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Successful School Fundraisers: Cookie Dough vs Real Dough

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It’s no secret that schools are hurting for cash. Parent volunteers are stepping up as best they can, and schools turn to fundraisers to help bridge the gap between the Have and the Want, or in some cases, the Need.

(Stock photo by muresan113)

I do not begrudge the schools for doing fundraisers, and kudos to the volunteers! The kids need what the schools offer, and these things don’t come for free. During a time when millions of dollars are being cut from school budgets across the state, the money has to come from somewhere. The old adage is true: money doesn’t grow on trees.

I’m going to go out on one of those mythical tree limbs and say it’s not found in a tub of cookie dough, either.

Yes, I said it.
Out loud.

I refuse to sell cookie dough!
I don’t want to buy your kids’ cookie dough!

We’ve all been guilted into doing just that. For us, it was our wonderful babysitter who was forced to peddle her wares on our street. Over the years, her sales pitch gained a tinge of honesty: “I’m so sorry. I hate doing this,” she’d say with a sigh when I came to the door. “…but I’m in gymnastics AND band this year.” One year, that was her entire sales pitch.

Not that our babysitter would ever blackmail us with butter braids or cookie dough, but I almost always err on the side of caution, especially when date-night hangs in the balance. “I’ll get my checkbook” was always my answer to the embarrassed look on her face.

“But, JoAnn! People need an excuse to give money to the schools! Cookie dough is the perfect way to do that!”

Oh really? I don’t think so. My babysitter could have been selling painted rocks, and I would have written out a check. She could have just asked for a donation for the school, and I would have given it to her. My actions were about supporting her and her classmates.  They were never about the cookie dough or the butter braids.  It’s too bad a larger percentage of my money couldn’t have gone to her school with that transaction.

Fast forward a couple years…

Last year, while in Pre-K, my daughter came home from class with a packet. She could win all kinds of these wonderful trinkets for selling cookie dough! And, for this wonderful opportunity, the school would get a teeny-tiny percentage of the proceeds! Yay!

You want to be supportive of your school, don’t you?

Of course I wanted to be supportive, but the last thing I wanted to do was hawk tubs of cookie dough on the corner. If my daughter wants to go into sales as a career, she can work on those skills MUCH later in life. None of our relatives live in this state, so the “built-in” supporters aren’t here. Knowing how much I love answering the door to solicitors, why would I want to do it to my neighbors?

I loved her school. I’d love to support her school. So, that’s what I did. I filed the packet away (read: recycling bin) and wrote a check directly to the school.

I went to the office the next day and offered my sincere apologies for not allowing my daughter to participate in a selling campaign. I then pulled out our check and handed it to the director.

She burst into tears and had trouble finding the words to thank me.

Finding a way to support the school without having to sell cookie dough was thanks enough.  We didn’t have to pester any of our neighbors or friends. We could afford a donation; the school got to keep 100% of the funds, and there was NO COOKIE DOUGH IN MY HOUSE.

That’s what you call a Win-Win, times two!

Not to mention the fact that we got to record our check in the Donation Spreadsheet for our CPA to handle at tax time. (Another win!)

Now, my daughter wasn’t really old enough to have her heart set on winning anything on that colorful poster, so my job was easy. If we’re ever put in that position, I’ll explain to her the true value of a donation and hope she can withstand the peer pressure of being denied shiny trinkets based on the sales of frozen goods.

Claire started Kindergarten this fall at a local public Charter school, and so far, the fundraisers are not sales-based. Participation is fun and easy, because it’s based on things we’ll be doing anyway. There is a pledge drive for a Read-a-thon; local restaurants host “school spirit nights” where they donate a percentage of the sales for the evening to the school, and participation in SCRIP is a big thing, just to name a few. (SCRIP is where I purchase a gift card to our local grocery store. Every time I use the reloadable card to buy groceries, our school automatically gets a percentage of the proceeds.)

If the cookie dough tubs ever make an appearance, though, I’m just heading straight for my checkbook. I’ll give my dough straight to the school. You can keep that other stuff in the fridge.

What about you?  Do you hide when the neighborhood kids knock on your door?  Does your school do fundraisers that don’t involve selling, or are you forced to peddle wares all in the name of supporting the school?

Author: JoAnn

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  • comment avatar Connie Weiss September 7, 2011

    I just shelled out $30 for an Entertainment Book yesterday. We probably won’t even use the damn thing.

    I am looking forward to the butter braids…..YUM!

