Boost Learning Outcomes and Earnings with These Student Organization Fundraising Tips

Many student leaders view fundraising as a hurdle to clear.

They understand that they can’t reap the benefits of a student organization without money — which needs to come from… well, somewhere. 

But, ideally, students should shift away from this “ugh, I guess we need to do it” mindset. They should see fundraising as fun and rewarding in and of itself! Because, when done well, time spent fundraising is worthwhile far beyond the funds raised. 

That’s where advisors come in. You can help students develop creative fundraisers that won’t make anyone’s eyes roll. Rather than yet another bake sale or car wash, your student leaders can engage in something that truly excites them, reinforces co-curricular skills, and challenges them as a team. 

gif of April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation saying 'time is money, money is power, power is pizza, and pizza is knowledge'

Here are some ideas. First, I’ll offer up general tips for making your fundraiser successful — defined both by the amount of money raised and how much enjoyment and learning your org’s leaders will get out of it. Then, we’ll dive into ideas for unique fundraising events and products.

But one bit of caution: Make sure you understand your institution’s rules regarding fundraisers, along with applicable state and local laws. Some of these ideas and tips may be null to you, due to institutional procedures or legal restrictions. I hope this blog post helps inspire your fundraising, but I can’t promise that every word will apply to everyone. That’s up for you (and your students) to decide.

Ok? Now…. ready, set, cha-ching!

Quick Tips

1. Understand your market 

If you don’t understand your potential customers, you’ll struggle to make any sales.

I’m not suggesting that you conduct full-scale market research, complete with paid focus groups and lengthy polls. But, you should at least know your students’ basic habits, needs, and interests. 

Before you finalize any plans, encourage your student leaders to pitch ideas to their peers. What items or services interest students? How much money might they be willing to spend? How high-quality does the product or service need to be in order to tempt buyers?

And if your org leaders want to sell to non-student community members, be sure they’ve considered the demographics of the local population. Are there a lot of young families? Many retirees? Foodies? Hipsters? Selling bumper stickers, for example, probably isn’t your best bet in an urban area with few car owners. 

Also, your org’s leaders might get excited by a uniquely fun or trendy item without considering whether or not folx will be willing to pay for it. Remember: Items that make for beloved giveaways might not work as well when accompanied by a price tag. 

gif of a man asking 'have you considered the cost?'

2. Consult multiple calendars

Scheduling your annual hot cocoa sale for December is a no-brainer. Ditto selling planners at the start of a semester. 

But you should consult a calendar for more subtle reasons, too. And by a “calendar,” I actually mean three different types:

  • a holiday calendar
  • an institutional calendar
  • a student activities calendar

A holiday calendar will reveal times when students may be thinking about purchasing gifts for their friends and family. Noting religious holidays will also help you and your students steer clear of dates when observant students won’t be able to make purchases – such as the solemn Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.

Studying your institution’s academic calendar can help you gameplan your fundraising strategy for the whole year. I’ve found that students’ spending habits tend to shift in sync with the calendar. For example, in the week leading up to spring break, they try to save every last cent they have. But right after winter and summer break, they have more cash to spend thanks to holiday gifts and summer jobs.

Finally, the student activities calendar can reveal your competition. If, for example, there’s a free midnight buffet on a night that you have your eye on for a bake sale, your students will probably be better off picking a different day… or selling something else.

On the other hand, some coinciding events can be great news! For example, knowing that a band is soon performing on campus might inspire you to sell earplugs, mini backpacks, reusable water bottles, or other items that students will want for the concert. 

You could also sell books authored by an upcoming guest speaker, T-shirts that are perfect for an annual campus tradition, or protein bars that will help students train for a charity 5k. 

Yes, calendars will expose some black-out dates, but they can inspire innovative opportunities, too!

3. Remember: Location, location, location

Picking a heavily-trafficked area, such as the main campus quad or the largest dining hall’s lobby, is probably a wise choice — for most fundraisers. 

But consider if it makes sense for your particular plan and customers. If you think your item or event will be most popular with visual arts majors, for example, you’ll want to pick a time and place where those students congregate most. 

Or, if you want to be able to converse with students, uninterrupted, before making a sale, then you should opt for a quieter spot.

Also, consider how much time students typically spend in your location. If you’re selling something that takes a while to make or customize, I recommend avoiding times and places when and where students breeze on by to get to their next classes. 

