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Greening Our Schools: Beyond the Bake Sale - Eco-Friendly Fundraising for Schools

By Emily A. Fano  on Feb 4, 2011 

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In these cash-strapped times, Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs), are looking for creative, simple and low-cost ways to keep money flowing into their coffers. Bake sales have been an old standby. But with 31 percent of U.S. school-age children overweight or obese, and growing concern over global environmental challenges, many schools are looking to move beyond the bake sale. Today, there are a wide range of eco-friendly and healthy fundraising options that can bring in cash, help the environment and teach valuable lessons.

1) Making money without having to sell lots of stuff. Why sell people unhealthy or environmentally unsustainable junk that they don’t want or need? Believe in your cause, set goals, ask for what you need, and be grateful for what you get.

Annual Fund Drives and Corporate Matching Programs: One of the basic tenets of fundraising is, “You won’t receive unless you ask.” If you have a legitimate need, a target audience that supports your goals, and you’ve made your case, there’s no reason to believe that you won’t get what you need, if you ask for it. Schools can make thousands of dollars through organized phone-a-thons or fund drives. Corporate matching gift programs can double a donation; donors must fill out a form from their Human Resources department and follow the steps to submit the matching gift. Secure, online payment options make giving easy, quick and paperless.

Saving Spare Change: During the 2009/2010 school year, the charity Penny Harvest, collected $756,273 in pennies, which it later distributed to hundreds of non-profits. PTAs can similarly ask their community to save spare change for a certain period of time and collect the funds on a designated day. To “spread the love,” parents can ask family members and friends to save; favorite local establishments, pediatricians and dentists’ offices may also agree to put out collection jars. They should be colorfully decorated for visibility and have the school’s name on them. You’ll be amazed at how much money you can collect this way!

Raffles: Local businesses can be solicited to donate desirable prizes to your school for a tax-deduction. Assuming the raffle is well-publicized and community members are given many opportunities to purchase tickets, $5 or $10 raffle tickets can earn several thousand dollars without much effort.

Entertainment Fundraisers: Whether it’s a concert or performance (with donated talent), game night (Bingo, Scrabble, Monopoly, chess), dance night, movie night, or a theme dinner night (serving donated food and drinks, hopefully on reusable tableware), these fundraisers are great, feel good money-makers that can earn thousands of dollars. Using drink dispensers can avoid the sale of bottled water; people can also be asked to bring reusable bottles to get free drinks. For those interested in offsetting the extra carbon produced by large events, companies like Terrapass or American Forests can help.

Grant-writing: A skilled grant-writer can secure funding for any number of school programs. There are a multitude of foundations, companies and organizations offering grants in varying amounts, and wading through them is part of the job. For example, the Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Grant offers $5,000 to schools interested in gardening projects; the National Environmental Education Foundation offers $10,000 for first place winners of the Green Prize in Education. The Foundation Center is a great resource for grant-writers.

2) Making money while actually improving or restoring the environment. These fundraisers are a win-win for schools and the planet.

Waste Free Lunches
Several companies sell waste-free lunch products that save money and reduce the volume of landfill waste. According to LunchSkins, which sells colorful, reusable cotton sandwich bags, every day in the US, more than 20 million plastic sandwich bags from school lunches go into landfills. LunchSkins sells schools their lunch bags at a discount and schools can mark them up for a 50 percent profit. LunchSkins come 6 to a case and the company has a 9 case order minimum. The upfront purchase price is $4.80 per sandwich bag and $3.97 per snack bag. Schools usually mark up to $8.95 and $7.85 respectively. So, for 9 cases of sandwich bags, the school’s cost is $259.20, the sale price is $483.30 and the profit is $224.10.

“The most successful fundraisers take place in conjunction with other school events like book fairs, school plays, and back-to-school night,” says LunchSkins’ Laura Long. “Schools typically submit re-orders, once they get a feel for how well they can sell the LunchSkins, and kids really have fun opening their bags at lunchtime,” she says.

s Konserve also offers waste-free and BPA-free lunch products. Schools typically get 20 percent of the profits.
“We use Kids Konserve and have sold their sandwich wrappers, thermos, [sandwich] “kozys,” and st
ainless steel containers,” says Melanie Sherman, Co-Chair of the Wellness and Green Team at Manhattan School for Children, a public elementary school in New York serving about 700 children. “We sell at most school wide events; someone always needs a new thermos or sandwich wrapper. You do need to spend money upfront for the merchandise, but we [made] about $800 last year with almost no effort,” she says.

Americans throw out 25,000,000 plastic bottles every hour. Back2Tap specializes in high-quality, customizable stainless steel water bottles and also sells sandwich wraps and snack pouches. In Spring 2008, Chatham, New Jersey’s school district, which serves 3,400 (K-12) students, ran a Back2Tap fundraiser, netting $7,500 in profit, and raising awareness about the benefits of reusable bottles. Participating schools sold 1,500 bottles the first year, offering three different sizes at an average price of $15.00 per bottle; their upfront cost was about $10.00 per bottle, so the profit was $5.00. (Bottle prices have since come down).

Plant or Adopt a Tree:
Healthy trees are vitally important for the planet. They regulate climate and supply us with oxygen, and we need a lot more of them. Planting trees is a great fundraiser for school children that allows them to learn these valuable lessons. You can get seedlings donated by a local nursery, or order them from the National Arbor Day Foundation and plant them yourself in a suitable spot; or purchase them through an organization like Mokugift or American Forests that will plant the trees for you. Set a dollar value, then ask your donors to sponsor a tree/trees. The Australian “Trees for Change” project sold bookmarks to represent each tree purchased and planted. Decide how you’ll “sell the trees” and thank your supporters: announce their name at a public event, publish a list of donors, hand out (recycled paper) certificates that people can proudly display in their offices.

