Birth of a Sales Force

It’s time to get serious about school fundraisers

TO: All parents of K–6 students

FR: Melvin “Skip” Raffles

RE: Fundraisers (ugh!)

Greetings! As the incoming Activities Chair for the Parent Participation Committee here at Ronald Wilson Reagan–Martin Luther King Jr. Consolidated Elementary School, I would like to introduce myself by posing a simple question: Would you rather have yourself dipped in honey and flung onto a nest of fire ants than endure another typical school fundraiser? I thought so. Permit me a follow-up, then: Would you, in order to avoid ever again having to deal with candy sales, cakewalks, magazine-subscription drives, and silent auctions of underwhelming merchandise, be willing to put aside your assumptions regarding the proper role of children in revenue-generating enterprises? Don’t answer that one quite yet. Give me a few minutes to lay out my vision.

During the 2007–08 school year, my own son sold me, among other things, 22 chocolate bars of questionable provenance, nine rolls of flimsy gift wrap, and six slightly warped “Kountry Kottage” candles, which infused my house and the houses of my relatives with the persistent tang of rancid potpourri. I expect most of you made similar purchases from your cherished offspring. Why did we do this? Because Gipper King needed the money. (Note: “Gipper King” is the nickname our family uses when talking about Ronald Wilson Reagan–Martin Luther King Jr. Consolidated Elementary School. Not to get too far ahead of myself, but I recommend that the Parent Participation Committee seek trademark protection for that moniker, the better to brand our future business enterprises.) Yet even though we bought all this stuff we didn’t want or need, the net receipts to Gipper King—for the entire year, from all 356 families—were $23,086. When you consider that the school’s budget shortfall was more than three times that amount, it’s clear that something’s got to change.

One afternoon last winter, I happened to be at school when I came upon venerable custodian Bud Zauber standing forlornly in an empty hallway. He told me it had been five years since he’d had a supply of what he quaintly called “sick-up dust.” We all remember that aromatic sawdust from our own elementary-school days, and the fact that we can’t fulfill even that basic facilities requirement merely puts an exclamation point on the situation. I ran down to Sam’s Club and bought Mr. Zauber the biggest sack of kitty litter they had. He thanked me earnestly, but I could tell he felt it just wasn’t the same.

At this point in my argument, people generally say to me, “Skip, Skip, Skip, just tell me how much you need from each family and I’ll write you a check.” Well, the committee tried that once. We sent out a letter saying that if each family could make a one-time donation of $200, there would be no fundraisers for the whole year. It failed miserably. Some families couldn’t afford it, of course—but most could, and few bothered to pay up. Why? Because, despite what people say, they don’t want a cut-and-dried arrangement when it comes to supplemental school funding. They want a little business. They want some razzmatazz. They want jumbo candy bars and pink flamingo gift wrap. They want to shop. They need to shop. They don’t feel quite American if they’re not able to shop. Shopping, after all, is what saved our nation after 9/11. Shopping is the model by which we educate our children today. What is “school choice” but shopping by another name?

As a direct-marketing professional, I understand and embrace this cultural reality. Frankly, I embrace the living daylights out of it, and I think I’m uniquely positioned to leverage it for the betterment of our school. But to do that, I need to know my fellow parents are with me. If we’re going to move the needle, revenue-wise, we can’t indulge in timidity or naysaying. I can’t spend all my time smiling in a pleasant but noncommittal fashion at people who say, “But, Skip, I feel we’re losing sight of the true purpose of education here,” and “Skip, it seems as if you’re actually trying to monetize childhood in general and our children’s lives in particular,” and “Skip, don’t you know that Bud Zauber owns seven cats?” and “Skip, you scare me.”

Look, society decided back in Shirley Temple’s day that childhood could be monetized, and our schools—Gipper King included—have never had a problem turning kids into unpaid sales reps. So why do we feel it’s only appropriate for them to sell low-margin, low-status products? “Dick, Jane, and Sally, the school that is stocking your minds and molding your characters is short on dough, so we really need you to get out there and push the maple-nut logs and the cheap trinkets, okay?” It’s insulting. My child is better than that, and so is yours. Every kid in our school has, on average, 3.53 living grandparents. The last thing those doting oldsters need is 4,000 calories’ worth of rock-hard chocolate. They need medicines, burglar alarms, specialized car insurance, incontinence garments, walk-in bathtubs, Harley-Davidson parts, and burial plots, just for starters. For these and hundreds of other items, a loving grandchild is the ultimate sales vector. We’re talking relationship marketing at its absolute finest: ultra-low overhead with massive repeat-business upside. So what’s holding us back? The weight of tradition, the inability to think big, and a sad case of the heebie-jeebies.
If I say to you, “Why a cakewalk? Why not an event where, when the music stops and the lucky number is drawn, the winner gets a titanium hip?”, do you react with enthusiasm or dismay? When enough of us get to enthusiasm, we’ll be on the road to fundraising glory.

And we won’t stop there. We’ve got exploitable assets all over the place. For instance, a spacious cafeteria that sits vacant for about two-thirds of the day: I see low-walled cubicles, ergonomic chairs, honor students in wireless headsets. For the past eight years, my company has been outsourcing its order-taking and customer-service functions to an outfit in Mumbai. They do a decent job, but I’d rather give the business to Gipper King. I could see the school knocking down half a million per annum, easy, while the kids learn to read from scripts, enter data, and practice diplomacy. And if we make it part of the curriculum, there’s no child-labor issue.

One day last spring, when I stopped by Gipper King with Skip Jr.’s anxiety meds, I heard a classroom full of third graders singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Their voices were clear and sweet, blending with birdsong drifting in through an open window; the sunlight fell in golden pools on the linoleum. I found myself almost carried away by the sheer loveliness of the moment. Then I said to myself, “Wait a second. ‘Gently’? ‘Down the stream’? ‘Life is but a dream’? Is this the picture of existence that we’re putting out there for our precious innocents?” And that’s where this campaign of mine really began.

Where is it written that a young child is fit to sell candy but not pharmaceuticals? Wrapping paper but not real estate? Kitchen gadgets but not firearms? We’re a public school—why aren’t we giving the public what market research tells us it wants?

Are you with me? Let’s go for it! Otherwise, I’ll see you at the Gipper King Autumn Festival. And you’d better not bring a store-bought cake.

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson, for his part, is of the opinion that “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” contains the wisdom of the ages.