A Healthy Improvement to School Fundraisers

Sick of the ubiquitous wrapping paper and junk food products young students hawk to benefit their schools? Try FarmRaiser’s fresh approach.

Remember school fundraisers? Once or twice a year, students will hand their parents glossy catalogs full of magazine subscription offers, cookie dough, or those obscure housewares found in Miles Kimball mailings. Actually sweet-talking coworkers and relatives into buying something was an art unto itself.

Mark Abbott’s son once sold hundreds of dollars in food for a fundraiser, but all of the products were essentially junk. “There was nothing healthy to choose from, and, of course, nothing local,” Abbott says of the food selection.

Thinking local prompted Abbott to speak with apple farmers in his area about teaming up to do something better with school campaigns. These conversations served as the impetus for FarmRaiser, a new kind of funding platform that links schools’ efforts to raise money with quality products from area vendors.

The need to raise cash is commonplace in education, and most of product fundraising’s billions in sales benefit school-related organizations. It isn’t a new concept either, as more than half of K-12 students also had a “parent or other household member” participate in some form of fundraising, according to 2011-12 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

With FarmRaiser, students have three ways to raise support for their drive. The first is regular product sales. Instead of hawking wrapping paper or processed products, think apples, fair trade coffee, and even pasta. “Community basket” is a second option, where instead of obtaining items for themselves, purchasers can redirect their orders to designated shelters or food banks. Lastly, buyers can opt for a cash donation, 90 percent of which goes straight back to the schools.

Schools can set up a page through the FarmRaiser site, where family and friends are able to purchase products to benefit the school. A paper catalog is also available for those who prefer it. After overhead and FarmRaiser’s 10-percent fee are deducted, schools keep what’s left. Combined with cash donations, Abbott says some schools have netted more than 60 percent of the total campaign money raised.

The company—which currently operates in Michigan and the Seattle area—starts by sourcing a purposefully small list of items, all produced less than 25 miles away from the school site, aiming to keep 90 percent of fundraiser revenue in the local community.

Abbott says the local-centric approach has had broad appeal from “very rural small schools raising money for the middle school cross-country team to relatively wealthy, private Catholic schools sending their kids to Washington, D.C., for the eighth-grade trip.”

What about FarmRaiser resonates with fundraising groups? Abbott says it’s the value alignment between FarmRaiser and the parents and administrators at participating schools. “We’ve been embraced in this initial, limited number of campaigns that we ran by just about every other group you could imagine,” he says.

In 2014, FarmRaiser had a goal of completing 50 campaigns as a proof of concept that could help them understand key metrics behind their business model. Abbott says the company is well on its way to exceeding that goal and now has its sights set on 500 campaigns in three locations—the existing two as well as a third in the Washington, D.C. area. He also alluded to possible expansion in Chicago and New York, and is interested in Austin, Dallas, and Houston.

Abbott admits that in any fundraising effort, no matter how unnecessary or expensive the products may be, students will find buyers. But at least FarmRaiser not only gives a financial boost to schools, but also shows support for local businesses.

“If you’re going to make that effort and spend social capital that you’ve developed at this school,” Abbott says, “why don’t you give them something they can really feel good about?”