By Tara Cavanaugh The Ann Arbor PTO Thrift Shop, already a successful fundraising machine for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, is ensuring $100,000 for busing for field trips and enrichment activities during the 2012-2013 school year. The news comes on the heels of a recent announcement that the shop and the Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation are each donating $43,000 towards late middle school busing this school year, which helps students participate in after-school clubs and sports. The $100,000 for transportation will be divided between the schools at a rate of roughly $6 per student. Principals will learn of a credit in their school’s name on file at the WISD transportation department at the beginning of the school year. “We figured it was a good way to get the money out there to as many different schools as possible,” said Ann Farnham, director of promotions and community relations at the shop. “It’s a fair way to do this.” The goal is to provide transportation costs for field trips, which is often the most expensive cost tackled by PTOs and schools. The transportation donation allows PTOs, PTSOs and buildings “other resources to divert towards other things,” Farnham added. “School assemblies, teacher grants, all these other things on the budget.” This is not the first time the shop has donated a large sum toward transportation. It first donated $101,706 in October 2010 as it made the transition to a new distribution system. Prior to 2010, the IRS had notified the shop that its original compensation system was illegal. The shop was paying individual workers money to be used toward individual students’ payments of field trips. Farnham, who was on the board, developed the unique business model the shop now uses, which she calls “promotional fundraising.” It cuts checks to PTOs and other school groups that promote the shop, and it also does weekly “Show Your Support” competitions, through which it gives away $1,000 each week. (Learn more about the Show Your Support system here) Back in 2010, the shop believed the transportation donation would be a one-time deal, the result of a surplus as it the switched to a new business model. But the shop’s increasing profits, combined with the district’s financial difficulties in securing enough transportation, pushed the shop to focus on donating as much as possible to busing.
“It’s become really clear over the district’s recent budget that this is something the community really values,” Farnham said. “As successful as we are, we can in no way fulfill all of the need, but we’re doing what we can.” WISD presented the school district with a $67,937 bill that first year, meaning there was $33,769 that remained unspent. Farnham says the leftover money resulted from teachers being unaware of the funds, as well as a lack of tracking system. So for the 2011-2012 school year, the shop rolled that leftover money in with a refresh of the donation, resulting in a $133,769 donation to the transportation fund. Farnham and the shop board encouraged the district to implement a system to track all of the busing paid for by the donation. More teachers and PTOs were aware of the donation this time around, but there was still a balance of $44,000 at the end of the school year. Instead of rolling that money over into the 2012-2013 transportation donation, the shop worked with AAPSEF and Superintendent Dr. Patricia Green to do something different. The shop took $43,000 and decided to donate it to late middle school busing. The Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation matched the shop’s funds, so the total donated is $86,000. Farnham is hoping to grow the transportation donations even more. Earlier this summer, the shop received its charitable solicitation license from the state of Michigan, which means that the shop can also ask for cash donations. There is a recently-launched “Donate” button on the shop’s website. Any money donated will be given directly to the district. “This allows us to keep our funding constant, and keep it growing,” Farnham said. The shop will pay the PayPal fee to provide the service, which is a small percentage of overall donations. “Everything that is donated by individuals, whatever comes out of a person’s pocket, will go to AAPS,” Farnham said. Such relentless innovation is just part of the shop’s well-oiled machine, whose success depends on a small staff and a large pool of school representatives who volunteer their time. Each school will have a parent representative this year, which Farnham says is key to the shop’s success. She also stresses that working as a rep is a simple, low-stress job, provided the volunteer is well-connected online. “People as reps tend to be a little intimidated by the program we have in place,” she said. “It’s not until they’ve done the job that they say: ‘Why was I worried about this?’ “For the effort that goes into it, there’s a good bang for the buck. And (the reps) really help us. That is the key to us being able to grow and provide this sustained funding.” Don’t miss the shop’s Labor Day Sale, featuring 50 percent off all items, on Monday, Sept. 3 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Related stories