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Sharon Yeo, left, Mack D. Male we’re the co-organizers of a pulled-pork fundraiser for Edmonton schools.Mack D. Male

For the parents of school-age kids, fundraising is nothing less than a matter of fiscal survival in an era of school-board budget crunches and crumbling playgrounds. But the old go-tos – selling wrapping paper, holding baked-good sales – just don't cut it any more. They're not even allowed in some provinces, where restrictions on high-calorie foods and door-to-door canvassing have been introduced.

Under these trying conditions, parental creativity has thrived. School communities across the country are redefining the fundraiser – hiring hypnotists, auctioning babysitting services, selling compost, and even introducing their own paper-napkin version of Iron Chef – all for the sake of the neighbourhood school.

In August, close to 500 people showed up for a "pulled pork throwdown" to raise money toward full-day kindergarten in Edmonton schools. The competition, which pitted three local food trucks against one another, raised money by charging patrons $2 to vote for their favourite pulled-pork sandwich.

"What's creative about it is it gave us exposure to a demographic that we're not necessarily connected to: people who don't have children in the schools," says Sandra Woitas, director of the Edmonton Public Schools Foundation, and one of the event organizers.

The unique idea won lots of local media attention and drew members of the community who don't regularly give to public education. The food trucks also donated a part of their proceeds. The event raised $1,883.45 to help run full-day kindergarten classrooms in high-needs Edmonton schools.

Creative one-day events are a popular choice, saving parents the need to make time for door-to-door canvassing and catalogue sales. Theresa Kitt, a member of the parent advisory council (PAC) at South Sahali Elementary in Kamloops, B.C., says that too often those kinds of fundraisers lead to parents reaching for their chequebooks at the 11th hour to buy wrapping paper, Christmas ornaments or magazine subscriptions they don't need. "The old ways are really stressful on a lot of parents," she says.

Last year, recalls Ms. Kitt, when a pine-beetle infestation killed the schoolyard trees, and parents decided it was time for a makeover and fundraiser, "I thought that we needed to make it more fun."

So, her council hired a professional hypnotist and tagged him on to the tail end of the students' spring talent show. The first half of the program – the students' talent routines – was free. This served as a draw, as parents and friends turned out to support the performers. Tickets for the hypnotist, though, were $10.

The show was a hit, and the school of just 315 students raised close to $2,000. "It was awesome," says Ms. Kitt. "The feedback we got was phenomenal. That's a lot of money for such a small community."

Big dollars can come from do-it-yourself ideas, too. One of the most successful fundraisers that veteran PAC member Carrie Bercic has ever been a part of was all creative thinking, zero investment. Her daughter is now in high school, but when she was a student at General Wolfe Elementary in Vancouver, parents got together to brainstorm ideas for a one-of-a-kind silent auction – and focused on selling skills and time. One parent who was a professional chef offered private cooking classes; a teacher with a 1910 Model T Ford offered a chauffeured picnic; students volunteered to clean garages; and parents offered free babysitting services. "People were generous with their bids," says Ms. Bercic. "It was very easy and there was no cost to the PAC." The silent auction raised $7,000.

Those more collaborative kinds of fundraisers have the advantage of building a sense of community, says Les Kirchner, a school principal in St. Albert, Alta. When Mr. Kirchner was principal at Wildrose Elementary, the school partnered with a local company to sell bags of compost. Each spring, the company would drop off the soil and the children and parents worked together to pour it into bags.

Two years in a row, they saw the event sell out, raising close to $3,000 each year for a school of 200 children. Mr. Kirchner, who is now principal at Muriel Martin Elementary, says that peanut-allergy rules and balkiness over sending students door-to-door mean the days of chocolate-covered-almonds sales are over. "There's lots of organizations out there now selling the almonds and holding the bingos," he says. "But we like to have the kids involved and seeing where the money's going."

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