I'm the PTO president for our school.
We do a couple of fundraisers a year. Our school is totally low income; there is no way people could write a check for a school fundraiser.
But I agree, selling crap sucks. We were supposed to sell crap last year; we just didn't participate. One reason I'm president is because of this. This year we sold flower bulbs. We got 50% of the sales, and the flowers were really cool.
Our other fundraiser is a winter party. We have local musicians play, we supply food for purchase, and solicit donations from local businesses for a silent auction. It's alot of fun; the idea is that it is a fundraiser *and* a community event.
The money covers stuff that the lack of federal and state funding leaves hanging. Like books for the library, classroom supplies, that sort of thing. This year we have bought books and magazine subscriptions for the library, specific supplies for the classrooms (like math flashcards for the fourth grade), and some special reading books for the upper grade book groups. That sort of thing.
I know that some PTOs go way overboard. We were comparing stats with another PTO (*not* low income); they have a $20,000 a year budget, and do stuff for the playground, end of school carnival, and teacher inservice. Which are fine things; but not really a priority for our school.
Every day I get solicitations in the mail from companies like Readers Digest, Nestle, Pizza Hut, frozen cookie dough, plastic crap from china, etc. It is amazing; it's a huge market. I am definately not into that, and luckily neither are most of the parents on the PTO (all 12 of us....). Next year if we don't do the flower bulbs, we have found a small firm in a neighboring town who makes organic candles. We've contacted them and they are interested in doing some sort of fundraiser.
I totally understand the complaints about the crap, and the constant bombardment and solicitation. I guess my advice would be to get on the PTO and have a say in what is sold. Look around at local businesses and see if any of them (candle shops, local artists, local restaurants, flower shops, etc) would be interested in working with you on a fundraiser. The winter party that we put on is a huge pain in the bum, but it is a lot of fun. Right now it doesn't raise enough money that we can quit selling something in the fall. But our hope is that it continues to grow to the point where it raises a couple thousand a year consistently; that's all we need to fund what our PTO wants to fund.