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Mulch Madness

The Ponte Vedra High School boys' lacrosse team in Florida sells bales of pine straw needles and bags of cypress mulch to raise money for uniforms, equipment, and traveling expenses. This year's second annual event, which took place in March, netted $27,000 in sales, more than doubling last year's proceeds, and an additional $6,000 in sponsorships.

By John DiBiase
Organizer/Coordinator & Director of Operations, Ponte Vedra High School Boys Lacrosse Fundraiser
Ponte Vedra, Florida

All of the St. Johns County public schools' sports teams are funded mainly by the fundraising efforts of athletes and their parents. The schools provide the playing fields and gym, but not uniforms, equipment, or transportation to away games.

The lacrosse team parents thought of selling pine needles and cypress mulch because it was something interesting and unique. You can put them in your garden and around your rose bushes, flower beds, and hedges.

My wife Nancy and I volunteered to spearhead the fundraiser since our son, Michael, is a player on the team. My wife came up with the name, Mulch Madness, and it caught on. It works well because the fundraiser is held in March and it coincides with the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, which is referred to as March Madness.

Last year it was sort of patchwork. We had no order forms and no suppliers. We started looking at everything and getting the word out. I started shopping around. I talked to Home Depot and other stores, but I basically cut out the middlemen and found the actual manufacturers - the shredders, choppers, and bundlers. There is a mulch company, Old Castle, that does my mulch. They have a couple of plants in Florida. Then I went to Florida Pine Straw, another local company, where the pine needles are actually baled in the fields.

We had 51/2 weeks to prepare and then we had the kids go out and sell. The customers consisted of family, friends, and neighbors. And that was it. We held it over a weekend in the school parking lot. We didn't know what we were doing, but we tried. We sold 9,000 units of pine needles and 3-cubic-foot bags of mulch. We get the big bags because there is more value for the people. We netted just under $10,000. Everybody was like, "wow."
The booster club board said they wanted to make Mulch Madness the primary fundraiser. We held a meeting at my house and got everyone together who was involved and began to organize this year's fundraiser.

We got into committees. One parent ran sales. Another handled marketing and he went out and got sponsors for the event to pay $1,500 each. Sponsors included Oceanside Cleaners, John Anderson Allstate Insurance Co.,, Cruise One, and the PV Predators lacrosse club. The sponsors had signs at the event and were listed in our ad in the newspaper.

Somebody else was in charge of food operations. We had bananas, bagels, and egg sandwiches to feed everyone who helped. We had a lot of stores work with us. We would go in and ask what the lunch package cost. If it cost $7.50 they would cut us a deal for $5. We'd buy 100 of those. We had free pizzas donated. We bought 40 cases of Gatorade and water. We kept our costs under control this year.

Then I went out to get bigger vehicles to haul everything because last year the U-Hauls were a mess. I went to Penske and got the big 26-foot level lift trucks and leased a dozen of them for the weekend. They cut me a phenomenal deal and reduced everything by about 40 percent.

I went to an equipment company and got a couple of boom crane forklifts to lift the pallets into the trucks. We had five pallet jacks and three forklifts.

Old Castle normally charges $100 a truck to drop off material. And they brought 13 18-wheelers full of pallets with 301 pallets of product. They dropped them all for me in the field.

This year, we knew we couldn't fit behind the high school. So I partnered with the local Rotary Club, which was having its annual flower sale. The director of the Rotary Club said he wanted us to have the fundraiser with them because he felt it would help drive traffic. I agreed because we would have 150 to 200 people just working for us, plus all of our customers.

We held the event the weekend of March 12 and 13 at the TPC Sawgrass golf club parking lot in Ponte Vedra Beach. It worked out well because the TPC supports the Rotary event and the Rotary Club director told the TPC directors that the school was going to come in and do the fundraiser, too. They are very good with helping charities so it wasn't a problem. And it didn't cost us anything.

We had this massive parking lot, so it was great. There was lots of room to navigate and operate. We had 4,500 bales of pine needles and four tractor-trailers and 301 pallets of mulch product dumped in the field. Friday night we started loading everything and were done before 9 p.m. Last year we weren't done until after midnight.

The volunteers were the parents of the lacrosse players and all of the players on the team. We promoted the event via repeat customers, email, newspaper ads, and player solicitations. Most of the sales were pre-orders.

Then we went out and delivered all day Saturday and were basically done by 3 p.m. Sunday. We also sold another few thousand dollars worth of product at the Rotary event. At the end of the event we sold 19,800 units of product. So we more than doubled last year's total. And we netted just under $27,000 from the actual mulch sales and made another $6,000 from the sponsors. That was huge. And people were shocked.

We sold the stuff for $4 a unit, and there were no taxes and no delivery fee. They were 3-cubic-foot bags versus what you buy at Home Depot and Lowe's, where you get 1.75- to 2-cubic-foot bags. The pine needles were large and tightly bound, having been rolled with a machine in the field. So the people got great quality. We had a tremendous return on it.

We doubled the value and did it in less time. That's what was really great. We went up 108 percent in units but we made 170 percent more net cash. We raised the price a little bit because last year we only charged $3.50 and that was a super bargain. So we bumped it another 50 cents knowing we would still remain competitive.

Aside from homeowners who bought the stuff, we also had a bunch of landscapers come in and they couldn't believe the size and value of the product. I figured they could get a better deal since they were in the business.

We built on last year's people. They all inquired if we were doing the fundraiser again. My neighborhood of 165 homes was the top seller because I promoted it via email and my kids went out and worked the sales along with some other lacrosse team members. We moved almost 4,000 units just in our neighborhood. The beautiful thing is there is growth for next year, because there were 90 homes we couldn't reach at home or get an order from. It's going to build every year.

The hard part is that somebody has to coordinate it, because you're talking about collecting orders and collecting checks. You have to match the payments to the orders and make sure everything is accurate. You have to make sure that all of the orders make it to a master order sheet. My wife and I built a master mulch order sheet that had all 700 customers on it for the almost 19,000-plus units. And then we built actual delivery sheets by using Microsoft Excel.

It's a lot of work but if you start off with the right plan and the proper tools, like the Excel spreadsheet, and you know what you're doing, then it comes down to that last week of preparation and planning.

Now that we have a solid list of customers, we're going to send out an order card for next year. I'm also trying to encourage the players to get out the local phone directory and make calls touting the value of the product. There is no doubt in my mind they can sell close to 30,000 units next year and probably net $40,000. is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.