Then again, if you’re able to quickly sell something that students will be in a rush to find between class — such as a sandwich or a drink —  a crowded spot may be perfect!

4. Don’t be afraid to ask… and say “yes”

Asking a local business for a donation can be scary. You and your student leaders are setting yourselves up for possible rejection.

But challenging students to make these Big Asks can gift them with invaluable learning outcomes. They’ll boost their communication skills, practice negotiating, gain insight into business decisions, and learn to cope with rejection. They’ll also build relationships with local employers, which can land them an internship, job offer, or simply some great #RealWorld advice.

gif with the word 'today I learned' accompanied by a shooting star

Plus, students may not get rejected! A local business might surprise you by saying “yes” and offering up some great items that you can sell, supplying coupons or gift cards that you can auction off, or proposing another mutually beneficial deal.

Even if their offer isn’t what you had in mind, think carefully before saying “no thanks.” You may, for example, ask a bakery to donate a few dozen cupcakes, only to have the owners offer up baking supplies or aprons instead. True, your plans for a cupcake sale won’t work out, but you could pivot to a baking competition or quirky fashion show!

With some creativity, you could even make good use out of small offers — such as key chains, coupons, or branded notebooks — by including them in raffle gift baskets or with “thank you” cards sent to event co-sponsors. 

So encourage your students to say “yes.” It could make your fundraiser more unique than you had envisioned!

5. Train your students well

No one likes a pushy salesperson or a clueless shopkeeper. 

We expect the folx we buy products and services from to be knowledgeable, professional, and helpful. So, if your student leaders want anyone to turn over their hard-earned cash, they’ll need to be prepared.

Don’t invite students to run your booth or event without any training. They need to be ready to answer questions about what they’re selling, about the goals of the fundraiser, and about the organization itself. They also need to be attentive, able to speak confidently and passionately, and (when implacable) wear the right clothing. 

Finally, don’t let any student fundraise without some financial training. Educate them on proper ways to collect and monitor all the cash, checks, and donation forms received, then determine a point-person who’ll be in charge of this. And have a plan for how those funds will be kept safe. 

Remember: Not only can your student salespeople make the difference between enticing or repelling potential customers, but they’re also the face of your organization. They’re brand ambassadors. An untrained student leader can scare another student away from getting involved with your org or make a local business weary of partnering with you in the future. 

6. Attach a cause

Consider integrating philanthropy into your fundraiser. Even if your org isn’t directly related to social advocacy, you can donate a portion of the proceeds to a cause. 

For example, an a capalla group could donate 15% of sales to Musicians on Call or Sing for Hope. A Rainbow Alliance could donate one hand-knit blanket to a homeless center for each blanket sold. Or an ROTC could co-fundraise with a local veteran’s association. 

By using your fundraiser to benefit your org and a philanthropy, you’ll increase your students’ motivation to raise money, while helping them learn about an important cause. Plus, potential customers might be quicker to open their wallets, knowing that they’ll get a philanthropic bang for their buck.

gif of man saying 'that's a good choice'

7. Pair up with another organization.

Rather than seeing other student orgs as fundraising competitors, you can turn them into partners!

One way to do this is by selling items or services that pair well together. For example, your organization could sell iced coffee while the other sells donuts. Or, when another org sells succulents, you could set up a paint-your-own-planter booth nearby. 

Consider offering a discount to anyone who buys products from both groups. Students will have extra help in planning their shared venture, while (hopefully) raising more funds than they would solo!

Fundraising Ideas

1. Restaurant Night

Connect with the owners of a local restaurant to see if, for a special night or week only, they’ll donate a percentage of their proceeds to your organization. Diners will have to tell their server your org’s name or turn in the event flier in order for you to receive the funds.

Everyone wins from this deal! Your attendees enjoy scrumptious food, the restaurant owners garner extra business, and your org gets closer to its fundraising goals. 

Not sure what restaurant to ask first? Consider one that students already know and love… or is new and trendy. Spots that are budget-friendly will probably work better than fine dining establishments, as will restaurants that are within walking (or free public transport) distance of campus. 

Additionally, locally-owned spots may be a better gamble than large franchises, which often have corporate rules preventing them from doing such deals.

2. Slice the Price

One exception to the corporate rule is Domino’s Pizza. Through its Slice The Price program, your org can sell coupon cards to anyone for $10 each. You’ll pocket $5 per sale, with the other half going to Domino’s.

