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Parents Unite Against Dumb School Fundraisers!

Last week I unzipped my daughter's backpack and found a catalog for Yankee Candle. That same night I heard from a friend in Seattle, seeking guidance on pricing items she was required to donate to a silent auction for her daughter's school. The next day, a friend in Connecticut e-mailed, selling chocolate bars for her child's preschool.

It's a fact of life, I'm learning quickly, that schools have to fundraise. Early and often. Public school, private school - it doesn't matter. Budgets are tight. Families of preschoolers are not exempt.

But it's time for parents and principals to wise up. Because there are effective fundraisers, which benefit schools and raise a lot of money with little work. And there are terrible sales schemes, which raise some money for schools, but do more to pad the bottom line of the companies marketing cheap goods. Katherine Wertheim, CFRE, a professional fundraiser in Ventura, California, spelled it out for me here.

Buyer Beware:

Restaurant fundraisers: Eat at this Friendly's or that California Pizza Kitchen between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and your school will earn 15% of sales! "That means that for the school to earn one dollar, you have to spend roughly seven," Wertheim points out. "People should sit down and do the math." On a $35 bill, the school earns $5.25. The only time it makes sense is if you were going to eat out anyway.

Product sales: Popcorn, wrapping paper, cookie dough, pasta or candles. The school might get half of the sales. So a parent has to spend $23 for a Yankee Candle for the school to receive $11.50. Why not just write a check for $23 to the school?

What's worse, many of these companies visit the school and pull the kids out of class for a "presentation" detailing the prizes kids can win if they're top sellers. Wertheim once bought $42 worth of gift wrap from a boy raising money for a school trip. "I asked him what he needed it for, and he couldn't articulate why they were going on the trip and what it cost," she remembers. "But he could beautifully articulate how much wrapping paper he needed to sell to get special bonuses from the company. I'd rather write a $25 check straight to the school."

Silent auctions: Take care if you're buying items to donate to the auction, because the average item gathers two-thirds of its retail value. If you spend $120 on wine for an auction, as Wertheim once did, and the highest bidder pays $80, you'd be better off donating $80 straight to the school.

Fundraisers Worth Trying:

Walkathons: At least the kids are getting some exercise. And 100% of the pledges they collect go to the schools.

Scrip: If you're going to be buying groceries or gas anyway, might as well have a small percentage of that purchase benefit the school. Programs vary, the easiest ones allow you to register your credit cards and loyalty cards to track your purchases.

Just Ask: Businesses might be interested in paying to hang a sign on the baseball field fence; they'll consider it an advertising expense. Approach local service clubs with a well-reasoned pitch for why the school needs money. You might be surprised how easily you get a $500 or $1,000 donation for the school. While you're asking, teach kids how to make the fundraising case too, and have them write thank you notes.

Bottom line? Parents unite! Here's Wertheim's take: "I think the parents need to go to principals and say, 'There will be no more product sales to our children, and no more catalogs. Tell us what you need and make the case why you need it. We will make the case to other people why we need it. We don't mind walkathons, but you are not going to have our students taken out of class to view a presentation by a corporation that is going to make at least 50% on the dollar from kids selling their schlocky products.'"

Photo courtesy Flickr user Steven Depolo, CC 2.0
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