Set aspirations high, put all efforts into that enterprise, and you can accomplish great things. That’s the mindset that student leaders at several schools have taken to heart when it comes to raising money for charity. With amounts ranging from $8,000 to more than $300,000, student leaders have learned how to maximize their fundraising dollars and have an incredible impact on their schools and communities.

Giveback Homecoming

At James Clemens High School in Madison, AL, it all started with a discussion about homecoming floats. Struggling to find people to participate in float building, student government members discussed how to get more manpower and expertise to make their float something they could be proud to have represent their school. “In the discussion, SGA [student government association] leadership realized that there was a lot of money involved, a lot of manpower involved, and in the end—except for looking pretty during the homecoming parade—the fruits of all of our labors were going to end up in the trash,” says Melanie Turner, Clemens student government association adviser. “Then we thought, what if we put our resources toward something that would make a lasting impact and serve our community?”

From that discussion, the idea of collecting for charity during homecoming—and to theme the parade floats around different charities—was born. “Giveback Homecoming” features floats by each class with a theme related to the charity for which they are collecting. For example, the seniors collected basic clothing necessities for a homeless shelter with “Sock It to the Tigers,” while the sophomores collected canned goods for a food pantry with “Can the Tigers.”

In addition to the floats, the Clemens SGA hosts a variety of activities to collect funds for a main charity, which last year was the Make-A-Wish® Foundation of America. “We raised money during the school week by setting up tables during our lunch hours, so students could donate money while passing by. We also collected money during the parade by walking with buckets and the people watching could drop money in,” Turner says. “While selling tickets for the homecoming dance, we set aside $3 from every ticket to go to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We charged $10 per ticket and sold just over a thousand tickets. This was a $3,000 fundraiser for our charities!”

Charity Prom

Creative student leaders at Freedom High School in South Riding, VA, decided that all the money that would normally be used to create a luxurious prom for students would be better spent fighting childhood cancer. They came up with the idea of using almost all the ticket revenue generated from their $60–$70 prom tickets for pediatric cancer treatment by holding their prom in the gym instead of spending $20,000 to $30,000 on a venue at a nice hotel.

“Our students were excited to turn our prom into a charity event. We had the full support of our junior and senior class officers,” says student council adviser Jason King. “I think there may have been some hesitance in our initial year on the part of the 11th- and 12th-grade students who’d be attending prom, but once they saw the ideas we had for transforming our school gym into a ‘ballroom’ and our cafeteria into a ‘dining room,’ they got excited.”

Generous donations from local businesses made the fundraising possible, including a chicken and pasta dinner from Whole Foods Market® served by faculty members, a jazz combo, and photo booths that were donated. The senior boy and girl who collected the most donations were crowned prom king and queen.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for support or offer your services! So many people admire the cause, but they’re not quite sure how to help or what they can offer,” King says. “Support certainly comes in many forms. Monetary support is critical, but behind-the-scenes efforts—including organization, phone calls, setup, food, etc.—are all pieces that we need to make a successful event. It’s hard to ask people for help, but we find when we do, they almost always say ‘YES!’ They just didn’t offer because they weren’t sure how they could help.”

Savings from cutting expenses, fundraising efforts, and donations from local businesses enabled the school to raise $45,000 on last year’s prom. Freedom High School has collected more than $100,000 over three years. Most of the funds raised have been donated to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the remainder has gone to local organizations that support families of children with cancer.

Charity Ball

Taking the idea of a formal dance that raises money for charity to a new level, the Enloe Charity Ball (ECB)—an entirely student-led philanthropic group run by the student council at William G. Enloe High School in Raleigh, NC—selects a local nonprofit for which to raise funds and awareness from September through early December, when the ball is held. Over the 14 years since its inception, the ECB has raised $764,000 dollars.

The charity ball started as an idea for service 14 years ago, conceived by the student council vice president. The original event raised $6,000 from ticket sales. Over the years, multiple events have been added, including a charity kickball tournament, a seven-band concert called Space Jam, and an art auction featuring an art installation by students at a local gallery with performances by improv groups, a cappella groups, and other student artists.

The group passed the $100,000 mark in 2015, with $118,000 raised for Learning Together, a local nonprofit centered on providing pre-K education to at-risk youth. In 2016, the charity events raised $140,000 for Urban Ministries of Wake County, and last year they raised $180,000 for the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness. “The feeling that we get as student leaders in December when the check is raised up at the actual ball is one where we can see and feel the culmination of three months of hard work, and is a feeling that drives us to reach new heights in the years that will follow,” says current ECB President Benjamin Hogewood.

