As schools rely more on donations to pay for supplies, special events, and even teacher salaries, the demands to donate can be extreme. And that can put some families in a bind. Experts explain the issues and how to vet school fundraisers.

By Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Updated December 10, 2019
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Faith Boninger will never forget the woman who confronted her outside her younger daughter's elementary school because she wasn't participating in a wrapping paper sale fundraiser. Boninger was an involved parent, even served on the PTO board, but the woman yelled at her anyway, telling her she was wrong not to hawk the gift wrap and the school needed her support.

"She gave me such a hard time," remembers Boninger, co-director of the National Education Policy Center's Commercialism in Education Research Unit in Boulder, Colorado. "I was so angry."

Boninger's daughter is in college now, but the pressure on schools and parent groups to raise money has only grown. And as schools rely more on donations to pay for supplies, special events, and even teacher salaries, the demands to donate can be intense—and, in some cases, feel almost like a requirement. But, as the middle class falls further behind their upper-income peers, more families are struggling to make ends meet and can't afford $5 to attend an event or $25 on wrapping paper. These fundraisers can put parents and students in a sticky spot.

The Problem With School Fundraisers

Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, public school funding is still playing catch up. A large number of states continue to send schools less funding than they did a decade ago. Local governments are picking up some of the slack; so are fundraising efforts.

According to Giving USA, a report from the Giving USA Foundation and Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Americans donated nearly $60 billion toward education in 2018, up from $41 billion in 2008. Most of the money is donated to colleges and universities, but about one-third goes to schools serving kindergartners through twelfth graders.

"K through 12 fundraising is one of the fastest areas of fundraising in our country," says Bill Stanczykiewicz, who directs the Indiana philanthropy school's Fund Raising School, which provides educational programs for professional fundraisers and nonprofit leaders.

Often organized by parent groups, fundraisers can become enmeshed in the culture of a school. They appear in the form of school stores, fun runs, and fall festivals. Parent organizations and schools work with companies that fulfill candy, popcorn, or coupon book sales in exchange for a large cut of the revenue. Some partner with local restaurants and earn a portion of the sales—sometimes just 10 percent—during a dinner rush. In other cases, parents are expected to volunteer their time in the classroom or at a school event. But with multiple jobs, no child care, or no car, some simply can't get to the school to fill a shift.

Parents aren't the only ones who feel the pressure. When schools go to families for funds, students from low-income households face regular reminders that their family is different. That can have long-running impacts on kids. One study found that students from impoverished backgrounds can suffer from "poverty stigma" at school "that is as much a barrier to their learning as poor quality teaching."

How to Vet a School Fundraiser

When the next fundraising flier comes home, families must make individual decisions about their own participation based on what they can afford and their values. Are you OK with your kids going door-to-door to sell candy even if the school will only earn 40 percent of the sales? Do you want them to eat a $5 fast food meal, so their school can earn 50 cents? Is the sole focus of the event to raise money or is it to build community within the school too?

Just like with any fundraiser, if you’re not sure whether to participate, seek out more information from the group that is organizing the event, sale, or activity. Ask organizers how much the school will earn each time your child, for example, sells a tube of wrapping paper; how the money will be used; and what other fundraisers are held each year.

If you’re curious how the group is using its money, PTAs and most other nonprofits must file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service that spells out how much money it raises each year and what the funds go toward. Federal law requires nonprofits to make the forms available to the public, but you also can search for them online. If you’re new to the school, it’s also worth seeking out parents with children who have attended the school for a year or more for advice about the best ways to get involved and support the school community.

Fundraise the Right Way

Keep in mind, school fundraisers can be positive too. The fun run at one Maryland elementary school is the PTA's primary fundraiser, but Shana Westlake, the mom who organizes it, says donations aren't the exclusive aim. Any student can participate. Kids earn a prize even if they bring in a single penny. At the same time, they're learning about healthy lifestyles. Westlake, a freelance writer and event producer, says the goal is to build "a well-rounded event that's not single-minded and focused on, 'Can we raise as much money as possible?'"

“If you’re fundraising to put money back in the school, you want the students and families to know why you’re doing it,” says Westlake. “You want them to see the tangible evidence of here is where your money is going and this is why it’s beneficial. These events should be fun for kids.”

As schools plan their fundraisers, Stanczykiewicz recommends organizers and parents think not only about ways to make it a success, but also the lessons they're teaching kids about giving back. "Our school teaches that philanthropy is part of who we are, as people, as human beings," he says, and that we typically learn about it early, from families, friends, and communities. But it’s important to be careful how philanthropy is presented to kids.

“We don't want them to feel forced. We don't want this to feel so heavy-handed that they get turned off from philanthropic behavior later on in their lives,” he says. "We certainly need to always be mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion when we're inviting all people to be involved with charitable giving."

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