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Alternative ways to raise money has schools rethinking virtues of catalog sales

Sunday, March 9, 2008 | 4:46 p.m. CDT; updated 8:58 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

LIBERTY — Students asking relatives and friends to buy such things as gift wrap, magazines or cookie dough are as much a part of the school year as report cards and parent-teacher conferences.

But some PTA officials are saying enough is enough. They’re searching for alternatives to catalog sales that emphasize education and improving the school community, rather than raising the most money.

In suburban Kansas City, that’s been the goal at Franklin Elementary School in the Liberty School District for the last three years, where the PTA has replaced catalog sales with a four-week read-a-thon, with students getting pledges for the number of minutes they read.

“We decided that selling something out of a catalog did not support the goals of the school,” said Cheryl McCann, co-chair of Franklin’s Passport to Reading program. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but we were searching for other avenues.”

The trend is likely welcome news to tapped-out relatives and neighbors, who must either open their wallets or politely fend off armies of schoolchildren hawking items such as buckets of raw cookie dough, candy bars and magazine subscriptions.

Many groups choose the sales because they’re proven fundraisers. Students love the prizes they get if they meet sales targets.

But increasingly, PTAs across the country are looking for fundraisers that are creative and don’t turn students into salespeople, said Jan Harp Domene, president of the National PTA.

“We want parents to be engaged in the school and drive most of the fundraising, rather than using the students,” said Domene. “A lot of parents appreciate that. They don’t want to harass their relatives anymore. I mean, how many calendars can grandma buy?”

Some PTAs offer “painless fundraisers,” which give parents a chance to simply write a check to the PTA.

Jay M. Robinson elementary school in Charlotte, N.C., has offered that option for the last three or four years.

“It’s just a much easier way to do it,” said Karen Craig, president of the PTA. “If we ask for the money up front, they know that if they don’t come up with the money, we have to find another method, or the school doesn’t get what it needs.”

But some PTAs want fundraisers to unite families and the school community. The PTA at another Liberty elementary school, Alexander Doniphan, this year dropped catalog sales and offered a spaghetti dinner in conjunction with a fall festival.

“We felt that if we went in this direction, our families were going to get more out of it” said Michele Fullerton, PTA president at Alexander Doniphan. “It gave families a chance to sit down and eat together, and let the kids have fun.”

No one’s predicting the end of catalog sales anytime soon, mostly because they tend to be less time-consuming and profitable. And school-related groups other than PTAs — bands, cheerleaders or booster clubs — also use catalog sales.

Jeff Sirlin, president of School-Fundraisers.com, of Newton, Mass., said many groups like catalog sales because they don’t require startup money and usually return 40 percent to 55 percent of the money to the groups. The rest of the money raised is divided between product manufacturers, suppliers and freight companies, he said.

And Sirlin said catalog sales teach kids responsibility for putting in a group effort and financing their own activities.

“The kids involved realize the benefit from hard work at the end of the day,” he said.

While Sirlin says his group doesn’t offer incentives, many catalog sales entice kids to sell more by offering prizes, such as cheap toys, video game consoles and telescopes.

Those incentives draw the ire of some parents, particularly because many schools hold rallies to kick off catalog sales.

“The kids come home from those things in a frenzy” said Kelley Wrenn Pozel, co-chair of Franklin’s read-a-thon. “Then most parents have to say ‘No way you can sell that much.’

“We wanted them to get into a frenzy about reading, not about materialistic stuff. And we wanted an equal playing field, so the kids whose parents have the most money don’t always get the biggest prizes.”

The National PTA has pushed for several changes in fundraisers in recent years, including discouraging incentives. It also rejects door-to-door sales and currently is pushing catalog companies to provide healthy or nonfood products.

“The days of cookie dough or candy bar sales are nearly over,” Domene said. “Companies know now that if they want our endorsement, they had better have healthy alternatives and follow rigid rules that protect our children’s safety.”

PTA leaders at Franklin and Alexander Doniphan acknowledge that catalog sales are still popular with some parents.

“There is a small group of people who would like to go back to catalog sales because it’s easy and it makes a lot of money,” McCann said. “But nothing worth doing is easy. And are we going to teach our kids to take the easy way out? I’m not OK with that.”

The program’s participation rate has increased every year, hitting 64 percent this year, McCann said. The highest participation rate for catalog sales was 49 percent.

The last year Franklin offered catalog sales, the PTA had a budget of about $12,000 and raised between $9,000 and $10,000 from catalog sales. Before dropping the sales, the PTA examined its budget and dropped some programs that McCann called “fluff.” This year’s budget was $8,500, McCann said, and the reading program raised $9,270.

Alexander Doniphan parents also were concerned the spaghetti dinner would not make as much money as catalog sales, Fullerton said. But it brought in $7,800, enough so the PTA did not have to have a second fundraiser this spring.

For the PTA’s Domene, all the energy and time that goes into fundraisers masks the deeper issue — the lack of adequate funding for public education.

“It would be great if we did not have to do fundraising in our entire lives, if schools were funded fully and parents didn’t have to provide extra money,” she said. “It shouldn’t have to be the way it is.”


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