The band needs new uniforms, the football scoreboard doesn’t work, and the computers in the language lab have seen better days. But, as in most school systems, there is rarely enough money in the annual budget to fund all the needs and wants of the average public school.

As costs escalate and resources are stretched, more than a few principals have been known to wish for a close second-place finish for the basketball team to avoid the budget-busting expense of a trip to the state tournament. But when the discretionary piggy-bank runs low, it’s time for the PTA, the band boosters, or the student government to hustle candy, organize a car wash, collect and sell old newspapers, or hold another bake sale.

Finding creative and successful ways to raise extra money for programs gets tougher every year. Sometimes, vendors sponsor ways for schools to get free products. Collecting grocery store receipts to exchange for computers was an unusually painless way to alleviate some of the strain of paying for the electronic school.

This “green stamp” type of indirect fundraising was an idea that fit perfectly with the burgeoning expansion of eCommerce. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to just skim a little off the top of everyone’s everyday shopping … automatically? Surprise! There are many new web shopping sites that are using school fundraising as a way to bring dollars through the door.

The idea is simple. A percentage of every purchase made through the web site is donated to the school chosen by the purchaser. Sites like SchoolCash.com, ShopforSchool.com, and SchoolCity.com are for-profit brokers that use the rebate donation as a way to attract business for their commercial clients. So, why are some schools staring between the jaws of this cyber gift horse?

First, some of these web sites don’t bother to recruit or contact the schools they list in their online databases. They just list every school in the country… public, private, charter, and parochial. None of the web sites I reviewed indicate whether there is any preapproval by the schools or arrangement with participating schools. In fact, the subject of whether the schools on the list even know about the program is carefully avoided. Schools can request to be removed from the list (deactivated), but this opt-out-only option rankles some educators.

Some schools worry that this could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of the web sites and products sold there. Could a dissatisfied customer create legal problems for a school? The mere presence of a school on the list would not create any liability, but do schools subject themselves to legal problems by accepting the donations? Should schools just sit back and wait for the checks to roll in—or should you be taking some kind of action about these online fundraisers?

One question that arises (based on the lack of prepurchase arrangements with the schools) is whether these web sites even send unsolicited checks to schools selected by web site purchasers. I doubt it.

The SchoolCash.com site (which was recently acquired by the FamilyEducation Network, an internet community with ties to the National Education Association, National School Boards Association, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and other high-profile education groups) says it sends checks to “authorized school representatives” who have filled out a “brief enrollment form.” It appears that schools may not have to sign up for the web site program in order to be designated for donations by school boosters who make purchases, but probably have to enter some arrangement (enrollment) to actually receive the funds.

The real problem with these web sites may be financial rather than legal. Is this really a good way to raise money? There is no free lunch here. The money takes a long route from the purchaser to the school. Some web sites have a “minimum” that must be reached before a check is cut. If the minimum is $25 and the average percentage of a purchase that goes to the school is, for example, 2.5 percent … supporters of your school would have to spend $1,000 through the web site (plus shipping, handling, and other fees that don’t count toward the donation base) before the school sees a dime.

Sites may also hold the money and earn interest on the “float.” SchoolCash.com, for example, sends out checks only three times per year (to schools that have accumulated at least $25 in their rebate accounts).

The real question is not whether these web sites are legal, but whether they are an effective way to raise funds. Certainly, there is minimal effort involved, even if you only do minor promotion, such as linking your school’s home page to the fundraising dot-com. On the other hand, the returns may not be enough to offset the loss of donations you might otherwise get from folks who have already “given at the web site.” You have to decide.

In any event, it might be a good idea to take the initiative, rather than sit back and wait for a letter that says, “A check is waiting for you if you enroll in this fundraising program.” Look at the options and explore the web sites of each. Figure out whether this type of fundraising is a good deal for your school. If it is, pick the site that has the best deal, opt out of the others, and actively promote the idea. If this is not your idea of a good way to raise money, deactivate all of them—and notify parents and students that you do not participate.

If you decide to participate—and if doing so does not violate any school district policy—be sure to inform parents and other members of your school community (and all your booster organizations) about the program. Notify them in writing that you have agreed to accept donations generated by purchases made through the web site, but (1) you do not endorse any of the products being sold through the web site, (2) you are not responsible for customer satisfaction with, or any defects in, any of the products sold through the web site, and (3) the cost of purchases made through the web site is not tax-deductible, unlike straight donations to the school.

On second thought.