The first year of stepping up to host my kids fundraiser was a grind. I was so happy I made notes and had a template going into year two that I decided to document it here for anyone’s future use. What I’ve learned from a decade plus career in marketing is that once you break everything down on a timeline, all the details that go into hosting a large event get so much easier. It’s almost silly to only run one once for that reason! There are so many logistics to document and learnings that might go to waste.

So here are my steps if you are going in blind to your first school and/or fundraising event. 

Step 1 — Pick a theme

This might be my favorite part — picking a theme for the event. Are there themes from previous years that you can lean on for reference or do you want to pick a new one? The first year running our school event, we went with an easy animal safari theme. It even led us to a fun new event called the Safari Sprint, which we plan to keep for all years to come as it’s a way to acknowledge multiple running winners. 

This year we thought a circus theme would be great. Honestly, a theme for kids, especially at our school when they span from age 5 all the way up to 15 can be a tough one. Once we anchor it around something we like and all of our 8 kids combined across us 3 moms can get behind it —  we know we have a winner and the rest of the event planning flows easily from there.

Step 2 — Onboard the right platform to manage donations

At our school, we’ve used FundHub for years and our rep could not be more helpful. It’s reasonable and what I like is if you sign early, you get free swag along the way leading up to your event, like posters and medals to hand out at the end. It’s also easy for parents to register kids, add a fun photo, and share the link across social media if they want to do so.

For us, the ‘Fun Run’ is our one event where people outside the school can contribute for all the athletic equipment the school needs throughout the year, so having a simple platform for many people outside the school to get involved with is a no brainer. 

Step 3 — Get designs and calendar out the key dates

This event for us is mid-May every year, but we kick off picking a theme and calendaring out all the fun events leading up to it in January and February over quick coffee sessions. For me, March is always crazy with birthdays (3 out of 5 in my house) and then Spring Break hits in early April, so it’s game on by the time we get back and leading up to the event. By February, we have everything mapped out and most of the vendors planned out to book. It’s important to have ‘Save the Dates’ and posters go up around school as well after our auction concludes in February, so parents know what’s coming next.

Our school also needs to approve all the dates that these vendors will be on campus for the fun donation incentives we plan out, so we try to iron this all out in one email to school leaders, including some design mockups around the theme as well.

Some of the key dates I include for the assistant principal and principal to school sign off are:

  • Date the newsletter will go out to all parents
  • The kickoff for parents at morning assembly, usually right after the newsletter goes out and in case there are any questions
  • Free dress for the classes who register first
  • Incentive #1 to the top classes with donations at that time
  • Parent event where they come and show their athletic ability in a 3-point contest 
  • Incentive #2 with the final performance to top classes with donations at that time
  • The date of the event

Email template:

We did a magic show and circus performance to tie everything back to the theme for our incentives this year, sent updates weekly on how we were tracking to goals, and included chart updates in our school bulletin. Then we ironed out the top class prizes after the event and pulled in room moms to help.

Step 4 — Outline an easy-to-execute incentive plan

So how do you map out incentives? Again, tracking is everything. I always look at the targets from the previous year. What did we ask each kid to raise? What was the total and who didn’t participate. 

In review, I saw that we had 84% participation across the school. We thought about having kids sit out for lack of donating and just didn’t feel right about that. Truthfully, some of us were willing to sponsor those kids and everyone is in a different economic position and it always evens out. 

In my analysis this year, about 10% per grade couldn’t participate for whatever reason, but we still achieved 103% of our overall goal. As long as everyone made the effort in registering (98% did!) — we were happy. We also give each kid a shirt for the event for doing so.

In addition, we tweaked the incentives as we went. Instead of doing the first classes to register, we changed it to any class that hits 100% registration before the next performance gets to come. We also did free HW passes to any that came in after that and as an extra bonus. 

Make it fun and easy and then think of how to reward them after the event, too. For our kids, it’s about recognition for their (and their parents’) hard work. Honor the kids that showed up and gave their all running laps at the event if it’s a Fun Run like ours, or give them gift cards to sports stores or money rings in front of their peers for raising the most money and going above and beyond in each class. The other thing we like to do is have class parties for the grades that over achieved on their goals each year. What kid doesn’t like a drumstick and/or In-N-Out party?

Step 5 — Have visual reminders 

Each bulletin I tried to include charts for where each class was to their goals. We also made posters to color each week in the main hallways and in each class, so teachers could keep on top of it. At each entry point to the school, we had signage about the date leading up. Kids are competitive with one another. It’s important to give both them and parents visual cues so they know what they are working toward along the way.

Step 6 — Plan out the day-of events

We have stations around the event so it’s not just about running. Not every kid wants to run a million laps and our 8th grade students work the event with us, which is so instrumental to our success. This year we had a snow cone truck come and that was a big hit! 

Day-of primary event:

  • Rules and sprint race at the start (we stagger classes oldest to youngest, so not too much waiting)

Side events along the race:

  • Limbo 
  • Cornhole
  • Face painting and tattoos
  • Ring toss
  • Balloon making and more! 

Don’t forget the finishing touches:

  • Balloon arch at the finish line
  • Podium to announce sprint winners
  • DJ to blast music the whole time

Last, but not least, food and water:

  • Keeping the kids fed and hydrated is key!
  • Supply benches for the kids to store water bottles
  • Parent sign-ups for fresh fruit and muffins

The longest lines this year were for snow cones, face painting/tattoos, and balloon making, so I think we’ll have to find a way to incorporate those going forward.

Step 7 — Recap and make notes for next year

This year was interesting, as it always is each year. Though we had lap counters, there were always kids trying to work the system and get the most laps, so we used special colored sharpies to prevent them from cheating.

The other zinger was an elderly woman who got startled on the path by the kids and fell this year. We’ll be sure in future years to notify anyone on the course that runners are coming. Though it’s pretty obvious, this was a big bummer as a paramedic rolled into our lap course to help her. If you’ve worked in events as long as me though — you know these things happen.

It’s also important when signing up to chair any event that you need to roll with the punches and always make notes for the next year!