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      I’ve successfully avoided the Entertainment Book Sales for years. Whew! Butter braid sales are *just* around the corner…so your wishes will be coming true soon enough, Connie. 😉

  • comment avatar Holly Strebel September 7, 2011

    I remember having to do fundraisers in school and was super embarrassed as well. Good for you for writing a check to the school and skipping the whole cookie dough thing. I mean, really, HOW MUCH money is the cookie dough company making off of schools?!

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Thanks for your comment, Holly! Amber has posted some stats below… mind-blowing!

  • comment avatar Amber Johnson September 7, 2011

    This is a HOT TOPIC for me. The reality of butter braids, cookie dough etc. is that most of that money doesn’t actually go to the schools. Case in point: Last year, our school’s newsletter announced that our kids raised $60,000 from cookie dough sales (awesome!) but only $29,000 goes to our school (not awesome). That means $31,000 goes back to the supplier.

    I’ve had their sub-par cookie dough. Believe me, it didn’t take $31,000 to make.

    The Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers divulges the amount of dollars wasted on these products is staggering:

    1. Of the $3.7 billion in fundraising sales in 2005, only $1.7 billion, or less than 50%, went to the schools. Two billion dollars that could have gone to helping children went instead to the businesses that sell the cookie dough and other products.

    2. These dollars are not tax-deductible: The ability to write-off donations is a major incentive for individuals who donate about $240 billion a year to nonprofits, but these school fundraising sales are purchases, not donations, and so are not tax-deductible.

    So, thus begs the question: WHY do we keep going back to this horrible method of fundraising?

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      EXCELLENT questions, Amber! Thank you for posting the stats as well. It’s amazing to me! We’ve proven that people can (and WANT to) raise money for schools…now, if only that money could actually GO TO THE SCHOOLS. Now, THERE’s a concept!

      • comment avatar Elizabeth September 7, 2011

        I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I don’t think a 50% return on what we sell is really all that bad.

        Unfortunately, all sorts of organizations ask for straight donations, United Way, Salvation Army, my own employer, a PBS station. It doesn’t usually work to raise what we need. We have to offer something.

        As PTA president, though, I am working to explore some other ideas. I’m hoping to get our group volunteering at the Iowa Cubs baseball stadium working the concession stands. Still selling stuff, but not door to door, and to people who were going to buy a drink and some popcorn anyway. Unfortunately, things like the read-a-thon won’t raise the $10,000 that is the bare minimum we need to fund our school year.

        I’m also hoping to start an auction event. I’m hoping between the auction and working the concession stands we can get rid of the cookie dough. But change is a long process, and these two ideas require a LOT more parent involvement than we have right now. It’s a giant, double-edged sword.

        • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

          Thanks for your input, Elizabeth! Have you considered a program like SCRIP to supplement? There isn’t true “selling” involved, but it can be a great source of funds for the schools. I hope you get some other ideas from the commenters here, too!

  • comment avatar Christine H September 7, 2011

    Last year, my kids’ school started what is called “Dewey’s Dash” which is a “fun run” that the kids get donations for. (Dewey is the school mascot). They have people give an amount of money to “sponsor” them in the fun run, and then they chose a day where they run (about 1/2 mile for Lower Elementary students) outside the school. The little ones do little obstacle courses. Last year, this was VERY successful, and they plan to do it as the biggest Fall Fundraiser (along with a school-wide “garage sale” later). We also have a huge auction in the Spring along with SpringFest (carnival) that brings in lots of money.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      I think fundraisers that encourage activities that kids should be doing anyway (like running or reading, etc.) are awesome!

  • comment avatar Gretchen White September 7, 2011

    I’ve long said the most successful fundraiser in the history of fundraising would be an adorable child pulling a wagon of hot pizzas door to door at 5:30pm on a Tuesday night.

    But nobody listens to me.

    I am so with you on the cookie dough, JoAnn. And fundraising in general is an exercise in embarrassment and harassment. I love SCRIP, though. It’s painless.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      I love this part of your comment, Gretchen: “an exercise in embarrassment and harassment.” That’s so true!

      P.S. If only that kid could come by with the Pizza Wagon tonight! 😉

    • comment avatar Connie Weiss September 7, 2011

      Now I want to order pizza tonight!

      Thanks Gretchen!

  • comment avatar Melissa Taylor September 7, 2011

    I’m with you – I’d rather just donate money.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Melissa! 🙂

  • comment avatar Fiona @banteringblonde September 7, 2011

    We also have the reloadable grocery cards. I agree with you on all of this-for the past two years I have boycotted the gift wrap and everything else. I’m not even embarrassed anymore because it’s just so ridiculous – I write a check and the school gets 100% of it. I’m not even embarrassed anymore. I also stopped rounding up my cash for this that and every other cause at the grocery store.
    Where I do feel bad is that I’d like to support the 8th graders raising money for their trip to DC but I absolutely can’t buy one of those coupon book thingies… 1. I never use them and 2. I just can’t stand the whole concept of that book and making kids sell them. Maybe I’ll feel different when it’s my kids turn to sell them and he’s in 8th grade but for now my 11,8, and 5 year olds are not going door to door to sell anything. If they want to mow lawns, rake leaves etc. to earn the money I’d support that. HECK, I’d support them actually getting their socks into the hamper once a week….