3) Making money from waste reduction and recycling (redemption programs). These fundraisers can provide a slow, steady stream of income and are a win-win for schools and the planet.

Ink Cartridge and Electronics Recycling: Each year an estimated 500 million ink cartridges and 150 million cell phones are discarded. That means plenty for you to collect and recycle – for cash. You’ll also be doing the planet a favor. Cartridges are made from plastics that aren’t biodegradable, and cell phones contain toxic metals that leach into landfills. Today, many companies offer printer cartridge and electronics recycling for cash: Cartridges For Kids, RecyclePlace, Project Kopeg, Funding Factory and Phone Raiser, so check their lists of accepted items and compare how much each company will pay per item. When you sign up for a program, the company will typically send you a drop off box where you can collect your items. Once you have this set up, all you have to do is get the word out. E-waste recyclers signed onto The Basel Action Network’s E-Stewards program, assure that they are recycling responsibly. Check to see if your chosen company is a signatory. If they’re not, ask them to sign on. If they refuse, consider doing business elsewhere.

Textile Recycling: In New York City, Wearable Collections (WC) provides bins to those who want to recycle textiles and offers 5 cents per pound. “The Holy Family Regional School in Commack, Long Island, made $500 - $600 in one day by collecting 5,000 pounds of textiles,” says WC Founder Adam Baruchowitz. “Since clothing is a seasonal thing, back to school, spring cleaning, and end of the year/semester are good times for schools to plan collection drives,” he says.

Terracycle: This New Jersey-based upcycling company collects 35 different kinds of non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle waste like drink pouches, cookie wrappers and chip bags, paying 2 cents per item and using the waste to make new products like knapsacks. Participating schools can earn anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars by collecting this waste, with opportunities to earn more through special contests and promotions. For example, East Amwell Township School in Ringoes, NJ earned $1,052.80 for waste collected from October 1, 2010 to December 15, 2010, plus a $50,000 grant from Walmart as part of the Trash to Cash contest, according to Terracycle’s Stacey Cusack. Check out what the company accepts and set up a collection bin.

Paper Recycling: The Houston-based company Paper Retriever (aka Abitibi Consolidated ) serves 23 cities in 14 U.S. states and allows organizations to recycle newspapers, magazines, catalogs and mail for cash. They offer free steel dumpsters and free collections and pay organizations dollars per metric ton, based on a tiered scale. Under 4 metric tons get $5/ton and 8+ metric tons get $20/ton. Frostwood Elementary School in Houston, Texas recycled over 200 tons of paper in 2010 and earned $4,300, according to Christina Kirk, the company’s brand manager.

Used Book and/or Rummage Sales: Passing on gently used items to others is a cornerstone of eco-friendly living. Used book sales can be effective fundraisers if done well. PS 166, a public elementary school in Manhattan, held a week-long outdoor rummage sale in the fall that included clothing, toys, and books. Organizers got free clothing racks, hangers and tarps from Craig’s List. The organizing, sorting, van pickups, set-up, and securing of volunteers to cover shifts paid off. The sale raised $8,000 for the school. One private pre-school in Manhattan has run an indoor rummage sale lasting a few weeks, that has consistently netted $18,000. These days it’s best to make sure that items donated come from bedbug-free homes.

Cash for Cans: Each year, Americans discard over 50 billion aluminum cans, which end up in landfills. Sponsored by the Can Manufacturers Institute, the “Great American Can Roundup” encourages groups to register and collect cans through Earth Day 2011. Winners from each state get $1,000 and the grand prize winner gets $5,000. Schools can also choose to run their own “Cash for Cans” program. Enter your zip code here to see who takes cans in your area; call and make sure you can get cash back on the spot. Before you begin, make sure you have proper collection bins, adequate storage, and volunteers willing to haul in the cans. As with many of these collection projects, get your administration and custodial staff on board, so things don’t get thrown out by mistake. Here are some good tips on how to launch a can campaign.

4) Selling useful things that are sourced and manufactured responsibly. Tired of all those catalogs filled with junky candy or unrecycled gift wrap? If you really want to sell “stuff,” opt for useful things, reusable things, and items made from recycled materials, like 100 percent recycled gift wrap, holiday cards, or fair trade food products. Beware of greenwashing by “one-stop eco-friendly fundraising shops” – companies and sites that say they’re green, but sell junk or don’t tell you where their products are made. The Lights for Learning project raises money for schools through the sale of energy-efficient products like CFL and LED lights, and low-flow showerheads. Students from Freeport Junior High School in Northern Illinois raised $1,300 in one month, according to Chad Bulman, the program’s manager.
“Some students sell the products door to door to friends and family members and in that way, they become the teachers on energy efficiency in their communities,” he says. Setting up a school “Eco Store” and printing your school’s logo on stainless steel water bottles, canvas tote bags and fabric lunch bags, is also a great way to raise funds.

5) Incorporating a physical activity that gets everyone moving. Walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons and jump-rope-a-thons are great ways to raise money while promoting a healthy message. Including new people, outside of the school community, to help fundraise, also takes pressure off a tapped out audience: your parents. If you hold your walk-a-thon in a public park, check the permitting requirements up to a year ahead of your event. Register sponsors online to save paper. Ask families to bring their own water bottles and get donated, unpackaged snacks like organic apples, to hand out at the finish line.

The most important lesson of all, for any fundraising program is: You MUST diversify your sources of funding to be successful over the long term. Use many different strategies and programs simultaneously; have fun, believe in your cause, and trust that the money will flow in. Good luck, and keep it green!

Emily Alix Fano is an environment/health writer and green schools advocate living in New York City. She can be contacted at

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