From a fundraising perspective, this is how the first half of the school year went: September opened with gift wrap and candles. These were followed by pies, school apparel, and the book fair in October and November. The holidays were ushered in with a toy store shopping night, an in-school gift shop, and a membership offer from a club store. After winter break, the kitchen counter filled with flyers for notepads, pizza kits, and cookie dough.
As they say on TV infomercials, “But wait, there’s more!” At our most recent PTO meeting, a zipper pull with our school name on it was unveiled. So when, at the same meeting, someone suggested we ditch next fall’s product sale and hold a community event instead, it felt like the doors of the shopping mall had been flung open and we were finally free to leave.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that our fundraising income is down this year. It appears to stem from a classic case of cause and effect. Too many solicitations have led to diminishing returns. When a PTO has one or two product fundraisers a year, it’s easy to make the connection between a scented candle and your child’s education. If you buy the candle, you’re supporting the school. But when the number of product fundraisers edges toward the double digits, the focus drifts from the school to whatever it’s trying to sell you.
When that happens, parents flip through the catalogs, then toss them, figuring there’s no reason to buy a bucket of cookie dough when next week their kid might bring home a better offer. At that point, the relationship between school and family begins to look less like a partnership than a commercial transaction.
I’m not against product fundraisers. A few carefully chosen ones are a great way to raise cash for your school. They only become a problem when a PTO gets caught up in a retail mentality. A flood of fundraisers burdens parents with pressure to buy. I also think it perpetuates the notion that kids need to spend money to be happy.
Our kids are already exposed to too much advertising—40,000 TV commercials a year on average, some researchers estimate. People living in cities see up to 5,000 ad messages a day, according to market research firm Yankelovich Inc. Many children define themselves by what they own, not who they are. They’re always looking for the next thing to buy and nagging their parents to buy it for them. According to the nonprofit Center for a New American Dream, teenagers will ask their parents for products they’ve seen advertised an average of nine times before their parents give in.
One of the benefits of being involved with our children’s school is that we get to see—and often influence—what our kids are taught. To me, one of the most important things we can teach them is that we’re a culture, not a consumer market, and that our talents and skills are worth far more than what’s in our wallets. That said, product fundraisers certainly serve a purpose. When done well, they bring healthy amounts of cash to PTOs—money that’s used to improve our schools and enrich our kids’ educational experiences. As long as we keep our focus on those objectives and continue to communicate them to families, our kids will come to understand what’s truly important in life.