Few student groups have the luxury of not needing to raise money to fund their activities. According to Nonprofit Source, school groups raise more than $1.5 billion every year selling various products. Other groups host events that make a profit in order to raise funds. Taking care of all the details involved with these fundraisers is only half the equation. Managing the funds responsibly is the other half. Ensuring that the money raised is handled safely and spent wisely requires careful thought and planning on the part of the adviser and student leaders.

Follow the Rules

The first step for handling funds responsibly involves reviewing the guidelines that are in place in the school district. “I am in a district with an extremely strict finance department. Our controller makes sure we are 100 percent audit-proof,” says Sue Iverson, 2019 Warren E. Shull National High School Adviser of the Year. “As frustrating as it was, I also appreciated knowing no one would ever accuse me of misusing money.”

To remove temptation and safeguard everyone involved, establish procedures for handling money and inventory and be sure to follow them. “When dealing with money, you need to live by the rule of transparency. Everything you do with student funds should be open to scrutiny,” says Rashaan Davis, student council adviser at Eaglecrest High School in Centennial, CO. Make sure all group members are aware of the district’s procedures for handling money and follow them.

Schools typically have rules like this in place:

  • Involve at least two people whenever cash transactions occur. “Make sure students are not put in a bad position where they have a lot of money and no supervision,” says Mackenzie Behrle, associated student body adviser and activities director at Molalla High School in Molalla, OR.
  • Count all money before turning it in for deposit and create a written, signed record of the amount being deposited.
  • Don’t let money accumulate in a cash box or office. Deposit all money the same day it is collected. “I have a small safe bolted to the ground in my classroom where money goes if I cannot directly deposit it,” Behrle says.
  • Except for things such as concession stand sales or ticket sales at an event, give out receipts for all transactions and note whether people paid cash or check. “Take as many checks as possible. A paper trail is a wonderful thing to have!” says Kyle Gordon, leadership teacher and student council adviser at Collinsville High School in Collinsville, IL, and the executive director of the Illinois Association of Student Councils.
  • Teach student leaders how to handle money. “I would argue that this is one of the most essential parts of what you do. It builds trust, while teaching students the true value of fiscal responsibility. These are skills that they will need in life,” Davis says. “Handling money is stressful and can be hard to teach, but with careful monitoring, a high level of accountability, and a system that works for your events and projects, students can learn how to be great money managers.”
  • Develop a good record-keeping system and use it. “We have one student who is dedicated to tracking all funds in Excel, and we categorize them by what type of donation it is or event it comes from,” Behrle says. “If donations are over $200, we send them a tax donation verification letter. Also, all donations receive a thank-you card.”

Budgeting Basics

Beyond rules for handing the funds coming in, responsible fundraising means involving student leaders in figuring out the budget for the organization. “It is a great leadership development lesson to have students involved in the financial planning of a project,” Iverson says. “Our district has many rules in place as to how student-generated funds may be spent, and the students are given the opportunity to learn about finance and budgeting when they have a voice in the process.”

The organization budgeting process should start well before the school year is underway. “At the close of each school year, the new executive board of the council meets to determine what they want to do for the [next] school year. They decide what activities, celebrations, service projects, etc., they want to accomplish,” Gordon says. “It is at this meeting that they decide how much money they need to raise for the upcoming year and where to spend that money. We try to plan it out as much as possible over the summer months and if there is money left over at the end of projects, they decide what to do with it.”

At Woodgrove High School in Purcelville, VA, student council leaders also hold summer planning meetings where they consider what their raised funds should go toward in the coming year. “The students come to a decision as to how much of our income will be spent in each of three areas: charity, SCA members, and the student body. They vote on percentages to shoot for as goals during the year,” says Jeff Schutte, activities coordinator.

Budgeting should also be done for each project the group undertakes. “Being a very structured adviser, I want to make sure that students have a well-prepared plan before they go to our administration team for approval. That means that they have to have done the background work,” Davis says. “We start with an Excel budget sheet. The sheet is broken into three categories: essential items (“must have”), nonessential items (“likes”), and contingency costs (“what if”). After we have brainstormed what the project could be—think Homecoming Week—student leaders go to work to fill in all of the items necessary to make the event happen.”

