professional developmentAs budget battles nationwide have grown increasingly strained, schools have been squeezed. The prolonged recession has led to painful cuts, leaving gaps in school budgets and forcing tough choices. Parents and community members need new ways to support their schools and ensure that they can provide the educational experiences children need. Fundraising, which might once have afforded “extras” like field trips, has taken on new importance.

Fundraising plays a key role at my school, LYDIA Urban Academy, a private high school in Chicago for at-risk students. To keep our school affordable, we discount tuition for all students and provide additional need-based awards. But this means that school administration must raise money to cover the budget. The grants we receive typically focus on a particular item or project, which enriches the school but doesn’t address operating expenses or salaries. So we’ve learned to be creative in our fundraising and take new approaches. My hope is that the insights we’ve gained over many years of fundraising trial and error can help all schools, public or private.

As you look toward next year, I hope you’ll find value in this list of recommendations we’ve prepared that can help your school generate the funds it needs in 2014 and beyond.

  1. Focus on year-round fundraising activities. While annual events like bake sales and charity auctions can play a role in your fundraising, depending on them can be a mistake for fundraising-focused schools. Events are time consuming, easy to miss and limited in options to generate funds. Supplement your event fundraising by looking for opportunities that allow your school to raise money year-round. This can be as simple as having piggy banks for loose change in the hallways or establishing referral partnerships with retailers. The goal is to be continuously raising small amounts of money.
  2. Make it easy for all parents to get involved and celebrate contributions of all sizes. Families come in all shapes and sizes, and individual circumstances shape how much time and money each parent can commit to fundraising activities. The important thing is to recognize is that parents will do what they can to contribute. Celebrate all contributions, big and small. Be sure to offer different fundraisers that require varying levels of involvement, so that your fundraisers appeal to both busy parents and those with more time to get involved. When parents feel their efforts have been recognized and appreciated, they are more likely to continue giving in whatever ways they can. Consider regular social media and newsletter updates that name those who have contributed time and money to your school as a way to call attention to their involvement.
  3. Form mutually beneficial relationships with businesses. Many businesses are more than happy to find ways to support their local schools, and partnerships can be formed that are mutually beneficial. These relationships can be as straightforward as a sponsorship of your softball diamond, or can involve a corporate giving program through which a company’s employees contribute time and money to your school. In addition, many online retailers have longstanding referral programs that allow schools to earn a portion of each purchase made by their supporters. These relationships can help you build a recurring funding stream and provide vital underwriting for school improvements.
  4. Give supporters the chance to get things they really want. There are only so many tins of popcorn, rolls of giftwrap and boxes of cookies most parents and community members can buy. The more options you can give your supporters, the more that fundraising can be incorporated into their day-to-day shopping activities. The ability to support a school through purchases of items that supporters already want or need makes fundraising frictionless and rewarding. Why not distribute a survey asking your supporters what they’d be interested in purchasing and then build a fundraiser accordingly?
  5. Leverage digital tools to help organize and conduct campaigns. A wider range of fundraising options naturally means more to manage. But there are digital tools that have helped LYDIA Urban Academy create efficiencies in our fundraising efforts. We recently formed a partnership with All For Schools, an online school fundraising platform. The All For Schools platform has relationships with dozens of online retailers, like Amazon, Groupon and Macy’s, which has allowed us to offer our supporters the chance to fundraise as part of their day-to-day shopping online and occasionally reward themselves with a little gift. Our school receives a portion of the money our supporters spend through All For Schools, paid out every 90 days.

Incorporating these approaches will help your school maximize its fundraising efforts. As fundraising becomes integral to our ability to provide the educational resources our students need, we must look beyond our traditional methods and explore new avenues to secure resources.

Karen Anderson is the director of LYDIA Urban Academy, a private high school in Chicago for at-risk and other youth needing a safe and nurturing environment. Karen is a licensed clinical social worker who has devoted her career to supporting the academic success of at-risk students. She and her husband, who also directs and raises funds for a nonprofit organization, live with their three children in Chicago.

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