Most Profitable PTO Fundraisers Comparison Guide

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If only we got a Box Top every time someone posted something like this in Facebook…

What are some of the best fundraisers your school has done?

What was your best fundraiser? What made the most money?

Easiest, profitable fundraisers, go!!!!

…our schools would be rich!

Volunteers leaders are always on the lookout for the best fundraisers for our schools, where “best” refers to a good mix of profitable, easy, and fun.

These posts pop up a lot in Facebook groups for PTO / PTA leaders, and I love it when they do. I always learn something new and it’s fun to share good, bad, and funny experiences with volunteers across the country.

All the information about fundraisers can be a little overwhelming, so I like to put things into categories to get a clearer picture. The fundraiser comparison table you see below is the result.

I wasn’t sure if this table would just be helpful to me or if other volunteers would also find it useful. So, I shared it on Facebook (surprise!), and was pleased to get lots of positive feedback — and questions. Lots of questions about specific fundraisers.

So, now I’m sharing this updated table here with with you. And I’m also answering questions — including yours, if you have any — about different types of fundraisers.

About this comparison table of school fundraisers

This table draws on my 8+ years of experience as a school volunteer leader helping raise hundreds of thousands of dollars (yep, seriously) using a wide variety of fundraisers. I’ve helped plan and carry out product fundraisers, “thons,” galas, auctions, carnivals, tournaments, talent shows, raffles, passive fundraisers, spirit wear sales, restaurant fundraisers, and more.

This table also draws on posts that you’ll see in popular Facebook groups for PTO / PTA leaders. My top two faves are: PTA / PTO Super Star Leaders from PTO Answers and PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers from PTO Today. If you haven’t joined these free groups, I hope you will! They are great places to get help, give help, and always feel appreciated.

How many hours you spend to carry out a fundraiser and the amount that you can raise varies widely, of course, so the categories are not nice and neat. But the feedback that I get from other volunteers is that these groupings ring true.

They agree, for example, that auctions and galas can bring in an “insane amount of money” but they can also be an “insane amount of work.” And they agree that penny wars are a fast, easy (and fun) way to raise a substantial amount of money (hundreds to several thousands of dollars). And that a “thon” can bring in tens of thousands of dollars, regardless of whether a group does all the work itself or outsources some to a vendor.

And everyone agrees that getting enough parent volunteers is a constant challenge. So, I hope this table will help you home in on fundraisers that will be the best fit for your PTO fundraising goals and volunteer situation.

Most profitable PTO fundraisers comparison list

What do you think?

Has your experience with school fundraisers been different from what you see in the table?

What do you think is missing?

What would you like to know more about profitable school fundraisers?

I would love to hear your thoughts and questions. Please comment below or email me by clicking the envelope icon at the bottom of the post.

I have started answering questions from volunteers like you in this blog post, below. I will keep adding to this post as I get questions. So, let me know!

Types of fundraisers for school

Direct donation fundraiser

Also known as: arm chair fundraiser, cash drive, check writing campaign, direct appeal, direct dues campaign, hassle free fundraiser, no brainer fundraiser, no product fundraiser, no selling fundraiser, no show fundraiser, no stuff fundraiser, pass the hat fundraiser, and unfundraiser.

For a direct donation school fundraiser, the PTO asks families to donate money directly to the group. The main benefits of direct donation fundraisers are:

  • High profit margin - Even with fundraising incentives and credit card processing fees, expenses for direct donation fundraisers can be kept very low to max out profit. Groups can earn net profits close to 100%.

  • Low volunteer hours needed - A small number of volunteers can set up and manage the campaign. (At our elementary school of 300+, which has been successfully doing direct donation fundraisers for the past 5 years, two volunteers plan the details and manage the campaign.)

  • No selling anything! - Families don’t have to sell anything! If your families are fine with selling cookie dough, magazines, and other things to raise money, great. Stick with what is working for you. If you’re getting complaints and resistance to selling things, try direct donations.

  • Big money potential - In Facebook groups for PTO / PTA leaders, school groups across the United States report raising thousands up to tens of thousands of dollars through direct donations in a matter of weeks (typically less than 2 months). The keys to success for direct donation campaigns are:

    • Exciting incentives - Having a fun school wide prize, like sliming the principal, if you hit your PTO fundraising goal, always boosts participation. Offering a mix of fun incentives for students, families, classes, grades, and teachers, will send your participation and donation totals soaring. (For 88 school fundraising incentive ideas that are free, inexpensive, or worth every penny, click here.)

