When I was a child and I wanted to buy something, my dad would often remind me, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” Now, as an adult running a large student council, I wish money did grow on trees. How much simpler would it be if every project we dreamed up had no cost limitations? Wouldn’t it be delightful if school districts would really support student activities and every club had a budget that was more than sufficient? It would be great, but it’s not likely. In fact, I have no budget given to me by the district or my campus principal, so all of the funds we use are raised by the kids. Because of this, I’ve learned that there are many strategies you can put in place to make those project dreams a reality.

Creating a Budget

First and foremost, you must start by creating a budget. Kelley Akins, student activities director and student council adviser at Eastlake High School in El Paso, TX, says she asks her officers at the start of their summer planning days to come up with their dream project. Once they have the dream projects in the budget, they build around that. Have you ever given kids the license to dream big, then worked backwards on building the steps to accomplish it? Starting with the project budget seems like a great first step.

Once the dream projects are established, write down all the annual events that you normally spend money on, along with their costs. Include travel and registration costs for any leadership events you plan to attend. Use this planning time to give each of those big events a maximum spending amount. Always overbudget to give yourself a little room for inflation or last-minute changes. Kelly Groves, an adviser at Coronado High School in El Paso, pushes her kids to evaluate the annual projects and ask what they can do to make them fresh. For example, for a Beautiful Week project that had been done previously, students decided that they wanted to add 1,000 carnations to the budget for that week. As this was a new idea, money had to be added to the annual budget for the event. Reviewing those annual projects to determine the budget amounts also provides advisers with a good opportunity to evaluate whether the project should move forward.

Next, break your budget down month by month. Mark on that schedule where you expect the big projects to fall. The big picture is great, but splitting up the budget by month makes it more likely that you will follow it. Krysta Reed, adviser at Andrews High School in Andrews, TX, runs small fundraisers throughout the year to finance all projects. By looking at a monthly breakdown, she and her students are able to determine what months they will need the money in, and then plan accordingly.

Every month should have a budget line for miscellanea, or things that come up last minute. As my dad used to say, “If we fail to plan, we plan to fail.” Not planning for the unexpected expenses will cause your budget to be shot right away.

You can’t just dream up the amounts you want to spend without acknowledging the amounts you need to raise to get there. After you have established what you will need for expenses each month, add in a line of what income will be generated that month. This will be a solid guide for your budget for the remainder of the year.

Now that you have the structure of the finances, let’s take a look at some money-generating plans.

Money-generating Ideas

Think big! Rusty Hill, co-adviser at Ridge Point High School in Missouri City, TX, says the school’s student council is not given a budget, so they plan two huge fundraisers instead of several small ones. The first is their annual homecoming dance, where they cap the number of tickets sold and increase the prices as the week leading up to the dance progresses. They don’t sell tickets at the door, so students hustle to get one of the tickets before they sell out. In this way, they know exactly what they will make from the event. The second event is a fashion show in the spring. Thinking big allows them to put a lot of planning time and energy into these projects, and thus, turn high profits.

Request help. Asking for help is one of the most valuable methods for raising money and is often overlooked. First, communicate within your campus and district leadership about what projects and events you would like to be able to execute. Susan Waldrep, student council adviser at Texas High School in Texarkana, TX, says she does start with a given budget each year, but if it runs out due to unforeseen circumstances, she asks for additional assistance. As long as the purpose of the funds is well justified, her district normally is glad to help allocate more funds to her big projects or leadership events. Another way to seek help is to look for corporate sponsors. Instead of designing the student council shirt with front and back images each year, we now only design the front. Then, we sell the spots on the back. Companies that want to be known as our sponsors pay a minimal amount to have their logo added to our shirts. With more than 100 active members, these shirts are seen often in our community, and the companies are more than happy for the advertising. Promote your council by promoting these businesses—it’s a win-win!

Engage parents. Instead of relying on parents to just pay the bills for travel or send supplies, invite them to be part of your budget and fundraising team. Think about it like a sort of booster club, but instead it’s really just a support system for your organization. These are their kids, and they get excited when we show them the great things their kids are doing. To keep parents engaged, send out occasional newsletters with pictures of the students at work. When they see that the large amount of time their kids are spending away from home is worth it, they will be more likely to support you. Bring them in for a fundraiser brainstorming night, and have snacks available. Not only will they think of things you might not have, they will help conquer the tasks and make them happen.

Work toward a cause. Christi Shannon, student council adviser for Canyon High School in New Braunfels, TX, says her organization receives an adequate budget from the district for the year. However, that doesn’t stop them from fundraising. Instead, they fundraise for a cause as often as possible. Their annual SPUD (students performing unselfish deeds) Week is a huge success, and annually they raise thousands of dollars for a person or family in a crisis situation. Additionally, for their homecoming dance, they keep ticket costs low and donate all the profits. When you advertise the purpose for which the funds will be spent, more people are likely to buy in. Get the community involved as well, and you may surprise yourself with how much you can raise.

Step back and evaluate. There is no such thing as a perfectly developed budget or fundraisers that are 100 percent successful all of the time. At the end of each month, have your student officers meet and review the finances from the month. When students can actually see the numbers, they will be more invested in the financial health of your organization. We use Excel to run our monthly budget logs, as it is very user friendly and students can open it on their own computers, if needed. Excel also nicely exports to Google Docs, so you can copy and paste information easily without too many formatting issues. I do not recommend leaving the budget logs in a Google Doc that anyone may access, though. Only the sponsor and one student (possibly the treasurer if that position exists in your group) should be able to make changes to the document. After you and the students review the logs, verify with your campus bookkeeper to make sure it matches the official logs as well. Make changes to the budget for the following month, if needed.

And now, for my full disclosure: I’ve never been great at this budgeting thing. When I started this article, my top officers thought it was quite funny. However, spending time with them and receiving input from my fellow advisers has been a fantastic experience. One of my students can’t wait for us to try this plan out all the way through—not just partially as we currently do. Budgeting and fundraising are often some of the least desirable topics when we think of planning for the year. Discussions about what projects we want to do and what goals we want to reach are much more fun. However, if there is no proper planning for how to acquire and spend funds, the projects will remain dreams and ideas only. When we take the time to make sure that money grows, we are teaching students valuable lessons—lessons that will help them to be more successful in their lives, not just in their student council or National Honor Society chapters. I, for one, am eager to start! —

Sarah James is student activities manager at Franklin High School in El Paso, TX.