By Joshua Benton
It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing, Friday nights are for football, and small, sad-eyed children are asking you to buy a candy bar. Or some cookie dough. Or a roll of wrapping paper.
“My gosh, how many candles or mugs does a person need?” asks Jerry Cook, father of two daughters and recipient of countless sales pitches over the years.
But Dr. Cook isn’t just a parent: He’s also superintendent of Duncanville schools, and thus in a position to do something about it. At the start of school this year, he made it clear to district employees that the clamps were coming down on school fund raising.
“I’m trying to wean us off of it,” he said. “At some point, we’ve got to make sure that we’re using school time for what it’s intended for. And that’s learning, not selling.”
Product fund raising is a $4 billion industry in America, and almost 90 percent of that fund raising is done by schools, student groups, and PTAs, industry officials say. And while groups hawking the wares get to keep only a fraction of what they sell – less than half, usually – fund raising gives schools $1.5 billion they
wouldn’t otherwise have to spend.
But some schools are asking whether having students function as neighborhood sales reps is the best way to get those funds. They’re trying alternatives to the usual sales or turning away from fund raising altogether.
Dr. Cook has ordered that no Duncanville child below sixth grade will be involved with fund raising in any way, and older students will be prevented from selling door-to-door.
“People are tired of having the schools ask them for money,” said Alexis McLaughlin, an Indiana mom who was inducted into a national fund-raising “Volunteer Hall of Fame” this year for helping raise more than $170,000 for her children’s schools. “There are days when I have been in tears over it. Obviously, it’s never a pleasant task.”
More than before?
Because the industry is so decentralized, it’s difficult to determine if fund raising is more prevalent in schools than in the past.
In an unscientific study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals last year, 81 percent of principals surveyed said their schools use product fund-raisers, and 83 percent said they had seen an increased need for raising outside cash.
And while more than 90 percent said the time and effort are worth the result, more than half of the principals said they had heard parents’ complaints: There’s too much fund raising and too much pressure to sell products they think are sometimes shoddy or overpriced.
At some schools, product fund raising is a year-round endeavor, with one sale following another until the return of summer. But for many, this is peak season: just in time to sell goods for the Christmas season and early enough to pay for field trips or other second-semester expenses.
While there is much variety in the way they operate, most fund-raisers follow a simple pattern. Students or their parents are given a catalog or order form for a product and are asked to sell as many as they can.
Then the students hit up family and friends, and parents solicit their co-workers. The incentive to sell is strong: Many fund-raisers offer prizes or other enticements.
“I knew it was important to him to get that reward,” said Melody Davenport, a Euless parent who bought more than $50 worth of gift wrap, candles, and chocolate-covered peanuts so that her Wilshire Elementary School fifth-grader, Chuck, could attend a special party.
Wilshire children who sold 10 or more items from a catalog may attend a 90-minute party that features large inflatable party rides and games. For his part, Chuck didn’t worry much about polishing his salesmanship: “I knew my Mom’d buy 10, so I didn’t really try to sell to anybody else,” he said.
In previous years, those who didn’t sell enough had to stay in class; this year, they’ll get to watch a movie.
Like at other schools, the money raised at Wilshire – about $15,000 a year – goes to significant academic needs, such as curriculum materials, math games, and science equipment. Industry officials say many schools couldn’t make ends meet without selling candy, cookies, and the like.
“The items people purchase are typically things they’re going to purchase anyway,” said Russell Lemieux, executive director of the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors & Suppliers, an industry trade group. “They see it as a way to get things they need while helping out their local schools.”
Not everyone sees fund raising as such an unalloyed good thing.
“In one way or another, all school-based fund raising depends on the unpaid labor of students, parents, and/or teachers,” said Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University. “If teachers are using school time to sort through soup can labels, the public is essentially subsidizing these corporations.”
Fund raising has always been a contentious issue. Author Robert Cormier wrote a novel about it, 1974’s The Chocolate War, which detailed the pressure and physical abuse faced by a teenager who refuses to sell candy for a school fund-raiser.
In 1997, an 11-year-old New Jersey boy was murdered as he went door-to-door selling candy for a school fund-raiser; he was working to win a pair of walkie-talkies. After that, some schools nationwide created policies to limit or ban door-to-door sales.
Local schools have their own policies limiting sales, for reasons of safety, finances, or fund-raising fatigue. “We try to limit the number of fund-raisers we have each year,” said Priscilla Maxfield, principal of West Main Elementary School in Lancaster. “And we do not allow our kids to go door to door. But the money we raise does pay for some of the extras we can’t pay for otherwise.”
Others are seeking ways to raise money outside the usual sales. At Owen Elementary School in The Colony, PTA leaders have started a recycling program to partially take the place of traditional fund-raisers. “Instead of having parents get more junk in their house, we’re asking them to get junk out of their house,” PTA president Brenda Anderson-Brewner said.
Some PTAs are trying to get out of the fund-raising business. The National PTA has a policy against allowing children to be involved in any fund raising and discourages parents from spending too much time raising cash. But local chapters are autonomous.
Dr. Cook, the Duncanville superintendent, said that his district’s PTAs will have to come up with new ways to raise money within his new restrictions. He said he would use his discretionary fund to pay for some academic needs that fund raising used to cover.
“There is absolutely no question that fund raising is bigger now than it used to be,” he said. “If we spend one minute of time at the elementary level on fund raising, it’s too much.”
‘A love-hate thing’
Ms. McLaughlin, the award-winning seller, said she’s torn about the system’s merits. Most fund-raisers, she noted, return 30 to 40 percent of sales to the school group, some far less.
“It’s a love-hate thing,” she said. “You really want to help the schools … but how can you feel good when you know you’re lining some company’s pockets?”
Mr. Lemieux, the industry group director, said profit margins in the industry are “quite slim” because there is so much competition. The group has more than 650 member companies and estimates there are more than 1,600 in all.
Ms. McLaughlin said she also has seen the pressure on kids. “Some of the prizes are so unattainable,” she said. “In some fund-raisers, if you sell 125 items, you get a CD player. That’s probably a $1,500 sale, at least.”
But such concerns melt away when faced with a child asking you to help a school. What does Dr. Molnar, the industry critic, do?
“Generally, I just give the child some money,” he said, “and say, ‘Keep the candy bar.'”