    • Smart marketing and communications - Promote your fundraiser across all your marketing and communications channels, in person, in print, and online, to keep excitement high and donations rolling in. (For a comprehensive PTO “Get the Word Out” checklist, click here).

  • If you need to start a direct donations PTO fundraiser and don’t have time to waste, click here for a complete Direct Donations FUNdraising Kit. It has everything you need to set up and launch a successful fundraiser: proven PTO fundraising forms, fully-editable templates, sure-fire incentives, and a smart marketing plan to help you meet and even exceed your goals.

Penny war fundraisers

Also known as: Penny drive, coin drive, Coin Wars,Drive for Change, change war, Change for Change, Change for Good

Penny wars are a fun, fast, and easy collection type of fundraiser where students compete in teams (e.g., classes, grades) to reach the highest total points (or total raised for some variations) from donated coins. The main benefits of penny war fundraisers are:

Popular with students, families, and schools - Students love the friendly competition, including the chance to “sabotage” other teams (if your rules allow it).

PTO fundraiser results for penny wars, coin drives compiled by SchoolVolunteersShare.com

High profit margin and big money potential - On Facebook, school groups report raising between $400-$5,000+ through penny wars in one to three weeks, typically. Even with exciting incentives and prizes (for 88+ PTO fundraising incentive ideas that are free, inexpensive, or worth every penny, click here), expenses are typically very low.

Low volunteer hours needed - This is one of the simplest fundraisers you can do. Right there with Box Tops, but way more exciting for the kids.

  • Unpaid pro tip - One of the most time-consuming parts of the fundraiser, coin counting, can be made a lot easier if your bank is able and willing to count them for free. Definitely worth checking at the start of your fundraiser planning! Some groups also suggest making rolled coins count for double points to encourage pre-rolled donations. Others are also happy to pay 12% for sorting machines, like Coinstar, so that coins can be counted quickly and easily, without involving a lot of volunteers.

Penny war fundraiser flyer template for PTO school groups.

Product fundraisers

Also known as: fundraisers (because product fundraising is synonymous with school fundraising), traditional fundraisers, selling fundraisers

When people think of school fundraising, the first thing that comes to mind is children selling stuff, like cookie dough and magazines, to raise money for school. Kids still sell door to door (usually with their parents; much more so than the “olden days” when I was hawking chocolate bars), or through parents willing to take fundraiser forms and items to work, or by standing outside a grocery store or other business, or by hitting up family and friends, in person and through email.

Depending on your point of view, the best thing about product fundraisers could also be the worst thing.

  • Best thing about product fundraisers - You can sell stuff to raise a lot of money for your school.

  • Worst thing about product fundraisers – You have to sell stuff to raise a lot of money for your school.

And for many people, selling is right up there with public speaking when it comes to things they hate doing and will do everything they can to avoid.

If that’s you – and most of the parents at your school -- remember: there are great options for PTO fundraising without selling anything. Even if you need to raise thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars, you have good non-selling fundraiser options, like fun runs, direct donations, and others, that you can see in the comparison table above and the rest of this blog post.

Main benefits of product fundraisers

Relatively easy + big money potential – Based on my experience and what other volunteers have shared, product fundraisers fall somewhere between the easiest and the hardest ways, in terms of volunteer hours required, to raise thousands to tens of thousands of dollars for your school in a matter of weeks. Planning and managing a product fundraiser, especially if you’re working with a reputable product fundraising company, is a lot easier than planning a carnival or an auction, for example. Even so, carrying out a successful product fundraiser still requires a fairly high number of students and parents to volunteer their time selling and delivering products.

LOTS of good options - If you’ve decided to sell stuff, there is a lot of good stuff to sell. Product fundraisers featuring food items, like chocolate bars and popcorn, and non-food items, like coupon books and gift wrap, have been popular for many years. But the list of items that school groups can sell these days is incredibly long and quite interesting. Like flavored pickles, for example. Or laundry detergent!

I never would have guessed that these are profitable fundraisers for some parent groups until I heard about them from other volunteers.

How to make sure your product fundraiser is a big success

1. Ask friendly PTO volunteers about their best product fundraisers

Facebook groups, like PTA/PTO Super Star Leaders, are a fantastic source of information about successful PTO fundraisers and ones you should avoid. There are always posts about school fundraising in the feed, or you can use the handy search box in the left-hand menu of the group to home in on specific keywords.

