We spoke for over an hour, and I learned a great deal from her. Below, I have listed eight of the best tips she shared with me for running a carnival that makes a lot of money. If you would like to see an excellent example of a website set up just for a school carnival, check out their site here.
Here are a few of the ideas I picked up from our interview:
1. Use older students in the school to promote the carnival to younger students.
Barbara told me that their planning team recruited a handful of fifth graders (who are the oldest students at Tomahawk) to go into the younger classrooms and get the K to 4th graders totally fired up to attend. They made sure the students they chose were very outgoing and personable.
These mini-pep-rallies happened just a couple of weeks before the carnival itself. Barbara said that the fifth graders have much more “influence” over the younger kids than teachers, the principal, or the PTO volunteers do. Believe it or not, the fifth graders are “cooler” than adults. (Who knew?) The lesson is: If you want a lot of kids to convince their parents that they “have” to go to the carnival, get the older kids to stoke their passion!
2. Get teachers involved in the planning process.
Barbara said she learned this lesson the hard way. Two years ago, they had a number of teachers actually sit on the carnival planning committee. As a result, these teachers were very aware of all the latest news and deadlines, and they twisted the arms of the other teachers to support the event in their classrooms.
Last year, however, there was an unfortunate mis-communication that resulted in many teachers missing some key information about carnival planning, and consequently, teacher participation was way down. This hurt the overall effort.
The lesson is to be absolutely positive that each teacher is fully aware of all the vital dates, deadlines, forms, and other news that they should know. On a practical level, Barbara strongly recommends that you make sure teachers are actually reading the fliers that they are stuffing in their students’ homework folders. Many times a teacher gets busy and can miss vital information.
3. Use yard signs to promote the carnival.
One of the best marketing tools Barbara told me they use are the campaign-style yard signs that you see during political elections. She said they spent approximately $300 and purchased 50 or 60 very simple signs that read “Tomahawk Carnival This Saturday”. That’s it. Big bold letters. No date, no time, no directions.
She said that more people comment to her about those signs than any other form of advertising they’ve tried. Also, since the message isn’t date specific, they can use the signs year after year. They just had to commit to the idea that their carnival would always be on a Saturday. Sometimes, low tech is the best approach!
4. Negotiate with any organizations who conflict with your carnival date.
Barbara told me that the only conflict they found on their carnival date was a youth football league in their city. A number of the students at Tomahawk play in this league, so she was fearful that the carnival attendance would be down.
Therefore, she went to the football league organizers directly and explained her situation. She asked them, well in advance of them creating their season schedule, if they could use her date as the “bye” week. She also asked if they could delay the start of the games that would be played that day until later in the afternoon, so the kids could still attend the carnival and then make the game in plenty of time.
Because she used the right approach, was respectful, and made her request far in advance, the league officials were able to work with her, and the conflict was resolved. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid to work with people to get what you want
5. Be careful not to lose money if you sell activity wristbands.
One of the interesting observations that Barbara shared with me involved the sale of wristbands that allow carnival-goers to participate in many of the games and activities without having to buy individual tickets. I really like the wristband concept for many reasons, but Barbara did have one warning.
Just this past year, Tomahawk decided to switch from a ticket-based system to exclusively using the wristband system. However, in reviewing the results of this experiment, she noticed that the school actually lost some money.
To explain, she used herself as an example. Last year, under the ticket system, she, personally, spent over $100 total at the event with her kids. That includes food and game tickets. She spent more than many other families, because she was there all day, organizing the event, and her kids were with her.
But, when the school switched to the wristband system this year, her total outlay was under $50! Same amount of kids, same food consumption. She realized that she spent way more money buying her kids individual tickets than she did buying the wristband, which was priced at $10. That was good for her personally, but bad for the school overall.
To make up for this gap, Tomahawk will raise the price of the wristband next year to $12, sell a combination of wristbands and individual tickets, and possibly increase the number of activities that the wristband doesn’t cover.
There are many advantages to selling activity wristbands. Just don’t make them so affordable, that you lose money.
6. Don’t buy expensive concessions to re-sell.
When it comes to picking your carnival menu, be careful not to pay too much for the food that you sell. For instance, in the past, Tomahawk has contracted with the fast food chain Chick-fil-A to provide their tasty chicken sandwiches. They get a deal from the restaurant because they are buying in bulk and because they are a non-profit.
However, they are still paying a relatively high price per sandwich. So, they can’t very well turn around and tack on a huge amount to make a substantial profit from their carnival customers. No one would buy the sandwiches at outrageous prices.
So, from a money-making perspective, make sure the food you’re selling is cheap enough (preferably donated!) for you to make a decent profit. Having a popular item, like a Chick-fil-A sandwich, is appealing, but ultimately, it is counterproductive to your goal to raise money.
7. Make sure parents know the carnival is a fundraiser, not just a feel-good get-together.
While this may seem like an obvious point to those of us deeply involved in volunteering at our children’s school, there are many parents who just don’t put two and two together. If your school carnival is meant to raise money, you need to make sure this message is heard loudly and clearly by everyone in your audience.
That means you’ll need to repeat it over and over again to make sure the concept sinks in. Barbara suggests putting this “fundraiser” disclaimer on every piece of written information that goes out to the community.
I would even suggest being very specific in telling moms and dads what the money will be used for.
If you hope to convince parents to drop significant dollars on silly little games and to get locked up in a “jail”, you’re going to have to appeal to their logical sides and show them the bigger picture- i.e. the school’s financial need. Just don’t assume they know that you actually do want to raise some funds.
8. Don’t get too caught up in having a theme.
I asked Barbara if they used a different theme each year, like “Pirates” or “Day at the Farm”. She told me that their carnival takes place just before Halloween, so there are a few autumnal decorations, but overall, they didn’t want to get locked into the time or the expense that comes with rotating out a different theme every year.
There are many schools that do go the whole nine yards on costumes, decorations, and “atmosphere”, but Barbara thinks that by keeping themselves “theme-free” they can be flexible from year to year and never get pigeon-holed. Ultimately, by not using a theme, they save time and money.
Over the past four years of her involvement with the Tomahawk Elementary School Carnival, Barbara Rypkema has learned a great deal about putting on a first rate carnival event. All of the lessons above come from practical experience and first-hand trial and error. I want to thank Barbara for her time and willingness to share her expertise with me for this article.
Photo by: Find Me Famous