When Beth Hendrickson first proposed selling garbage bags instead of candy as a school fundraiser, "people laughed at us."
They don't laugh anymore. Hendrickson, principal of St. Ann Interparochial School in Morganfield, Ky., says the school makes $20,000 a year selling garbage bags. And it's not just parents of the school's 230 students who buy them. Local businesses and government offices in Morganfield—population 3,500—buy garbage bags from the school as well.
"Nobody needs candy," Hendrickson says. "But trash bags—that's something everybody needs."
The trash bag sale, done through Bags for Bucks, is just one alternative to the candy-and-gift wrap sales that so many communities hold when school fundraising efforts resume each fall.
Some PTAs are going high-tech, using online platforms to solicit and process donations, selling digital images of kids' artwork on coffee mugs or magnets, and hosting scavenger hunts where clues are collected with cellphone photos.
And a few school groups have stopped selling products altogether, instead encouraging parents to simply write checks.
Bed sheets and greenraising
But others, like Hendrickson, are experimenting with sales of unusual products. The garbage bags were such a hit that when a company called Amadora approached Hendrickson about selling bed sheets, she gave it a try.
The first year, the school sold about $16,000 worth of sheets to fund new classroom technology. Last year, sheet sales dropped to $9,000—after all, how many sheets do families at one small school need?—but the company introduced new prints this year, so Hendrickson's giving it another go.
(Read more: Retailers take broad view of 'back-to-school' items)
Not all schools have found success with alternative products, however. Potter Road Elementary School in Framingham, Mass., tried selling organic goodies and items made from recycled materials through a company called Greenraising.
Nancy Novo O'Connor, co-president of the parent-teacher organization, said Greenraising was a great vendor to work with, but the organic products "did not raise nearly as much money" as the traditional sale of chocolates and wrapping paper, so they went back to a previous vendor.
Some schools have done away with catalog sales altogether, instead asking parents to make direct donations.
Alison Oleson, former president of the Sleepy Hollow PTA in Falls Church, Va., said with both parents working in so many families, people just don't have time "to go out and get their kids to sell things.
And schools can't get the volunteers to sit there and sort the wrapping paper and candy when it comes in."