Facebook groups, like PTA/PTO Super Star Leaders, are a fantastic source of information about successful PTO fundraisers and ones you should avoid. There are always posts about school fundraising in the feed, or you can use the handy search box in the left-hand menu of the group to home in on specific keywords.

This is easy (and fun) to do in Facebook groups that are popular with PTO / PTA leaders. Two groups that have active discussion threads about profitable school fundraising, volunteer recruitment, and much more are PTA / PTO Super Star Leaders from PTO Answers and PTO and PTA Leaders & Volunteers from PTO Today. (You have to join them on Facebook, but they are both free and hugely valuable).

  • First, enter keywords related to your fundraiser interests, like “best fundraiser,” “profitable” “chocolate,” “popcorn” or whatever in the search box on the left side of the group. A list of posts with those terms will be displayed. Go through the posts that look interesting, including the comments, and you will find lots of honest recommendations and valuable suggestions from other volunteers. If you have follow-up questions for any of the posters, you can ask them in the thread. If you do, it’s a good idea to “tag” a volunteer by name (start by typing the @ symbol followed by the first few letters of their name, and their name as a clickable link should come up) so that they can be notified of your question, especially if the post is more than a week old.

  • Second, if you still have questions, create our own post in the group. Keep it fairly brief, but include some details that would help people focus their answer. For example, “What’s your best fundraiser for the Spring? We’re a Title 1 school K-5 school in AZ and need something that sells well and won’t melt!” When other group members respond, you can ask more follow-up questions if you have them and thank them for their input.

2. Plan for success

If you need your fundraiser to be a big success, this is no time to just wing it! Even if you’re super busy, you can feel confident and excited about your fundraisers when you use this PTO / PTA leader- tested fundraising guide and planner from PTO Answers.

Not only will you learn…

  • When to hold a fundraiser (and when not to)

  • How to pick the right fundraiser (plus mistakes to avoid)

  • Incentives and prizes (what works and what's a waste)

  • How many fundraisers to have each year (yes, there is a formula)

  • Detailed timeline for the most successful fundraiser (never be in a time crunch again)

  • The right way to get teachers + staff involved (so, so many groups miss the mark on this)

You’ll also get all the done-for-you planning checklists and forms you need to sail through the fundraising year feeling like “I’ve totally got this!” Christina Hidek, the super helpful leader of the PTA / PTO Super Star Leaders Facebook group, created this guide based on 8+ years of PTA fundraising and work as a professional organizer.

Why recreate the wheel and wonder if you’re on the right track when you can use the same, ready-to-go fundraising planner that PTO / PTA leaders are successfully using across the country? Learn more about this Fabulous Fundraising Guide and Planner by clicking here.

“Thon” fundraisers

Also known as: fun run, color run, walk-a-thon, jog-a-thon, kindness-a-thon, read-a-thon, jump-a-thon, dance-a-thon, bowl-a-thon, and more. You can create a “thon” style fundraiser around any activity that you want.

For a “thon” style fundraiser, students ask their own families and relatives, as well as friends and neighbors, in many cases, for donations or pledges for performing a certain kind of activity. The donation could be a flat amount or tied to a unit of activity. For example, a supporter could pledge to pay $1 per lap around the track that a student walks as part of a walk-a-thon. Or they could just pledge a flat amount, like $20, regardless of how many laps the student ends up walking.

The main benefits of a-thon style fundraisers are:

  • Popular with students, families, and schools: Whether it’s reading or running or performing acts of kindness, thon fundraisers give everyone something to smile about.

  • Kids love teaming up with friends and other schoolmates to do something big, fun, and important! They may not even realize that they’re learning valuable lessons about goal setting, team work, and more. They just know that they get to do something fun, track their progress, enjoy some friendly competition, earn prizes, and maybe even duct tape the principal to the wall!

  • Families appreciate a fundraiser where they’re not asked to sell, pick up, and deliver anything. They also feel good knowing their kids are participating in healthy learning activities.

  • School administrators and teachers appreciate a PTO fundraising event that builds strong school community and offers lots of learning opportunities for students related to character, following instructions, math, and more.

  • Highly profitable

Whether groups do all the work themselves or outsource most of the work to a vendor, thons often raise big money for schools (thousands to tens of thousands of dollars).

