Beyond the Bake Sale

By Haley Dunn

The Beatles proclaimed, “Money can’t buy me love.”  However, money can buy plenty of other things.

The value of a dollar is learned at a young age — even the youngest entrepreneurs know that a lemonade stand and a gap-toothed grin are good for a pound of candy or a shiny new toy. As they grow a bit older, these youthful wheelers and dealers have proved they are capable of coming up with even more creative ways to increase their cash flow.

Such an example of industry can be found in students who participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) program. They are not only receiving hands-on experiences that prepare them for careers in math, science, and/or engineering; these bright young minds are also coming up with innovative solutions to raise money to support their teams.

To raise the money needed to participate, FRC teams are thinking well beyond the bake sale and the car wash. These run-of-the-mill revenue boosters may be “tried and true;” but they’re also just tired. For most teams, these old-school fundraising strategies don’t pull in nearly enough money to support their team throughout the robotics season, nor do they allow the team to gain any sort of notoriety throughout their community.

While the undeniable innovation of FRC teams is evident on the robotics field at FIRST events, it is also safe to say that there is plenty of creativity going on behind the scenes well before the robotics season kicks off in January each year.

FRC teams are trying out a variety of inventive and often surprising tactics to raise money for their teams – and in doing so they are not only establishing themselves as a presence within their communities, they are raising some serious cash.

Drama for Dollars

The FIRST team from Erie, Penn. – Team #291 – has been bitten by the acting bug. The team’s main fundraiser is a Mystery Dinner Theater, which has raised a combined total of about $130,000 for Erie-area FIRST teams since it was first introduced in 1998.

“We’ve been doing it for so long that people wait for it,” said Michael Hayes, mentor for Team CIA (Creativity in Action). He said the formula for a successful Mystery Dinner Theater is:

[(6 suspects + 1 killer = 1 dinner/guest + 140 guests/show) + ($25/guest + 2 hours/show)] x 4 performances = $14,000/season

Students sell tickets and the money they make goes toward their own personal “student account” to cover the cost of travel, hotel rooms and other expenses associated with their participation in FIRST.

Additional funds go into a general fund and can be used for team pick-me-ups such as pizza or toward sponsoring local FIRST LEGO League (FLL) teams. Team 291 has also been known to share its earnings with other FRC teams in need. There are no starving artists here!

Happy Campers

The FIRST BadgerBOTS, FRC Team #1306 out of Madison, Wisc., runs a summer camp program for more than 120 campers.

For two weeks, campers experience planetarium visits, field trips to industrial offices and LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT-based robotics missions. Not only does this endeavor raise money for the BadgerBOTS’ FRC season, it also provides student team members with a “paying summer gig” and then some.

“The tuition we charge allows us to make this a paying job for our high-school camp counselors, pays for all of the required equipment … and now allows us to offer fee waivers as necessary in all of our diverse programs,” said team mentor, Ben Senson.

The BadgerBOTS Summer Camp is in its seventh year of operation and brings in a jaw-dropping $60,000 a year.

Persistence Pays Off

FIRST Team #1111 coach Victoria Preston explained the Power Hawks’ fundraising efforts best: “When you drive through a neighborhood around Annapolis, Md., you can see where the Power Hawks have been.” For the past two years, the team has been placing a flock of plastic pink flamingos on targeted lawns.

The victims of this polymer prank are given pamphlets about the local team, FIRST, and how to get involved. With their donation, homeowners can suggest a new lawn for the flock to migrate to. The unsuspecting casualties of the Power Hawks’ lawn attacks have had a choice —they can either acquire an impressive pink flamingo collection, or support their local robotics team (or both!).

According to Preston, the “flocking” has proven fun for the “flocker” as well as the “flockee.” “The focus of the flocking is truly on outreach to the community,” she said. “It’s a fun way to get our team name out there as well the name of FIRST.

What’s Cooking?

The Melrose, Mass., Kitchens Tour has brought in more than $24,000 in the past three years for FIRST Team #2713, the iRaiders.

“The idea is simple,” said team mentor James Horne. “Line up 10 homes with a variety of great kitchens, plant a student in each home to talk about the team, then sell tickets through the local real estate agencies for $20 each.”

Not only do the iRaiders get local real estate agents on board (“because they love to promote great homes”), but the team also gets companies to sponsor the kitchens (whether it be by donating cash, food, flowers, etc.).

This venture typically pulls in $5,000 in ticket sales and up to $4,000 in sponsorship donations. The revenue generated by the Melrose Kitchens Tour covers the cost of registration for the iRaiders as well as the cost of food, capital equipment, robot parts, laptops and public outreach.

“A key thing to remember is who your target audience is, how do you attract them and who are the players who can help you,” he said. “Just like how a poker tournament used to fundraise for a community baseball program, everyone who shows up is doing it for a cause – but most of them are very interested in poker.”


Accomplished inventor Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) in 1989 to inspire an appreciation of science and technology in young people. Based in Manchester, N.H., FIRST designs accessible, innovative programs to build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering. With support from three out of every five Fortune 500 companies and nearly $15 million in college scholarships, the not-for-profit organization hosts the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC ) and FIRST Tech Challenge (FTC) for high-school students, FIRST LEGO League (FLL) for 9 to 14-year-olds, (9 to 16-year-olds outside the U.S. and Canada) and Junior FIRST LEGO League (Jr.FLL) for 6 to 9-year-olds. Visit

Editor’s note: This article appears in the August 2011 print edition.

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