Unless you work in the school fundraising industry, you probably don't give school fundraisers a second thought. In fact, you probably do everything you can not to think about them.
After all, school fundraisers are infamous for selling overpriced candles, gift wrap and kitchen gadgets that consumers aren't exactly clamoring for. And in most cases, you're not buying the magazine subscription or cookie dough because you especially want it, but because you know your purchase will help your child, grandchild, niece, nephew or nice neighbor kid raise money to pay for much needed equipment or services at their school.
Despite the moans and groans that can be heard from parents everywhere when their child brings home the first fundraising packet of the year, the fundraising industry does a lot of good for schools across the country. In fact, business owners would be wise to take some tips from the $1.4 billion-a-year school fundraising industry, because it's a business model like almost no other.
The success of the companies that fundraise for schools doesn't depend on the motivations of a 44-year-old employee who has a car payment and a family to feed. Their success hinges on finding schools that can effectively get students and parents to do the selling. The students are often driven by the chance to win prizes or beat out the other classes, and mom and dad are arguably pushed by parental guilt and peer pressure as they help Johnny sell as much as the top fundraiser in class.
It's an industry that really shouldn't work, yet it somehow does. So what can you learn from this very successful industry? Here are four sales lessons inspired by your local school's fundraiser.
1. Set a Goal
School fundraisers don't usually last long. Generally, a child brings home marketing materials and a customer sign-up sheet and is expected to get those products sold within a few weeks, and sometimes within just a few days.
"That's because nobody wants to be fundraising for four months," says Rusty Bentley, president of TriQuest Fundraising, which works with schools and other youth groups to raise money through smartphone coupon apps and Web portals.
And while you can't restrict your sales period to several weeks, you can set short-term goals, which are likely to get you where you want to be faster than an open-ended mission. "Setting a goal is very important," Bentley says. "There's got to be a number you're trying to achieve." And it helps if your salespeople know what that number is and how long they have to hit it.
There's also nothing like a little healthy competition. "We're very big on competition," Bentley says. "We normally pit elementary school classes or grades against each other, but we've also had schools compete against each other. That can be a good way to motivate the kids, especially if every day the principal is reading how their progress is over the loudspeaker."
Although you wouldn't want to encourage your staff to be so competitive with each other that they begin to resent their co-workers, you can pit your employees against each other in fun ways, such as by giving the person with the best numbers the best parking space every month. If everyone's trying to get better numbers than the next person, everyone's going to do better—and hopefully have fun doing it.
2. Offer Rewards
Competing isn't much fun without a trophy. That's why schools motivate students with daily rewards.
"There's actually this whole subculture of life that I didn't know existed before I got into this six or so years ago," Bentley says, speaking of the elementary set and how psyched they get over daily rewards for successful fundraising. "The reward might just be a cool-looking eraser that goes on top of your pencil, but when a kid gets that, the other kids see it and they want it."
If you decide to reward your employees with small prizes, you need to make sure it's something your staff will appreciate. Because Bentley's observation about students is likely applicable to the grownups: "If you pick the right reward, every kid wants it," Bentley says, "but I'm sure there are also a hundred stories of kids looking at the daily rewards, saying, 'That's dumb. I don't want that.'"
Make sure whatever you offer as a reward is something you'd truly be prepared to give. Sarah Barrett, author of A Mom's Guide to School Fundraising and a fundraising consultant who works with schools across the country, knows of one school last year that offered a new computer to each classroom that had 100 percent participation in the school's annual giving campaign. According to Barrett, the school administrators thought they were being clever by offering a big reward to entice more sales but believing that the classes would never achieve 100 percent participation.
"Their plan backfired horribly," Barrett says. "A lot of classrooms gave 100 percent, and the school had to spend a ton of money on computers—they spent far more money than they'd planned on."
3. Tell a Story
It's important to remind your customers why they need your product or service in their life, and if you have a compelling reason—a story that grabs their interest—you're more likely to get a sale.
"Donors today want to know where their money is going and what they're supporting," says Gary Hensley, CEO of Edbacker.com, an online funding platform for educators. "Communicating the need in a tangible way and making it personal by communicating who will benefit from the fundraiser and what the expected outcome will be is the key to successful selling in a school fundraiser."
For instance, many school fundraisers are done to support a field trip or an art class or something considered an extra in student life. With a school fundraiser, letting students and parents know that, so they can pass that on to prospective customers, is crucial. "You generally fail when you don't explain why the fundraiser is being held," Barrett says. "The why is more important than the how."
It's no different with any customer. Is this product or service going to improve their daily life in some way? Why do they need to buy it, and why now? Are there benefits to buying this product or service instead of a competitor's? What might happen if they don't buy it?
4. Watch for Burnout
Kids and parents can easily get burned out on school fundraisers, but your own salespeople can burn out, too—even if they have the motivation of knowing that they have a mortgage to pay.
Schools are trying to streamline how they ask for money, participating in campaigns "through pictures and videos [that] can be shared through email and social media," Hensley says, and many schools try to limit their fundraisers to avoid flaming out.
"It's better to have one good fundraiser to raise $5,000, than six fundraisers to raise it," Bentley says.
You, of course, may not have that option; as noted, you're likely selling year round. But school fundraising has become more innovative in the last decade—one year, to raise money, a principal at an elementary school in Bailey, Colorado, let students squirt water guns at him as he hung suspended from the school's roof; some schools around the country have held poker nights to generate income. Your staff's salesmanship may need to become more innovative to keep things fresh and the sales climbing. Maybe you need to expand your customer base. Or maybe you need to sharpen your staff's training.
Or it might be many factors, and your staff has lost its way. That is the No. 1 reason school fundraisers fail, Bentley says. They're selling, but without any passion.
"Kids and parents who are really successful are highly motivated because they know what they're going for and why they're fundraising," Bentley says. "It's kind of like any product. If you're selling a car, and you understand the benefits behind selling it, it's easy to be motivated, and it just makes life easier. Every group that fails with school fundraising, it's almost always because they have no idea why they're asking for money, and everyone gets burned out."
Read more articles on sales.
Photo: Getty Images