alley,” says the school’s choral director, C. Allen Maples. Benefits of this type of fundraising event include not having to send kids out canvassing or selling in the community, it doesn’t require sophisticated spreadsheets and record keeping, and aside from a little bit of planning, it can all be done pretty much in one day. And then perhaps the best part is that it doesn’t take much money up front – almost all of the funds that come in are straight profit.
Maples begins putting the word out about the event by hanging posters and making announcements around school and at football games and other events approximately three weeks in advance. It’s open to anybody, including students who don’t participate in the music program. However, those students already involved in music – band, choir, and so on – are strongly encouraged to participate.
This is a solo singing competition, not a broader talent show that can involve instrumentalists or groups: just one voice solo or accompanying a music track. Once Maples begins advertising the event, students sign up to participate. There’s a token ten-dollar entry fee, which, in addition to raising some funds, primarily serves to weed out any students who might consider entering as a joke. “If they’re thinking about doing it to mess around, they aren’t going to pay the ten dollars,” reasons Maples. He then enlists local musicians who don’t have a connection at the school to serve as judges. The primary function of the judges is to winnow down the pool of entrants from the 20-30 that sign up to the seven or 10 who will perform in front of the student body. Maples has found that the maximum number that can be done in the one-hour time slot for the finals is about 10.
The first round takes place after school, a day or two before the main event, which is really the event’s final round. During the audition, students perform behind closed doors in front of the judges, who mark scores on a grid. The scores are then tallied up to determine who will progress to the finals. The audition usually takes between an hour and a half and three hours. Students are given four minutes to perform, although Maples schedules in five for each kid, to factor in set-up time and in case anyone runs a little over.
Tickets are sold on the day of for the competitions finals for three dollars each. Usually between 350-600 people end up in attendance, and a local DJ or TV personality is brought in to emcee the event. The money from the tickets is pure revenue, while the money from entry fees normally covers the judges and any other outstanding costs.
After all of the performances, students who have made it to the finals carry big plastic jugs around during school to accept votes from their peers. Votes are bought for a quarter each, or five for a dollar. Whichever student ends up raising the most money is chosen as the winner, and is awarded a prize of $100. The voting process usually more than covers the winner’s rewards. Because the whole event is advertised as a fundraiser, sometimes parents stop by and write a check, as well, rather than or in addition to the votes.
“We’ll typically make $1,300-$2,500 dollars from this one program,” says Maples. “I’ll be honest, I really dislike the selling stuff, so I’m really big on anything that I can do in just one day. This accounts for between a quarter and half of our budget, depending on whether or not we’re planning a big trip or another event that will require some funding.”
Michele Boulanger, the music director at Dover (N.H.) High School derives the vast majority of her department’s budget from a series of big fundraising events hosted by her students and the parent booster group. “I don’t feel like I’m nickel and diming the public with these events,” Boulanger says. “If I walk around and see a kid with a can asking people to donate for the Little League or whatever, I want to tell him, ‘Go have a car wash or something. Do something to earn that money.’ The city sees that music kids are not begging; they’re earning the money we spend in the program.”
The Dover Parents Music Club raises almost $40,000 for the music department each year, primarily through four big events: A marching band show in October; a crafts show in November; a wreath sale in November; and a winter guard and percussion show in March. There are also concession booths at football games: one for the football team and one for the music department.
The crafts show is an event that has been hosted by at Dover High School for years. Organized by the boosters, crafters rent tables at which they can set up shop and sell their wares during the fair. The single-day event takes up the school’s entire gymnasium and cafeteria, nearly half of the building. Donations are suggested at the door, but they are not mandatory. Crafters also donate items that are included in gift baskets, which the students assemble and raffle off. Raffle tickets are sold at the door, as they collect suggested donations. In addition to the revenue from renting space to the crafters and the donations and the raffle tickets, there’s also a concession stand, which also pulls in “a ton of money.”
The crafts fair is “a fair amount of work,” says Boulanger. “I have about 150 kids in band, chorus, and color guard, and every kid is told that they will show up to work these events. The trade-off of not giving out candy bars to sell is that they have to come and work, and hopefully bring their parents, too. However, the students do a pretty good job turning out because they see what they’re getting out of it. They know that they wouldn’t have the same opportunities [throughout the year] if they didn’t do a good job at these events. They’re the direct beneficiaries.”
Connie Coleman, choral director at Bixby (Okla.) High School, used to
do traditional sales-based fundraisers, but then found that there was too much competition for those in her area from other school and youth groups who were also looking to raise funds. Now, she and her students rely heavily on event-based fundraisers. One such event they hold is a holiday basket silent auction each fall.
“Students who have a grandmother who makes quilts or something like that might ask for one of those to be donated,” explains Coleman. “Students also walk around to area stores asking for items to be donated. Students create a basket, fix it up however they want, and we give it a title, which we write on the outside of it. We then make up a sheet with all of the baskets on it for a silent auction, which we hold before one of our concerts. Bidding is open before the concert and during intermission, and at the end of the show the highest bidder takes home the basket, and the winning bid is deposited into an account for the student who assembled the basket.” Entry fees, uniforms, travel and other related music department expenses can be paid for with the money that students have in their individual choir accounts.
Holiday baskets routinely fetch more than $100, which is almost entirely profit for the students. There may be as many as 20 baskets in a single auction, although Coleman tries not to have too many in a single auction out of concerns for the amount of time it would take to manage the silent auction.
To help students prepare their baskets, Coleman gives a form letter to participating students that they can then tailor for their particular basket, and then present to shopkeepers and other potential donors. That letter also has the music program’s tax ID, so it doubles as a legal donation form for tax purposes.
Regardless of whichever path you choose to augment your department’s funds, it can’t hurt to keep a close eye on what other school and youth groups do for fundraising in your area. In Bixby, Oklahoma, Coleman teamed up with the athletic director to create a single calendar of all sports and activity fundraising campaigns. “This helps prevent overlaps, which helps our community immensely,” says Coleman. “It means it’s not such a burden for families who have multiple children in different activities.” It also means that you can make sure that some other group won’t steal your thunder by staging a similar activity or sale to yours right around the same time period.