It’s October. Do you know where the paperwork for the latest school fundraiser is?
School fundraising has become big, big business. In a world where you almost can’t go a week without hearing about some cash-strapped school somewhere, it seems like a no-brainer to sell the community something of “value” and make money that is sorely needed. And of course there’s that captive work force of young people. The result is that if there is a school in your neighborhood, there is a fundraiser in your neighborhood.
I don’t really mind short fundraising events with clearly defined goals. A bake sale to raise money for kids who can’t afford to go on the class trip? I’m there! I don’t have a problem with the annual Book Fair either: not only do kids get an opportunity to own actual books they might read, but the school library gets money for — you guessed it — books! Actual educational materials! Radical thought! But it seems like every year there are more fundraisers with more nebulous goals and unstated purposes. Such events are counterproductive to the educational environment, and often to the needs of the community.
Fundraisers waste valuable classroom time. Every minute a teacher spends collecting order forms, answering questions about the fundraiser, or dealing with money from the fundraiser represents time he or she could be spending teaching or dealing with other classroom issues. Furthermore, any time a student spends listening to a company representative talk about a fundraiser, whether that time is in the classroom or (worse yet) in an assembly, is time that student is not reading, writing, doing math, working on a science experiment, or anything else that might educate or enrich. Fundraisers have never claimed to have any intrinsic educational value of their own.
Fundraising promises can be misleading to schools. Schools are promised a cut of the action, sometimes as high as 50% or even 90% with “no money up front.” Of course that doesn’t include administrative hassles and lost productivity. How much is the Principal’s time worth on an hourly basis? Furthermore, since the fundraising company’s job is to sell fundraising materials, the target projections may find themselves artificially inflated. Chinese math may ensue: “You have 500 students. If each sells $100 worth of product — and who wouldn’t want to sell $100 of our fabulous product — that’s $50,000!” Never discussed are shrinkage or cancelled orders.
Fundraising incentives are often misleading to students. Sell an impossible quantity of the product of the month and get a swell prize. (Administrators, please do not pay any attention to where the money for these prizes comes from!) Of course, all your classmates are your competition. To win the big prize, you clearly have to sell a lot of product not only to everyone you know, but to people you don’t know too. Oh, but wait, every school fundraising site out there specifically has the disclaimer that they don’t encourage unsupervised door-to-door selling. That brings us to….
Fundraising is intrusive to the entire family. There is great pressure to buy the product of the month. Furthermore, many parents feel obligated to take the ordering materials to work, to hit up the friends and relatives for orders, to take the kids on a supervised trip around the neighborhood. More than one parent has thought “How big a check to I have to write to make this go away?”
While fundraising products are always premium priced, they are often of unknown quality. Let’s just take coffee as an example. You know that you can go to the grocery store and buy 12 ounces of coffee grounds for $5, or you can buy the fancy grounds from a big name coffee place for more like $8-12. And that is how fundraiser coffee is priced. But you know what you are getting if you buy Folgers, and that it’s not the same as buying Starbucks or Peets. The only assurance you have that the fundraiser coffee is not utter swill is the word “gourmet” on the catalog. Frankly, the school might get a better deal from a wholesaler: product will be of a known quality, and no middleman gets a cut for providing flashy promotional materials.
Fundraising exacerbates the gap between schools in wealthy neighborhoods and in poor neighborhoods. Think about it. Rich school has no money for new team uniforms? Have a fundraiser, problem solved. Poor school has no money for additional textbooks? A fundraiser has to be absolutely fantastic to do the job. In poor neighborhoods, many families do not have money for gourmet coffee, overpriced wrapping paper, or frozen cookie dough. It isn’t that these people don’t care about their kids education, it’s just that they’ve already given everything they can.
Schools have a lot of things they are worrying about right now. Just for starters, there are the regulatory demands of “No Child Left Behind” and school violence and an official Look Out! notice from the Department of Education and even security issues at schools that happen to be polling places. Fundraising should be the least of their worries.