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Thanks, Fiona! I’d think when it’s your son’s turn in 8th Grade, he’d be able to find a bigger money-maker for his trip fund than those Entertainment Books. A chance to be creative AND earn money can be a good thing…all while NOT lining the pockets of another company.

  • comment avatar Charlotte September 7, 2011

    My son’s school also opted out of ‘selling’ this year and did a fun run. It was very successful and I was very happy to participate. It is the only major fund raiser, but they supplement with community nights at local businesses, box tops, and Southlands receipts.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      I’m glad they’ve found a successful alternative to the fundraisers that require selling!

  • comment avatar Kara September 7, 2011

    I agree on so many points.

    My suggestion: offer alternatives directly to your school administrator or your school PTA.

    Likely that other parents feel the same way about cookie dough! Who really LIKES selling it?!

    Change the system.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Kara, that’s a great point!

  • comment avatar Sarah September 7, 2011

    Good timing on this! the first PTCO meeting (of the year and of mine ever!) is tonight. I shall speak up about the fundraising.

    I find it hard to understand why, in this day of concern about child obesity, we push junk (regardless of taste, something called a butter braid can’t be healthy.) I much prefer the idea of the kids doing A-Thon’s instead. We sold oranges and grapefruit in high school, to an area where fresh fruit was a huge rarity. We also did Walk-a-thons and Band-a-thons and car washes to raise money for our band trip.

    I think those kind of group events would be MUCH more fun for the kids, healthier, and easier to manage.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Sarah! Good luck at your first meeting!

  • comment avatar Susan September 7, 2011

    Does anyone like the fundraisers? Our school gives the option of selling the cookie dough or giving a direct donation. They even give the kids points towards earning the cookie dough award trinkets from direct donations. I know the school would MUCH rather just take the donations, as they are 100%. But the kids still sell more cookies & junk and the cookie sales are still so much higher than the direct donations. The school would prefer getting rid of the cookie sales, but they are still the major source of funds for the school. I think it’s insane, as I like you JoAnn would rather write a check to the school and give them 100% instead of 30-40%.

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Thanks for the comment, Susan! I think it’s great that kids are “rewarded” for the direct donations as well as the “sales.” I think the question to explore is if the kids at your school could bring in just as much in another “activity” as they could in “sales” for cookie dough. Things like a read-a-thon or a pledge drive for running, etc. would give them a way to “earn” the donation and not require them to fork over most of the proceeds to a third party company. I think if planned correctly, your school would see even MORE funds by ditching the dough.

      Food for thought (pun totally intended…). 😉

  • comment avatar anne franklin September 7, 2011

    well, i’ve cleared this through joann, so this is not totally a shameless self-promotion, but there are local, handmade vendors (i am one) who love to work with schools to think outside the box on how schools can raise money and support local businesses without pushing junk (food or items) that our families simply don’t need.

    i have worked with schools in denver and other states to create customized scrabble tile pendant necklaces with the school mascot or logo on them. this is a handmade, one of a kind, unique gift item. trust me, it is NOTHING your school has seen before. and the margin you make is big, compared to other fundraisers. {necklaces are $15/your school makes $7.50).

    while i would love to work with your school to raise money (support local!), my main point is to encourage you and your schools to think creatively about how you can raise money without filling your tummy or home with stuff you don’t need.

    all of our schools need money. a lot of it. how you earn/raise funds differ within each community. maybe some day our schools will get what they need without us having to peddle our wares. until that day, though, be creative with how you raise those dollars!

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      I know schools are always on the lookout for creative ways to make money! Thanks for sharing, Anne!

  • comment avatar Marie September 7, 2011

    When I was in high school we did fundraisers, but we did them the creative way. Granted, I grew up in small town (high school graduating clss of 32…the most in school history), but it doesn’t have to involve the school getting a tiny percentage. One of my favorite fundraisers was the “egg beg.” You would go to the first house and “beg” for an egg. Then, you took the egg to their neighbor and sold it for a donation! You can even start with a carton of eggs if you would like…it will cost you a whole $1.50…and you will probably make $5-$10 per egg!

