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Tiny but Mighty in Whitehorse

December 8, 2009

Interview With Martha Taylor on FundScrip Gift Card Fundraising Hi Martha. So we’re trying to put together a best practices type of website with success stories from various people that have indeed met with some success in the program, and your name was put forward as somebody that would potentially be a good resource for that type of information. So, maybe you could start by telling me a little about what your fundraising project consists of…

Martha: Sure, we are a tiny little preschool in Whitehorse, in the Yukon. There are 16 to 20 kids in the program, so as I say, really really small, and because of the size, even though we have a pretty good tuition structure, it still isn’t enough to cover all the little extras like field trips, enhanced materials for the classroom – that sort of thing. So we definitely need to fundraise as part of our strategy over the course of the school year. And because we were already charging a pretty good tuition fee, we didn’t really feel comfortable going back to the parents and saying that we need to have bake sales and all that kind of stuff – we weren’t really keen on that.

So there’s this school in Juno Alaska and we here in Whitehorse, which are both Montessori preschools, and I was looking on their website to see what techniques they used for fundraising (as they again are dealing with a small population base) and I saw that they had an eScrip program running. So when I first saw that and looked into it I thought, ‘oh, well of course they have that in the States, you know – they have everything.’ And so I just Googled ‘Canadian fundraising school programs’ and FundScrip came up as one of them. So, I looked into it and I realized that wow, this is basically just the same thing that Juno has had success with. I did check them out with the Canadian Better Business Bureau, and found no complaints had been listed and they were legit, because I was a little bit worried about launching a program with only this Internet context.

So I brought it to the parents and they all said they’d absolutely support that if they weren’t having to pay additional funds on top of the tuition; and they felt comfortable bringing it to co-workers, families in town to see if they would support it as well, because again, nobody was being asked to pay extra – you’re just going about your normal shopping business. Then amazingly enough, when I looked at the retailers, I found that we had the majority of those big-box retailers in Whitehorse. Even though we’re just a small community of 23,000 people, we seemed to have enough of the retailers that we thought we could make a pretty good go of it. So what made you get involved?

Martha: Again, it’s a small school and there’s a real community feeling amongst the parents and I was just interested in helping out. We had tried a few other things, you know – a walkathon, and that did ok, and in previous years it wasn’t so much of an issue because the preschool was actually housed in an elementary school that had low enrolment and so the rent was next to nothing. However, once that school filled up and we had to actually rent commercial space in town, our rents went up something like 1000%.

We didn’t want to have to raise the tuition fees to a ridiculous amount; so to keep them relatively reasonable, we needed to start fundraising. The other thing about the Yukon is that every sport group fundraises like mad here every year, because for the kids to go to competitions for the most part means they have to leave the territory and it’s a lot of money. So all of these sport groups hold raffles, bingos…and it seems like every time you walk into the grocery store there’s another group there asking for money. So you folks are having fundraising burnout there?

Martha: Exactly! It is really competitive when you are fundraising. So we thought, well you know, nobody else is doing this [in Whitehorse] from the list of organizations I could see on the FundScrip database where you can search for who’s involved. Again It seemed like a no-brainer because you weren’t asking parents to fork over another 10 or 20 bucks or whatever for a raffle ticket. It was something where they just had to switch their mindset to shop with the cards; then it was going to help the school out, it went all year long… that sort of thing. What has the reception of the program been like?

Martha: It’s actually been very good. You know from our 16 or so families, we probably have at least 15 members signed up. Of that 15 we have 10 or so regular monthly purchasers… On the recurring order program?

Martha: Yes. We do a once a month order date, and most of those people order close to $1000 every month. And we all do electronic ordering; we don’t do any paper – everyone’s pretty comfortable with online shopping up here, so that wasn’t a big push to get them to do that. People are like ‘Oh, I can buy that online – great.’ So what do you do to maintain supporter interest in the fundraising activities you undertake?

