Season of Selling Has Its Fans, But Some Just Say No

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Nearly every teacher, parent, and student across the United States is familiar with the fund-raising hullabaloo that grips most schools in the fall and spring. But not everyone is buying into the product-selling ritual.

For the past three years, the Rocky Run Middle School PTA in Chantilly, Va., has taken a decidedly different approach to raising money to pay for extras: The group simply asks for cash.

The Rocky Run PTA wanted to try what it calls a "no-fuss fund-raiser," said Peggy Gould, the group's president.

The pta was nervous about such an approach at first, but it seems to have worked. The group has raised about $5,000 so far this school year, and the donations continue to roll in for the 1,300-student school.

"You send out [requests], and they send [money] in," said Ms. Gould, who has a child at the middle school. "It makes things easier, and by the high response rate, I'd say people are pleased."

Each year, schools enlist millions of students to sell gift wrap, candy, T-shirts, pizza kits, magazines, and more to help pay for such things as computers, library books, playground equipment, and field trips that they would otherwise go without.

At Rocky Run, the PTA last year brought in more than $10,000 in donations from parents at the school and dues from its 850 members. The group uses the money for school functions, staff development, newsletters, computers, and software.

"It's very easy to get caught up in fund raising," Ms. Gould said. But "the role of the PTA is not as fund-raiser but as an advocate for children."

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," said 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," Ms. Yoxall said.

In addition, in recent years, safety has become a large concern for those arranging fund-raisers by students.

The 1997 murder of an 11-year-old boy in New Jersey who was selling magazine subscriptions door to door heightened concerns about children's safety.

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 sales by students.

"Safety has increasingly become an issue for children to sell anything," Ms. Gould said.

Money Talks

But no matter how controversial school fund raising may be, most schools continue to do it because it works.

A school that says yes to product sales can bring in up to 30 percent to 50 percent of the retail price of a product. Magazines, candy, and gift wrap continue to be the most popular fund-raising items.

"Schools still have bake sales and car washes," said Vickie Mabry, the associate director of the direct sellers' association, "but the most effective way to make money is through product fund raising."

As school budgets seem to buy less and less of what educators and parents believe students need, money from fund raising is becoming more and more important, she said.

Last year, schools made $1.5 billion in profit from product fund raising88 percent of the $1.7 billion total net profit for the industry, Ms. Mabry said. Overall, schools generated $3.4 billion in retail sales of fund-raising products.

The profit a school can make depends on the product it agrees to sell, said Bob Burleson, the president of Express Industries, a Houston-based fund-raising company. Mr. Burleson's company works with schools in 20 states.

"Every year, we help earn several million in profit [for schools] across the states," Mr. Burleson said. But he declined to say how much of that profit goes to his company.

For the past 15 years, sales representatives from Express Industries have called on schools. Its agents display catalogs offering a variety of cheeses, sausages, cookies, candles, collectibles, and gift wrap. The company provides instructions on how to write fund-raising letters, how best to display products, and how to keep students safe while selling.

"School budgets are no more generous now than they were" two decades ago, said Mr. Burleson, a former teacher. "The services in the past 20 years that have taken place on the behalf of students in the name of fund-raising are phenomenal.

Some schools earn hundreds or thousands of dollars each year to help their budgets."

Elliot Bay Fund Raising Inc. has been in the fund-raising business for less than a decade, but it has built a strong customer following among schools in the Redmond, Wash., area where it is based.

The selling season 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, said Pat Bieneman, the company's vice president.

Last year, the company brought in $1.5 million in sales, and 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," Ms. Bieneman said. "Fund raising pays for the frosting."

There will be plenty of money for extras this year at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon, Wash., said Sara Pirkle, the PTA fund-raising chairwoman for the school, which works with Elliot Bay. Sales for the group's fall gift-wrap fund-raiser have hit an all-time high.

The $10,700 that the school raked in will be used to buy a new sound system for music classes and pay for field trips, the science fair, and other activities.

Ms. Pirkle said she wanted to try something other than gift-wrap sales this year, but a survey of parents at the 445-student school showed they were still up for that traditional approach.

"Most parents don't feel tapped out yet," said Ms. Pirkle, whose two children attend Washington Elementary.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 1, 13

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Season of Selling Has Its Fans, But Some Just Say No
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