Funny Money

Scrip. You can’t join a synagogue or enroll your child in school without being hit up to buy it. Whether in the form of paper certificates, plastic gift cards or e-scrip online, this potent little fundraiser has become a major part of most nonprofit organizations’ annual budgets.

Scrip first became popular in the late 1980s with grocery and department stores, and is now available for everything from gasoline to The Gap. Organizations buy the gift certificates in denominations like $10, $25 or $100 at a discount, either straight from the company or through a scrip broker. They then sell the scrip, charging the full face value of the certificate and making a profit of up to 25 percent, depending on the type of scrip sold.

For larger organizations, scrip is a nice adjunct to standard fundraisers such as galas, luncheons and casino nights. Because of these and other resources, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino is one of the few synagogues that can afford to make scrip an optional part of its fundraising programs. The synagogue made a profit of $25,000 off the sale of scrip last year, according to bookkeeper Joyce Goldman.

"We haven’t wanted to get into requiring our members to buy scrip. When you have 1,600 to 1,700 households, the bookkeeping [for a scrip obligation] would be a nightmare," Goldman said. "We can make more on other things that are basically one-shot deals. But scrip does make money all year long, and for smaller shuls, it probably works better."

One of the smaller shuls that has seen enormous benefits from scrip is Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. The synagogue, currently at 325 family units, raises almost as much as Valley Beth Shalom: about $20,000 a year, according to incoming Executive Director Karen Boyer.

"People have fun with it, because it’s like Monopoly money," Boyer said. "A lot of vendors have gift cards now, which is great, because the biggest complaint from older people in the congregation was that they didn’t like using [the paper certificates] because they felt it looked like they were on some kind of assistance. With gift cards, there’s not that kind of a judgment."

Many Jewish private schools like Emek Hebrew Academy in North Hollywood rely heavily on scrip, even making it a part of their tuition schedule.

"We’re using scrip so the tuition does not need to be raised," said Eva Rosenberg, who has headed the school’s scrip program for the past decade. "Parents can either buy scrip or pay [an additional] $200."

Rosenberg said the decline in the economy unfortunately has had an impact on fundraising through scrip. The school used to make $45,000 from scrip sales and now makes about $35,000, she said, attributing the difference to cuts in the percentages that vendors are willing to donate. For example, one clothing outlet used to give 15 percent of scrip sales back to the school but reduced that to 10 percent last year.

Most market scrip, however, has remained stable. The most popular scrip, according to bookkeepers at various schools and synagogues, is gift certificates for Ralphs grocery stores.

"We usually buy about $20,000 worth of Ralphs scrip every month," said Goldman. "We only make 5 percent off of most scrip, so you can imagine we have to sell a lot of scrip to make that $25,000."

The Ralphs market scrip program has been in place for about 15 years and generates $3 million annually in donations to synagogues, schools and other nonprofit agencies, according to spokesman Terry O’Neil.

"How we benefit is that the scrip can only be redeemed at a Ralphs or a Food 4 Less, so, hopefully, people who haven’t shopped with us will come in and see what we have to offer," O’Neil explained. "It also generates good will in the community."

In addition to Ralphs scrip, Boyer said the new e-scrip program through Vons is very popular.

"You sign up online, and then every time you buy groceries and use your Von’s or Pavilions card, they [the company] keep track, and then we get a quarterly contribution by check," Boyer said.

Ralphs parent corporation, Kroger Co., is also looking into creating an e-scrip program. But no matter what the form, or whether or not people object to being obligated to buy it, scrip is clearly here to stay.

"A lot of other sources of fundraising have dried up, and this is still here," O’Neil said. "Not everyone needs to buy wrapping paper or candy, but everybody has to buy groceries."