What Is Actually Happening Here? Fundraising Has Totally Jumped The Shark

by Christine Burke
Monkey Business Images/ Shutterstock

It’s no secret that I loathe fundraisers. Loathe.

But like a good parent volunteer, I do my part every year to help our schools raise the needed funds for technology, field trips, and library books. I peddle overpriced candles, pies, and wrapping paper to my wallet-weary neighbors. I bug my family to buy cookies, nuts, and popcorn during Boy Scouts fundraising efforts. I may not do it with a smile on my face or gladness in my heart, but I take one for the team and pitch in to help raise money for our schools. And I don’t roll my eyes when a perky mom tells me that I “only” have to sell 46 tins of stale chocolate pretzels to cover the cost of my kid’s scout camping trip.

Okay, I’m lying on that last part.

While I hate having to grovel for money in the name of helping our school reach a financial goal, I know that fundraisers are a necessary financial supplement in many districts. Fundraisers exist for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is to help children whose families can’t afford to foot the bill for expenses like field trips and other class activities. Fundraisers also assist schools with providing additional media, technology, and playground equipment beyond what a school district’s budget allows. And fundraisers can help families defray the cost of expensive sports equipment and league fees so that kids can have the experience of playing organized sports.

But my ire with fundraising does not lie with its necessity.

Rather, my irritation stems from parents who think it necessary to fundraise for luxuries and over-the-top functions for their kids who go to school in affluent districts. Districts where, due to high taxes and median incomes, schools do not struggle to provide competitive teacher salaries; safe, well-maintained buildings; and adequate staffing for students. There are school districts that send fourth-graders on field trips in luxury bus coaches and reward volunteers with extravagant gifts just for showing up to class parties.

And don’t even get me started about how over the top the actual fundraisers have gotten. Celebrity meet and greets. High-end silent auctions. Mattress sales.

Yes, really, mattress sales.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t know too many people who have the expendable income to drop coin on high-end mattresses just so kids can have six more smartboards in their school. And to a family who is struggling, telling them they need to sell mattresses to help defray school costs makes you look, um, full of…down feathers.

When my children were younger, I served on our elementary school board for several years and spent a year as the PTA president. Because my district is largely made up of affluent parents, I often encountered situations in which ideas for parties and field trips were met with anger by parents who were struggling to make ends meet. I witnessed affluent parents seeming to not understand that not every parent can just write a check for frivolous school activities and stubbornly insisting on expensive teacher gifts from the class.

When I had a mother tearfully call me and apologize because she didn’t have $20 to send in to pay for the next over-the-top class party a room parent had suggested, I realized that PTA spending and fundraising had officially jumped the shark.

Parents in affluent districts need to take a good, hard look at how their fundraising money is being spent. I think you’d be quite surprised to find out just how much that bounce house shaped like Hogwarts really costs. And if you just rolled your eyes, I don’t mind telling that your privilege is showing.

If you are a part of a PTA that is rolling out an actual red carpet for your kids to attend a school dance with a DJ that costs thousands of dollars, I’m asking you to rethink your priorities because I can guarantee kids are being left out, through no fault of their own.

Sure, a luxury coach for a field trip makes the day more exciting for kids. I get that. But such extravagances make it hard for families who rely on fundraisers to raise enough funds for their kid to participate. Most fundraising companies only kick back 10% to the kid selling (if that).

If a kid is expected to sell candles at $30 each for a field trip that costs $50–75, they’d have to sell 16–25 candles just to be able to set foot on that bus. No family should have to go through the hassle and embarrassment of having to peddle dozens of candles because affluent parents can’t step back and rethink lavish activities and overly expensive field trips.

Every child deserves to be able to participate in school activities and field trips, and no parent should ever have to feel embarrassed because they can’t afford the steep costs or don’t have enough family members to buy more crap.

Fundraising, like so many things, has gotten completely and utterly out of control. Most parents have the best of intentions when it comes to planning school events and trips, yet it seems like we’ve lost our ability to see the big picture. Kids don’t need luxury buses to go to the zoo when booking a regular school bus means every kid can attend with less of a financial burden.

And while I realize, too, that the competition for fundraising dollars is fierce between sports teams, schools, and scouting and parents have to be creative to convince people to part with their money, I think we can all agree that we can leave the mattress selling to the professionals.