Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

The big business of running school fairs

It takes a huge organisation to run the events, which can raise more than $100,000

Eleanor Tonkin and Charlotte Horan were the organisers of the St Heliers School Fair. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Eleanor Tonkin and Charlotte Horan were the organisers of the St Heliers School Fair. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Ten subcommittees, 328 helpers, five volunteers putting in fulltime hours and 1000 cupcakes - the modern-day school fair involves more than organising a coconut shy and a white elephant sale.

Schools are increasingly reliant on money generated through fairs, with some of the most successful bringing in more than $100,000.

That reality is reflected in the Herculean logistics efforts that can start just weeks after the bouncy-castles are deflated.

This month, St Heliers School, which has students from Year 1 to 8, held its first fair in 10 years and raised $60,000 to go towards the repair of its hall, a leaky building.

First-time organisers Charlotte Horan and Eleanor Tonkin, who both have children at the school, said they had little idea of what kind of job awaited them when they began planning seriously six months ago.

"If you worked out the number of man-hours that goes into the organisation, it would blow you away," Mrs Tonkin said.

Ten subcommittees were established, ranging from crafts to food and set-up/take-down, each including about five key organisers.

Instead of holding countless general meetings, Mrs Tonkin and Mrs Horan opted to stay in touch with the committee heads directly. That allowed each group to focus on its own work but meant the pair, who both work part-time, were kept busy - the workload in the five weeks leading up to the fair equalled a full-time job.

Three other parents were doing the same, with five more clocking more than 20 hours a week. One woman who organised donations from businesses put in full-time hours for six months.

That effort meant the fair cost almost nothing to run, with Pak'n Save Glen Innes, De Fontein and Loaf Handcrafted Breads among those to donate food and run stalls, with all profit returned to the school.

Loaf's marketing manager ran the fair's communications division. Other parents with relevant skills were shoulder-tapped, such as a graphic designer who set up newsletters.

Auctioning off donated items has become a key way for some schools to boost their income. Cornwall Park District School's last fair catalogue featured a diamond ring donated by Michael Hill.

It is also increasingly common to bring in professional food and drink operators, who give a cut of their take to the school.

St Heliers Primary decided not to have an auction or professional stalls, focusing activities on the children and keeping prices low. "We wanted it to have more of that old-school-fair feel ... to do the things that we did at fairs when we were little," said Mrs Tonkin. "And we kept everything at $1 or $2. So if you give children $20, they can spend all day at the fair."

One of the longest-running and most successful school fairs, hosted by Maungawhau Primary School in Mt Eden, has been tweaked after pulling in a peak amount of about $110,000.

"We've made a commitment, not so much to cut it back but just to make it a bit more child-friendly rather than about making money," said acting principal Olwen Blain. "Especially this year, we're trying to have more things for children to do rather than parents to buy."

Last year's November fair brought in about $80,000, and planning has already begun for this year. The fair committee meets every third Monday of the month, and each class and its parents are assigned a stall to run.

Recipes for items such as spreads have remained the same for years, and are packaged in identical jars and labels. "It's just tradition, and because we know that's tried-and-true and will sell. People will often come because we've got the chocolate sauce that we've had for the last goodness knows how long," Ms Blain said.

Principals' Federation president Philip Harding said high-decile schools could receive half as much Government funding than a similar-sized decile-one school. He said that was fair, even if fundraising did not make up the difference.

"Because those children [at high-decile schools] walk in the gate with what I would call significant capital from the home, that gives them all sorts of advantages."

- NZ Herald

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