In addition to raising money, students involved in the ECB also raise awareness of their charity and volunteer at it. “Students are motivated by volunteering and spending time with the charities that we raise money for,” Hogewood says. “When students see firsthand what they are raising for, they are able to speak firsthand about the issue we are trying to alleviate and are inspired to work harder on the Enloe Charity Ball.”

Spirit Week Charity Drive

The Wade Hampton High School student council sets aside a week each year to raise funds for a nonprofit in Greenville, SC. Students plan and participate in a week packed with about 50 events that begins with a Midnight Jam kickoff event on Saturday night. The doors open at midnight and students pay $5 to participate in a variety of activities such as basketball, corn hole, ping pong, dancing to a DJ, and a haunted hallway. “We typically make about $10,000 at this event each year,” says student council adviser Sandy Brooks. “Our students love spirit week and are very excited to be at the midnight kickoff. Some kids just love that it takes place from midnight to 2:00 a.m. There are a variety of activities that appeal to different people. We have five amazing spirit week shirts for sale, and students are afraid we will run out of their sizes. We sold out of two of our shirts this year at Midnight Jam.”

The Spirit Week held September 29–October 5, 2018, featured activities such as a powder puff championship, class car washes, a pancake breakfast, a color run, movie on the lawn, dodgeball tournament, a cookout, three-on-three soccer, talent show, and more. “This event is geared toward our student body, but the entire week engages the whole community. Parents, teachers, and administrators help at the events and at lunches,” Brooks says. “My students get sponsorships of $50, $100, and $500 from businesses. This sponsorship money pays our bills. The amount announced at the football game all goes to the charity. Our community is 100 percent behind us, so it is easy. They want us to reach our goal.”

In 2017, the Wade Hampton Spirit Week raised $251,376 for Shriners Hospitals for Children in one week. In 2018, during halftime of a football game, the school presented an astonishing $306,379 to Clement’s Kindness Fund for the Children, a foundation that helps children suffering from pediatric cancer and rare blood disorders.

Keys to Success

Organizers agree that the secret to the success of these fundraising efforts is empowering students to lead. “The student-led piece of this is huge. Are the kids feeling purposeful?” asks Nate Barilich, adviser for the ECB. “Find the spark of curiosity among the students and let them drive the process.”

Hogewood believes the student-led structure adds an element of change that is innovative. “Don’t be afraid to change and try new things within a student-led organization. The secret to our success is the constant innovation that results from our organization structure,” he says. “Each year a dedicated group of student leaders has a vision for the future, and they implement ideas that will help expand and progress the organization.”

Lyn Fiscus is a freelance writer based in Reston, VA. She is the author of Adviser’s Guide to Student Activities and other books about student activities.

Sidebar: Advice for Starting a Charity Fundraiser

Veteran advisers who have worked on charity fundraising efforts share these words of advice for getting started:

  • “Don’t wait until you ‘know what to do.’ Just start and figure out the pieces as you go,” says Jason King, student council adviser at Freedom High School in South Riding, VA. “We had no idea where we were headed with this event when we decided to turn our prom into a charity ball; we just knew we wanted to do something ‘bigger’ with our prom. We figured it out as we went along, and each year it gets a little easier.”
  • “Plan, plan, plan! Do not underestimate what your students are able to do,” says Sandy Brooks, student council adviser at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville, SC. “They run these events and do an excellent job. We spend a lot of time going over their plans to make sure they have done a thorough job. In the end, they are very proud of their contributions.”
  • “Advertise everywhere you can and get the kids involved! Competitions are a GREAT way to get kids interested!” says Melanie Turner, student government association adviser at James Clemens High School in Madison, AL. “It is so important to hype the contest. Get the kids to announce it in the GroupMe and social media groups they are in. Announce the daily winners and praise their efforts publicly.”
  • “The hardest part is starting. If you want to make a change in the community, just start! Other student leaders will join your movement and help you take it places that you never saw it going,” says Benjamin Hogewood, current president of Enloe High School’s charity ball in Raleigh, NC. “Have a vision of what you want to achieve and start with the small steps that will lead you to accomplishing your vision.”