When General Mills launched Box Tops For Education in 1996, coupon clipping was a household norm, and the idea of cutting a cereal box top (redeemable by participating schools for 10 cents) made a lot of sense. Twenty years later, while coupon-clipping isn't so commonplace, Box Tops for Education are on more products than ever, and — thanks largely to the PTA moms — schools are making tons of extra money off them.
Janine McQueen, a former board member at her children's school, Myers Corners Elementary School in Wappingers Falls, New York, says that since 2012, the school has earned more than $23,000 from redeemed Box Tops.
"That's cash we can do whatever we like with to help our school," said McQueen. "We've used the money to buy iPads, and [are now using it] to get new climbing equipment for our gym."
McQueen added that the school also uses Box Top money to enable families living below the poverty line to participate in school community events such as movie night.
McQueen estimates that before becoming involved with the Myers Corners' Box Top For Education program in 2012, the school was making "about $200 a year off Box Tops."
The reason for the lackluster earnings was, McQueen felt, due to a lack of awareness, and no community support. So she took action.
"I started sending out flyers, as well as an email newsletter that goes out every week," said McQueen, who in collaboration with fellow mom and Box Top enthusiast Anna Piliero of New Rochelle, New York, launched the Facebook page Box Top Moms in 2013. The page now has nearly 6,000 likes. While General Mills has an official Facebook page dedicated to Box Tops For Education — a vibrant presence with nearly 2.5 million likes — Piliero and McQueen saw an opportunity for a page specifically for moms to "ask questions and to vent" about the program, McQueen said.
What's there to vent about when it comes to free money? Well, cutting, organizing, and submitting Box Tops can be exhausting and time consuming, especially when you're trying to make enough money to have an impact.
As Angie Whitlach, a volunteer parent and PTA president at Guerrero Elementary School in El Paso, Texas noted, each Box Top, still worth 10 cents, must be cleanly cut precisely along the edges. They must be grouped into baggies of no more than 50, and each must be checked to see that it hasn't expired by the time it is mailed out. Each submission must be made by General Mills respective April and December deadlines.
"We get amounts [ranging] from 8,000 box tops that we have to count," said Whitlach, adding that she and other PTA parents collect Box Tops from students every week. "If you don't do it often, they accumulate and it becomes a monumental task."
One way to make it less stressful for the parents, is to get the kids involved. Whitlach says that the younger kids may help glue the Box Tops to a General Mills collection sheet, an alternative to the bags.
"We make a big deal about it so the kids get excited," said Whitlach.
Guerrero Elementary generally doesn't make a huge sum of money off Box Tops — about $300 every four months, Whitlach estimated, but it can go a long way. The money has funded playground equipment, dances, parties, and also a giant minion piñata — a feature Whitlach said the kids particularly relish.
Some schools rely on Box Tops bucks to fund extra educational activities for students. Audra Friis, mother of two and the VP of the PTA at Rolling Hills Primary School in Commack, New York, said that all money raised (somewhere in the thousands, Friis said) from Box Tops goes towards the school's Arts in Education programs.
"We fund field trips to museums, virtual field trips like the Philadelphia Zoo, and have guests at school to present programs [on subjects] like anti-bullying," said Friis.
At the end of every school year, the class with the most Box Tops collected receives Barnes & Noble gift cards "to promote reading through the summer," she said.
Other schools may use the money to help teachers with expenses that aren't already covered by the school.
"We're a new school, so this past first year our teachers needed a lot of things like books and rugs," said Lauren Smith, a PTO member at Pineapple Cove Classical Academy, adding that in its inaugural year, the school raised $1,564 in Box Tops.
"The goal for this year is $2500," said Smith, adding that the school's Box Top Coordinator, Christy Clayson, installed a "Reaching for the Stars" board in the school's cafeteria to allow kids to keep track of their class's Box Top progress.
"If you have a purple star your class has brought in 50 or more, yellow means 100 or more, red is 250 or more, green is 500 or more, and white is 1500 or more," said Smith.
"The program has grown tremendously over the last 20 years, with 35 million (or 1 in 3) US households, and more than 80,000 schools, participating," said Audra Carson, marketing manager at General Mills, leading the Box Tops for Education program. "Overall, schools have earned $780 million from the program."
Recognizing and adding to the Box Top 20th birthday momentum, General Mills launched the Box Tops Bonus App, a feature that clues consumers in to Box Top offers from their brands and retailers. The app can also be used to scan receipts to automatically credit the bonus Box Tops directly to a school's account, which cuts down on the hassle of physically collecting the Box Tops.
"While traditional Box Tops on product packaging aren't going away, we wanted to give schools even more opportunities to earn with exclusive bonus offers available only through the app. We also hope to use the app to enlist the next generation of participants," said Carson, adding that the Box Tops website is also boasting a new feature: a crowdsourcing tool called the Clip Board.
"Instead of seeking money, schools can start a collection drive for Box Tops [using the Clip Board] to share their needs and allow supporters to send in Box Tops," said Carson, noting that so far the Clip Board has seen more than 6,000 collection drives and 175,000 pledges.