    • comment avatar JoAnn September 7, 2011

      Marie, that cracks me up! (Sorry. Couldn’t resist the pun…) 😉

  • comment avatar Tara September 7, 2011

    Thanks for this article and the link on the waste for Cookie dough/etc.

    I think most parents/relatives would rather not have to feel obligated to buy crappy wrapping paper, cookie dough, etc. I’d much rather donate directly to the school.

  • comment avatar Carrie Newhouse September 7, 2011

    I am SO with you! I also created a website for our school so the school earns money every time one of our parents shops online. I am tired of buying things I don’t want and I do want to help the school at every turn.

    You can see a working model at

  • comment avatar Sarah September 7, 2011

    Can someone describe the Colorado tax status on the product sales? I was reading on that site and it seems like a fundraising group might lose even more of the proceeds from the product sales because over a certain amount they start having to pay state sales tax? am I reading that correctly?

  • comment avatar rajean September 7, 2011

    Enough of the companies taking 50% plus profit, enough of the silly trinket incentives for kids to sell more ‘stuff we don’t need.’ I think the more we share the profit margins these ‘helpful’ companies earn will help our PTA/PTO’s realize there has to be a better way to get our donations to the schools in full or as near it as possible.

    Sadly, we need to figure out how to get levies passed so less of this is needed, however, I think fundraising will always be needed in our school systems. But I feel less is more, choose wisely, one or two for the school year. Happily, our school did give us the option-out ability to write a check directly to the school with a suggested donation from each parent to meet the goals.

    I know first hand some fundraisers become more of a burden on the schools when perishable products aren’t picked up or estimated quantities ordered aren’t sold. One year, a frozen pie fundraiser hit us in the face when the school had to store the pies and ended up selling the remaining supply for less than half of the original price, cutting the profit margin out completely. I had the butter braid once. It wasn’t $10 good and when I learned our school got $4, it made it far less tasty.

  • comment avatar Susan September 7, 2011

    I’ve been on our school’s PTO fundraising committee for two years now. We’ve agonized over this very topic. I have to say, when utilizing a sales catalog company with all the ridiculous prizes, we generated $5,500 (40% return). Our Move-a-Thon (students requesting pledges/donations to the school) raised $8,800. We added a Teacher Silent Auction where parents could bid on items offered by the teachers’ talents/time like a Kids Night Out hosted by preschool teachers, a one hour photography session provided by the school nurse, Wii party hosted by 2nd grade teachers, and a one week condo stay donated by a parent, etc. That generated $3,300. We went with a green, enviro-conscious sales oriented – no push, no prizes event last spring, and it generated a whopping $350. People say they’d rather just write a check directly to the school, but they really don’t seem to do it. Sadly, it appears the reality is if you can get the kids involved or excited, pressure gets put on the parents and you can generate more money. But, is that the way you want to raise money? Certainly not. BoxTops/Tyson Project A+/Labels for Education drives are worthwhile and made us about $1,000 last year. Restaurant nights with local establishments giving 10% to 50% profit back to the school are simple and build community. Target’s REDcard Take Charge of Education program is another avenue, but it requires a fair amount of effort up front on the cardholder’s part. Any and all suggestions would be appreciated here!! And today, we couldn’t even find rubber bands to utilize at the school when completing Coupon Book orders…another one of our fundraisers.

  • comment avatar Ratna September 8, 2011

    Wow! I am learning a lot of what I will face soon- that SCRIPS idea sounds good – when can I get it to stop the fundraising madness… and just think, if they are in band, gymnastics and girl scouts- WHAT FUN! 🙁 I may end up stock piling a lot of cookies, dough, and braids in my nuclear fall-out shelter below my house- ha! I wish I had one 🙂

    And I am with you 100%, if I can throw money at the problem, I would rather do that.

  • comment avatar Sabrina September 8, 2011

    A-MEN!!!! I have felt the same way for years. It really bothers me that there are companies out there whose whole income is based on using MY kids as their salesmen to sell their overpriced junk! What a racket. Imagine coming up with a sub-standard product and thinking, “Well, I don’t think it will sell at the store…so I’ll just go to the schools and present it as a ‘fundraiser’ and have cute kids sell it to their neighbors who won’t tell them no!” Then they make a nice tidy profit off of it and give a small percentage back to the school. I absolutely detest those fundraisers and have not sold one product to any family members or neighbors in 8 years of having kids in school. However…I DO support the school. I LOVE the SCRIP fundraiser and wholeheartedly support that. I don’t have a problem with pledge drives and fun runs and things where the school gets all of the profit. But I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty about throwing away the fundraiser packets when they come in the door, and my kids know it. They have quit even asking me if they can go sell junk so they can win a prize, because they know it will turn into a lengthy lecture.

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