The cards are essentially buy-one-get-one-free coupons, gifting customers one free large pizza for every large pizza they purchase at full price. 

It’s a fairly passive way of fundraising, as it’s not centered around a big event and students can promote it via social media or by simply asking their peers in-person. Plus, there are no up-front costs; Domino’s will give you the cards for free!

gif of a woman saying 'I'm in love. I'm having a relationship with my pizza.'

3. Auction

Have a bunch of leftover giveaways that you’re not sure what to do with? Consider your unused event shirts, bags of Halloween candy, or event supplies. You can bundle these together in gift bags or baskets to auction off.

The auction could be a quick event in and of itself, or it could be part of an event you already have planned. It could even last a few days as a tabling program — with your student leaders putting the bundles up for a silent auction.

If you’re worried that students won’t bid much money on a hodgepodge of random knick-knacks, you can keep the basket contents a secret. Simply wrap them in non-translucent paper, perhaps with a limerick or list of hints teasing at what’s inside. The mystique is sure to enhance passersby’s curiosity!

This is a great opportunity to say “yes” to giveaways that local businesses offer you but don’t have much use for otherwise. (See tip #4.) 

You could also solicit campus offices for unused items. Perhaps the career center has colorful folders that have been sitting in a supply closet for years or the orientation office placed too large an order on backpacks. 

Experiences could be auctioned off, too! A lucky winner could have lunch with a beloved faculty member, go bowling with an RA, or pie an administrator (you, perhaps?) in the face.

4. Glow or costume challenge

Give your race, scavenger hunt, or obstacle course a twist by asking participants to arrive in costume! Your group can pick a theme (such as the 80s, sci-fi, or rock n’ roll) or invite folx to surprise you.

Or another way to make your event stand out — literally — is by making it glow. Sell glow-in-the-dark clothes, stickers, jewelry, and wearable paint for a post-sunset event.

Either way, be sure to make the event accessible for participants of all bodies and abilities. In addition to consulting with your accessibility services office, these tips can help. 

Beyond ticket sales, you can raise funds by selling sponsorships to student organizations and local businesses. Offer sponsors advertisements on mile markers, logo space on team shirts, booths to sell snacks at the finishing line, and more. 

5. Late-night food deliver

So long Uber Eats and Postmates! Your students can become the most sought-after food couriers around.

Consider popular, yet easy-to-prepare goodies like grilled cheese sandwiches, french toast, nachos, or tornado dogs. To keep marketing and planning simple, focus on just one menu item — though be sure to offer vegan and gluten-free alternatives. (By the way, here are 26 marketing ideas!)

Students can order these treats for themselves or a friend. Plus, by cooking and/or assembling the food in a residence hall, you’ll be sure to tempt the students living there.

gif of Muppets saying 'oh that smells wonderful'

For an additional buck or two, you can make the delivery extra special — by including a surprise candy bar, singing a requested song, delivering a handwritten note, telling a joke, and more. Get creative and have fun!

6. Desirable sales items

Have your heart and mind set on a sale? No problem. Here are some items that students and community members should love but aren’t already super tired of student orgs selling everywhere. 

  • Succulents
  • Laundry detergent
  • Cookie dough
  • Candles 
  • Reusable straws
  • Candy grams (chocolates around Valentine’s Day and candy canes in December)
  • Cookie decoration
  • Adult coloring books
  • Grocery/errand delivery 
  • Used books (from student donations)
  • Calendars (with photos of students and/or faculty)
  • Art (partnered with visual arts students and designed as an art show)
  • Mittens, scarves, and other cold-weather accessories
  • Bike pumps
  • Scratchcards
  • Laundry service (offer to do students’ laundry for them)
  • Laptop stickers
  • Hair cuts (partnering with a local beauty school)
  • Umbrellas (especially works well when it’s already raining out)
  • Exam-a-grams (Thanks for the idea, Patrick! See below.)

Rather than merely selling these items to students, consider incorporating an engaging (and 100% free!) activity into the transaction. For example, you could conduct a demonstration on proper care for succulents, host a dramatic-reading competition along with the used books, or set up a booth for students to draw in their adult coloring books. 

gif of a man saying 'let's get this money'

What fundraising ideas or tips did we miss? We’d love to learn from your success! Tweet us at @HelloPresence.

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Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet loves writing about the magic of campus life as the Lead Storyteller at Presence. She's also passionate about baking, mental health advocacy, all the Presence office dogs, and her ever-growing podcast collection. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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