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Member Spotlight: School Fundraising Gets a Fresh Approach with FarmRaiser

Piya Das

Editorial/Marketing Intern, 1776

Whether raising money for new computers or a new gym, student-led fundraising is the go-to solution for cash-strapped schools. With the majority of product sales consisting of cookie dough, candy and pizza, sales margins are low and community members feel obligated to purchase products they do not necessarily want to support their schools. Not to mention, America’s students are getting mixed messages about eating when they are encouraged to sell these unhealthy products.

But what if instead of selling unwanted items for low margins, schools could partner with local businesses to sell fresh, high-quality products while boosting their community economies and fundraising results? One concerned parent founded a company that is doing just that.

Meet FarmRaiser: a startup that is disrupting the traditional school fundraising model by replacing junk food sales with local produce, coffee and other seasonal products. Founder Mark Abbott said the inspiration for the company came from his own frustration as a parent who was not going to sell one more tub of cookie dough to raise money for his son’s school.

Abbott said, “When my son was nine he said to me: ‘we would never buy this stuff, why are our friends buying it?’”

With a background in national service and civic engagement through his work with AmeriCorps, Abbott has a strong interest in addressing community challenges, especially those involving children. At FarmRaiser, he is re-imagining the way schools raise money for important causes. The company’s vision is to connect farmers and artisans with schools doing product sale fundraisers to provide families with desirable, high-quality products while injecting money into the local economy, rather than shipping away half the profits to a corporation detached from the community. This model keeps the majority of the revenue within the community, while making fundraising more efficient by eliminating delivery time and cost.

From a health perspective, Abbott always noticed a general discontent regarding junk food fundraisers among parents, but there was never before a healthy alternative to the traditional bake sales and candy sales. This encouraged him further to emphasize on the quality of the distributed products, and provide families with useful and valuable items from their neighborhood businesses.

“Our theory of change was to connect local vendors with schools in an efficient and frictionless way,” said Abbott. 

To make the fundraising experience even more dynamic, the logical next step was to launch FarmRaiser as an online service. FarmRaiser’s web platform and integrated mobile app reduce the stress of fundraising while elevating product quality. Students can sell their chosen products online, face-to-face or through social media, while live-tracking their campaign’s progress. Meanwhile, vendors and school organizers can stay on top of supply and finances without sifting through hundreds of order forms.

“All those things that cause headaches and problems are gone,” said Abbott.

By creating an integrated, seamless online marketplace, FarmRaiser can also bundle products from multiple vendors to create custom baskets with seasonal favorites, which are especially popular during the holidays. This mobile market is appealing to local vendors, who are often turned off by the organizational stress of traditional fundraisers, ultimately encouraging more participation. Thanks to FarmRaiser’s savvy integration of technology into the fundraising marketplace, the company boasts a 98 percent retention rate among vendors. 

Students in Seattle distribute apples to their community.

Students in Seattle distribute apples from a local orchard during a pilot FarmRaiser campaign.

FarmRaiser’s business model addresses a larger problem in the school fundraising industry that has long been neglected. Abbott said that with so many players on the value chain, from the manufacturers, to the distributors, to the schools, it’s the quality of the products that suffers the most.

“To keep margins high, something has to give, so you end up with a really low value product,” said Abbott. “A tub of cookie dough, which has a shelf life of two years and is basically composed of lard, sugar and preservatives, costs a few cents per serving to produce, but sells at a few dollars per serving.”

At the local level, the long-standing tradition of certain kinds of fundraisers has hindered schools from being open to new strategies.

“There are some schools that have a tradition of family dinner night at McDonald’s, which sends a terrible message to kids that that’s an ok option for dinner just because the schools need the money,” said Abbott. “For every one thing we’re doing there’s 10 other things not being systemically addressed.”

Abbott is hopeful, however, about the future. The remarkable response that FarmRaiser has received so far positions the company as a catalyst for change in schools and communities across the nation. Not only is the company using smart technology to connect local vendors with fundraisers and helping those communities thrive, it is making children excited about healthy eating.

As a proponent of healthy eating himself, Abbott is paying close attention to advances in the education sector regarding the food quality in schools. The growing National Farm to School Network now encompasses 42 percent of American schools and is dedicated to empowering children and their families to make healthy food choices.

Lawmakers are joining the healthy school fundraising initiative, as well. California recently passed a law banning candy sales for fundraising purposes, while other states are working on similar legislation. These new regulations will certainly open up a dialogue about the culture surrounding fundraising and how to best move forward to send a better message to the children who lead fundraisers. Though Abbott is thrilled about the legislative advances happening in state governments, it will create more competition from incumbent manufacturers in those markets than anticipated.

But FarmRaiser is certainly up for the challenge. The company was recently ranked as a B Corp, one that is pioneering the use of smart technology to empower healthy lifestyle initiatives and sustainable food economies.

Piya Das

Editorial/Marketing Intern, 1776

Piya is a junior majoring in Public Relations and minoring in French Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. As an intern in the marketing team at 1776, Piya…