Martha: [laughing] Well, we harass them all the time! For example, once a month we have a parent lunch at the school where the kids invite the parents, so at any of those I will let them know when the next order date is. We have a big poster that’s set up in the school that outlines when all the order dates occur. Then prior to the order date, about 5 or 6 days before, I’ll send out an email to everyone on the list and remind them. I’ll keep checking how our order is building; and if it looks like people have forgotten, then I’ll email them until I get most of my regulars to commit.

We also tied our order dates to government paydays; as tons of the parents are employed by the territorial government and they have a set two week cycle.

The head teacher also sends out a monthly newsletter to all the parents and he always puts the order date in that as well. I know you’re a small group, but when you first got started, what did you find worked best to gain your initial supporters?

Martha: The thing that probably worked best was the fact that I and a couple of the other families were willing to act as guinea pigs for the program, because there was still a fair amount of scepticism – you know: ‘how exactly does this work’ and so on. So once we actually tried it out, and you know the cards all worked and the retailers all accepted the cards, then it turned into a more face-to-face opportunity to explain to people how the program worked, and that it’s only going to take 3 minutes out of your day once a month to order. Then as more and more families signed up everyone realized that ‘ok, this does work’, the word-of-mouth thing took over. As the parents became comfortable, we even started to see their friends signing up. So, if you were to start this program all over again, would you do anything differently?

Martha: I would probably be a little more in-your-face… you know, initially we weren’t so sure and had some hesitation; but now that we know it works…

In fact, this fall when we had our first ‘Welcome to School’ event there were lots of parents in the room that had participated over the year and I said ‘all these parents are doing it’ and they all said ‘oh yeah, it’s great – it’s not a problem’, and that really helped get some of the new parents into the program.

One other thing we’ve realized is that we are always ordering short. People think ‘oh, will I really need that much?’ and it’s amazing how quickly you can blow through it – especially with grocery cards – so trying to get a handle on how much you really spend in a month is challenging. So if you were to give one piece of advice to people setting up their program, having gone through it yourself – seeing what worked and what didn’t – what pitfalls to avoid and that type of thing, what would that be?

Martha: Not all organisations can do this, but what I think would be a sure win would be to have a computer set up in the classroom, the church or the sports facility – whatever – and then walk through the program online with them, showing them just how easy it is. I think that some of the problems arise when parents say ‘oh yeah, I’m sure it’s fine but you know I’m so busy that I don’t think I’ll have time’ but truthfully, it’s pretty darn quick. Most parents, once they’ve actually done it, say oh that is really easy. So that’s one thing. Another idea I had would be if there were a group of administrators who were willing to give a telephone testimonial. You know, I see the testimonials online and I think: well they’re good, but someone could have just made that up. Well that’s some good advice – did you do any of that yourself? I know you said you were the guinea pig, so I guess the testimonials you were passing on were your own.

Martha: It was mine and as a few of the parents became involved, they were willing to back me up, saying there were no problems and that it works really well. So were there any challenges you faced when setting up the program that you could share with us – and tell us how you resolved them?

Martha: Well not really, it was really easy to set up and once we got beyond the ‘is this thing for real, and does it really work’ phase, it was a much easier sell. I suppose the biggest challenge we had, and Kathy at FundScrip was great in this regard, was getting the cards shipped to me at a reasonable cost. Her concern was that we were a small group, and she didn’t want to see all our profits going to shipping costs. She actually worked pretty hard – I know she went through all the courier companies and found the lowest price, and then we also get the volume breaks if we sell a certain amount – we get ½ price or free shipping – and so that was a great help for us. I think that’s quite an endorsement actually: you guys are a small group, you’re having the cards shipped all the way to Whitehorse, half your supporters are paying on credit card instead of EFT [electronic funds transfer] which cuts into your fundraising returns, and you’re still making good money with the program.

Martha: For sure! You know my daughter will actually be leaving the preschool next year, but I’ll still support it and place my order and hopefully the other parents will feel the same. Maybe you can introduce the program to the elementary school…

Martha: Exactly!

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