Show Me The Money

February 01, 1999 3 min read
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For the past three years, the Rocky Run Middle School PTA in Chantilly, Virginia, has eschewed sales altogether. The group simply asks parents for cash. “A no-fuss fund-raiser” is how President Peggy Gould describes it. She concedes that members were nervous about the approach at first, but no longer. So far this year, the local PTA has raised about $5,000, and the year is only half over. “It makes things easier,” says Gould, who has a child at the 1,300-student school. “And by the high response rate I’d say people are pleased.”

Each year, schools and their PTAs enlist millions of students to sell everything from paper and T-shirts to pizza kits and magazines to help pay for computers, library books, playground equipment, and field trips.

The National PTA’s official stance on fund raising is that children should not be doing it. “They have enough to do in school and shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden for what should be a free education,” says Patty Yoxall, a spokeswoman for the Chicago-based group. “We know that it goes on, and we understand why and we respect that. But at the same time, fund raising shouldn’t be the overwhelming goal of the PTA.”

In recent years, safety has become a large concern, too. The 1997 murder of an 11-year-old New Jersey boy who was selling magazine subscriptions door to door heightened concerns about using children to raise money for schools.

The Atlanta-based Association of Fund Raisers and Direct Sellers, which represents more than 700 fund-raising companies across the United States, stopped endorsing door-to-door selling by students in 1996. And many districts in recent years have adopted policies that bar door-to-door student sales.

Despite the controversy, most schools continue to do such fund raising because it works. A school that hawks a product can often bring in as much as 50 percent of the retail price. “Schools still have bake sales and car washes,” says Vickie Mabry, associate director of the direct sellers’ association, “but the most effective way to make money is through product fund raising.” Last year, schools made $1.5 billion in profit from product sales and generated $3.4 billion in retail sales, Mabry says.

Elliot Bay Fund Raising Inc. has been working with students to pitch its products for less than a decade, but it has built a strong following among schools in the Redmond, Washington, area where it is based. The selling season there starts in September and finishes at the end of November. This year, the staff of 20 worked with 140 organizations, about 85 percent of them schools. Last year, the company brought in $1.5 million in sales. The average school that worked with Elliot Bay raised about $9,500. “The money that the state provides to the schools pays for the cake,” says Elliot Bay Vice President Pat Bieneman. “Fund raising pays for the frosting.”

There will be plenty of frosting this year at Washington Elementary, a school that works with Elliot Bay. Sales from the group’s fall gift-wrap fund-raiser hit an all-time high. The $10,700 that the school raked in will pay for a new sound system for the music room as well as field trips and the science fair.

Sara Pirkle, the school’s PTA fund-raising chairwoman, says she was tempted to try something else this year, but a survey of parents at the 445-student school showed they were still up for the traditional gift-wrap sale. “Most parents don’t feel tapped out yet,” she says.

Last year at Rocky Run Middle School in Virginia, the PTA brought in nearly as much as Washington Elementary raised this year--just over $10,000--but from donations and dues alone. “You send out requests,” says Gould, the local PTA president, “and they send money.” The group spent the cash on school functions, staff development, newsletters, computers, and software.

“It’s very easy to get caught up in fund raising,” Gould says. “But the role of the PTA is not as a fund-raiser but as an advocate for children.”

--Adrienne D. Coles


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