In 1991 the National Scrip Center was operating out of a church rectory in
Petaluma with four women taking orders by hand.
Today, the nonprofit group, now based in Santa Rosa, employs 85 people,
uses computers and is so busy that a shipping company regularly sends a jet to
Sonoma County to pick up its overnight deliveries.
The National Scrip Center generally is considered the nation's largest
distributor of scrip retail certificates, the hottest school fund-raiser in
the county, if not the nation.
``It's the easiest fund raising,'' said Maggie Bridgman, a volunteer scrip
coordinator at Sonoma's Flowery Elementary School, which raised $8,000 last
year. ``I've done gift wrap, I've done book sales, I've done the Halloween
carnival, and those are major, major work.''
Begun under the auspices of the Catholic Church, the Scrip Center is now an
independent nonprofit corporation. The center's officials estimate they have
helped volunteers raise more than $50 million in eight years to benefit
schools, churches and youth groups.
The center serves an estimated 170 schools and nonprofit groups in the
county, and 6,200 nationwide. In the past eight years those groups have sold
more than $1 billion worth of scrip.
Scrip has been around in simpler forms for at least two decades. It relies
on retailers selling large volumes of gift certificates at a discount to
nonprofit organizations, who then get parents to pay full price for the scrip
and use it when shopping for everything from groceries to holiday gifts.
However, the Scrip Center revolutionized the marketing of the certificates.
Before the center's existence in 1987, a school often needed $5,000 or more
in cash to buy a single store's scrip at the maximum discount. When the center
began, it became a sort of scrip broker, where schools could obtain small
quantities of certificates from several different retailers. Schools and youth
groups signed up in droves to take part in the program.
Today the center stocks certificates of 125 different stores and
restaurants, including Sears, Price-Costco, Albertsons, Wherehouse, Fresh
Choice, Sizzler and Longs.
Last year alone the organization sold nearly $240 million worth of scrip to
schools and other groups, according to its financial returns. Those nonprofit
groups earned somewhere between $12 million and $15 million, center officials
estimate. The center, meanwhile, earned nearly $4 million.
As a result of the center's success, a handful of for-profit businesses now
also market scrip on a regional or national basis. Several others do so on a
smaller scale. And more and more retailers seem willing to accept
certificates. One scrip company estimates that 300 major corporations used
scrip last year to donate $50 million to nonprofit organizations.
Still, some retailers have balked at the growth. Among them, The Dayton
Hudson Corp., owner of Target and Mervyn's stores, no longer sells scrip.
The corporation was selling $30 million in certificates a year when it
pulled the plug on the program in late 1995, said Sandra Salyer, a spokeswoman
for Mervyn's. Salyer and a Target spokeswoman said Dayton Hudson already
donates 5 percent of profits to community groups.
Moreover, its officials objected that so much of the money went to