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Charitable extortion

October 15, 2007

by Ivan Raconteur

Another school year has begun, and with it, another round of parents fleecing their friends, co-workers, and casual passers-by.

Wary customers will once again take to diving around corners and hiding in broom cupboards when they see another zealous colleague approaching with the inevitable order form in hand.

Others will screen their calls and hide behind the furniture when neighborhood kids come to the door.

It is not that we are anti-school (or whatever organization is hustling this time). It is just that enough is enough. There are too many people out selling overpriced products for the cause du jour.

Fundraisers have been described as a necessary evil. No one wants to participate in them, and no one wants to be touched by the perpetrators, but still they go on.

Any product a person could want (or not want) is available for purchase.

If you are a fan of over-priced wrapping paper, some kid will have just the thing for you.

If you would rather have a giant tin of double-chocolate caramel popcorn or a stack of frozen pizzas, they can take care of that, too.

Recently, one adventurous young lady even tried to sell me roses. I told her that if I purchased the roses, I would have to give them to her, because I could not think of any earthly use a curmudgeon would have for flowers.

It used to be that groups would do fundraisers only for special projects such as a class trip, but now it seems that everyone is getting into the act.

One can’t swing a cat without hitting a potential salesperson.

Back in the dark ages when I was a lad, those in charge justified the fundraisers by saying we would learn salesmanship and how to deal with the public.

Today, kids are often not allowed to sell door-to-door, out of an unfortunate but understandable concern for their safety.

As a result, the parents are the ones who end up hawking the treats or trinkets, and the kids are left completely out of the process.

The parents put the squeeze on everyone they know. Technology has made this even easier, and now people can hit up everyone in their address book with a blanket e-mail solicitation.

We are not safe in our homes, and we are not safe at work.

Some sympathetic employers have banned fundraising in the office. It is not that these employers are against the organizations, they are simply trying to protect employees from the endless barrage of solicitations. These policies also prevent employees from feeling pressured to buy another magazine subscription or whatever else their supervisor’s kid is selling.

In offices that do allow fundraising, many workers fall victim to the subliminal approach, in which an employee places an attractive plate of $1 chocolate bars or a stack of boxes of cookies on the corner of his desk with a discreet card attached.

The chocolate calls out to passing co-workers, and by the end of the day, the treats are gone, and the employee has an envelope of cash to take home for little Billy’s hockey team or little Brittany’s Girl Scout troop.

There are plenty of ways to raise funds that would actually involve the kids, such as car washes or bake sales, and at least these provide a learning experience.

Fundraisers are a curse, but what can we do about it?

Some parents would prefer to opt out of the game, and simply write a check to the school or organization to save them the hassle (and perhaps embarrassment) of hitting up their friends for another sales drive.

They may also want to avoid the hassle of filling up the loser cruiser with cases of tawdry trinkets to deliver, or the challenge of having to find freezer space for dozens of vats of frozen cookie dough until customers pick them up.

Many buyers would also prefer the cash option, so that they know 100 percent of their donation will go to the school, instead of supporting some third party.

Many people actually donate more when the cash goes directly to the organization than they would if they were asked to buy products that they don’t want or need.

This doesn’t work for everyone though. One woman who is in charge of fundraising for her local PTA explained that some people tell her they don’t care what it is, but they want to get something for their money. If a student wants to sell them a 99 cent candle for 10 bucks, they’ll take it. It is a matter of principle, apparently.

Perhaps instead of selling overpriced trinkets, organizations could sell opt-out flags.

The students or members could make the flags, and any money they raise would go directly to the organization.

The flags could be printed with a message such as, “I have already donated – leave me alone,” so that those who have supported the cause could wave the flag to warn off other would-be solicitors.

As budgets continue to get tighter it is likely that we will be faced with even more sales drives.

Unfortunately, when times are tough, the people who are being targeted by fundraisers also have less money to work with.

Fundraisers should be limited to things that an organization really needs, rather than things it wants, because the more extortion campaigns that take place, the less money will be available for each group.

Another danger is that schools can come to rely on volunteer fundraisers, rather than funding some activities through traditional sources.

This will perpetuate the problem and lead to even more aggressive sales campaigns in the future.

There are plenty of worthy organizations out there that legitimately need help, and a fresh approach to fundraising could result in more money for them, and more closet space and fewer calories for the rest of us.