Spending Guidelines

Another aspect of fundraising advisers should keep in mind is making sure the money raised is spent in a responsible way. “Our district has many rules in place as to how student-generated funds may be spent, so we must stay within those guidelines. As long as the money is being spent on something that supports our purpose of providing social programming for the students and building positive school culture, the guidelines are pretty easy to navigate,” Iverson says. One requirement her district has in place is that a member of the council’s executive board must sign off on all purchase requests.

Eaglecrest High School has a three-step approval process for spending money. “In our planning process, all expenditures are approved by a student council executive, the adviser, and our activities director. With this tiered process in place, there are more eyes on the process and more discussions about ways to lower our expenditures,” Davis notes.

At Woodgrove High School, which is only 10 years old, students originally “felt that all the money they collected throughout the year was theirs, alone, to decide what to do with. Those first two years were a real challenge to try to get them to see that the student council’s money should be spent on the student body, not only the SCA members for helping to pay for conferences and hotel rooms and buses. They didn’t see it much that way,” Schutte says.

At Collinsville High, “money must always be spent on things that are good for the school, community, and organization. That is the prism we look at for all purchases,” Gordon says. “I have always believed that it is the kids’ money. I am just a steward to oversee that it is deposited and spent appropriately. I feel it is crucially important that they spend their money that they earn on the things they find most important. Student voices should always matter.”

The adviser’s role in spending decisions should be one of oversight. “On the day-to-day items, I try not to get too involved in making every little decision,” Schutte says. “I let the students—and the elected budget director—handle most of that. I offer my opinion when it’s asked for, and I help guide discussions on how much I think is reasonable to spend on something. But otherwise, I let them have the conversations.”

Knowing when to step in is important. At Woodgrove, students plan an end-of-the-year party for the class that wins their Spirit Plate, and student leaders make decisions for the party about such things as lunch catering, spending money on a bounce house, and whether to rent a cotton candy machine or SnoCone machine. “Decisions like this are 100 percent on the students, and I feel that this is an appropriate amount of input for them to have. When it comes to other decisions—like which T-shirt company to go with—I let them do the research and compare the prices, but if it came down to their choice clearly being more expensive and a waste of funds, that would be something where I’d step in and voice my thoughts,” Schutte says.

Honoring Student Voice

Giving students a voice in the way funds are raised and how the money is spent is a crucial part of student leadership. “For students to have a real voice in how the money they raise is spent speaks to the climate of your organization,” Davis says. “If your school is still contributing money or raising funds for something that began years before they arrived on campus, there is nothing wrong with that. However, I would hope that, as an adviser, you are renewing the desire of current students to stay involved in that cause. Our students need to feel that the money they are raising is being used to help ‘in the moment,’ and the best way to do that is to give them a voice in how the money is raised and where that money should be spent.”

Ensuring student voice in fundraising increases students’ involvement. “I think it is extremely important for the students to be involved, and they are more invested that way,” says Behrle, whose school coordinates events and fundraising for a three-week-long event called Share the Love (STL) that raises money for people in need in their community. The effort is linked to a 501(c)(3) that last year raised more than $90,000 in that time. “We have a student board that selects our recipients who we raise money for—which is then approved by the STL adult board—and students run all aspects of the event. And, even though outside businesses and people hold events, students coordinate everything.”

Iverson also believes student involvement is essential for successful fundraising. “I believe having students directly involved in how money is spent strengthens their leadership development and also relieves pressure from me, as the adviser, of being the gatekeeper,” she says. Early in her career she remembers council members coming up with great ideas that she would stress out over how to make happen within their budget. “I hated telling them we didn’t have the money to do things. Finally, after learning from other advisers I would meet at Minnesota or NatStuCo events, I realized I needed to make students a part of the whole activity development process, including finances. Rather than casting an idea aside because I would have to tell them it was too expensive, I notice they have become more creative in how they bring something to life while paying attention to budgeting.”

Responsible fundraising involves so much more than coming up with a good idea and raising money. Involving students in the decision-making process and teaching them lessons about financial management creates an environment in which the fundraising becomes a learning opportunity and students learn skills they will use for a lifetime.

Lyn Fiscus is a teacher and student council adviser at South Lakes High School in Reston, VA. She is co-author with Earl Reum of The Bucks Start Here: Fundraising for Student Activities.