Depending on the activity involved and other details, a thon can create a lot of expenses. For example, a fairly elaborate fun run with t-shirts, lots of prizes, decorations, entertainment, beverages and snacks, and a software platform for managing the fundraiser, could have relatively high expenses.

Costs can be controlled or offset by in-kind donations, however, so “thons” can still still have a relatively profit rate. Not as high as direct donation campaigns, usually, but typically much higher than traditional product fundraisers that net 40% or less.

  • Raise big money from a bigger group of supporters

Even with high expenses, thons have the potential to raise huge sums because students and families are more willing to reach further into their networks of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc. for support. And those supporters love a good thon! Often more than buying candy magazines.

Reaching more supporters and collecting their donations is easier than ever with various thon fundraising software resources, like the ones listed below.

  • Medium to low volunteer hours required: The more elaborate the “thon” fundraiser, the more volunteer hours you will need to plan and carry it out if your group is doing all the work itself. A relatively simple read-a-thon won’t require as much work as a color run with sponsorships, an outdoor course, lap counters, balloon arch, DJ, etc.

My experience for DIY thons, which would be anything short of a fully outsourced fun run (like the ones that pay for the maximum level service options below), is that they fall somewhere in between the hardest events to plan and carry out and the easiest. The first time you do a fun run yourself is the hardest, of course. After the first year, it’s much easier to repeat the parts that worked and make adjustments.

  • When does it make sense to fully outsource your fun run to a vendor like Boosterthon or Apex? (<< I have no connection to these companies, by the way) Outsourcing is particularly helpful to school groups who

    • Have a very small volunteer base

    • Have a good sized volunteer base, but want to conserve volunteer energy for other events during the year. Because, let’s face it. It’s a long, busy school year and volunteer energy is not unlimited!

    • Have school fundraising needs that are very large compared to their volunteer base. Many school groups (45% according to a recent survey by PTO Today), have budgets of $25,000 or more — much more! Many raise money to fund large expenses, like technology, salaries, and playground improvements.

In these situations, outsourcing can help you stretch your volunteer resources further and even make the difference between having a successful event and having no event at all.

  • Maybe you’re thinking…“But what about large $ amount that full-service fun run vendors keep?” If so, this is what I would say to you

    • If you have the volunteers, go for it! If you have at least three volunteers willing to serve on a committee and lead the planning and at least 10+ volunteers to help the day of the event, then you can definitely pull off a successful event without overloading volunteers. If you don’t have these kinds of volunteer numbers, you risk having a small number of volunteers (maybe just a couple of you!) run themselves into the ground to pull off the event and not raising as much money as you could have otherwise.

    • Search “Boosterthon” and “Apex” in the PTO / PTA Facebook groups that I mentioned above. You’ll get detailed, no holds barred, feedback from volunteers who have used these companies. You will see comments (including some that are pretty sharp) from a lot of volunteers who say their group prefers to do fun runs themselves to keep the highest amount of profit. You will also see a lot of positive reports from other volunteers who are very satisfied with the value they get from these vendors, including groups who say they simply do not have enough volunteer resources to raise the same amount of money on their own.

You can always reply to a post to ask follow up questions. If you do, you might want to “tag” the volunteer by name so they’ll be more likely to see it, especially if the post is more than a week old. You can also message an individual volunteer. You will not be shocked to hear that PTO volunteers are very generous with their advice!

List of companies and resources for “thon” type school fundraisers, including color runs, fun runs, jog-a-thons, walk-a-thons, read-a-thons, kindness-a-thons, jump-a-thons and any other activity that you can imagine.
  • Worried you’re missing out on the steps for school fundraising success?

  • Overwhelmed and not sure where to start?

  • Wondering how to word the flyers, sign ups and other event forms to get people to participate?

    It’s possible for you to have all of the essential tools right at your fingertips. Click here to learn more.


Do you have school fundraising questions?

What would you like to know more about?

This post is a work in progress. I’m answering questions about fundraisers when I get them, so please let me know what’s on your mind! You can comment below or click on the envelope icon to email me.

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Best PTO Fundraisers Comparison Guide - Volunteers leaders are always on the lookout for the best school fundraising ideas, where “best” refers to a good mix of profitable, easy, and fun. This post ranks the most common PTO school fundraisers by how easy and profitable they are and answers common questions about some of the most popular fundraisers. #PTO #SchoolVolunteersShare #fundraisers #fundraising #schoolfundraisers