When fundraising becomes a full-time job


How to stop the madness and set limits By Cindy Mehallow

Selling Girl Scout cookies is just one of the many fundraising activities kid may be involved in.

It wasn't the annual Boy Scout pancake breakfast, the Glenview Youth Baseball raffle or the Girl Scout cookie sale. It wasn't even the elementary school's Jump Rope for Heart event or my garden club's plant sale that pushed me over the edge. I knew those fundraisers were coming and had carefully allocated respective solicitations to specific friends, family and neighbors. But when our newly joined church youth group announced that my 11-year-old twin boys needed to solicit sponsors for the annual work day, I started seeing green.

Actually, I started seeing the lack of green.

I had developed a comprehensive annual family fundraising plan, which determined months in advance exactly who could be approached for what.

But when I learned of the work day, our contacts were tapped out. Everyone we knew-along with many unknown residents in neighboring communities-had already been approached.

While frustrated by the many fundraising events my family confronts each year, I nevertheless felt it was important for my children to support each organization they participated in.

Vowing that my sons would participate and not return empty-handed, I unearthed two new markets: church members without children in the youth group and sympathetic local corporations.

Why did I go to such lengths? Why do any parents in a time when fundraising takes the time and energy of the entire family? In a world when it isn't safe to send kids door-to-door, if your child is out raising money, you are too.

Developmental experts say children learn valuable lessons when helping to financially support an organization in which they are involved. Is it important for children to roll up their sleeves and raise money? Or are we just asking them to pick up the slack in a rough economy? And how much is too much?

Learning life skills Matt Ackerman, Scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America's Northeast Illinois Council, agrees that participating in "money-earning projects," as the Scouts dub them, helps teach values.

"Kids begin to learn that all through their life, somebody has to pay somewhere. There is no free lunch. They realize that they're going to have to earn money," says Ackerman.

The Boy Scouts structure their money-earning projects so they're both learning-and earning-experiences. Many rank advancements, and several merit badges (entrepreneurship, personal management and salesmanship), incorporate activities and skills involved in money-earning projects, notes Ackerman.

Participating in fundraisers can contribute to intellectual, social and emotional growth, according to Linda Rubinowitz, director of Northwestern University's Graduate Program in Marital and Family Therapy.

Intellectually, it's an opportunity for children to gain problem-solving skills and learn how organizations work. My son, Michael, clearly grasps this concept. "We sell popcorn to help our troop purchase new equipment like cook boxes and propane stoves for camping trips," he explains. "Plus, it gives me money to go to summer camp."

Emotional maturity can be fostered at any age, Rubinowitz says, noting that hawking wares door-to-door helps kids learn to handle rejection. Conversely, kids gain confidence when they muster up the courage to knock on a strange door and then succeed in making a sale.

Personal finance guru Terry Savage credits her first experience with "making money" and calculating financial achievement to her sales experience with Girl Scout cookies.

Now a nationally known expert on personal finance, Savage is the Chicago Sun-Times' personal finance columnist, author of three books, a corporate board member and a regular commentator on CNN, PBS and NBC on financial issues.

Savage recalls, "I was determined to sell the most in my troop. And whenever I found a block that obviously had no little Girl Scouts living on it-and where everyone wanted to buy-I'd race back home to fill up my bicycle saddlebags with cookies and get back and sell some more before anyone else discovered this great territory."

The thrill of financial success can linger long after the last cookie is sold.

"To this day, when I accomplish something in multiples, it reminds me of that experience selling lots and lots of Girl Scout cookies," Savage says.

Even tenacity can be acquired. "I learned that earning money takes a lot of time," says my other son, Matthew. Reflecting on five years of popcorn selling, he ticks off what he's learned: patience, selling skills, organization and confidence.

Valuing relationships With so many fundraisers and so few customers, children also learn to value relationships, another critical skill.

"This is a place to build good judgment," says Rubinowitz. "Children learn to assess relationships, weigh them against the need for funds and understand the limits of various relationships."

Shawn Dragman, nursery school teacher, Girl Scout cookie coordinator and Glenview mother of three, has clear boundaries on who her kids bombard. When soliciting monetary pledges or sponsorships, such as her daughter Molly's Titan swim team pentathlon, friends and neighbors are strictly off-limits. Only relatives can be approached for monetary donations.

"To me, asking people to give money is different from asking them to purchase merchandise such as Boy Scout popcorn or Girl Scout cookies," she believes.

"How well do you know your neighbors?" muses Dragman. "How often you do talk to them? Just when you need some money?"

Dragman questions what values the myriad fundraisers teach our children.

"What ever happened to working hard for your money? I would rather have my kids do chores around to raise money than solicit donations," Dragman says. Simply asking for contributions teaches kids to look for handouts, she adds.

Helping others Raising money to help others falls in a different category from selling raffle tickets to underwrite the local youth baseball program, says Dragman. That was an underlying theme of Dave Jones' philosophy-raising money for medical research through Jump Rope for Heart helps those less healthy. Selling raffle tickets for the baseball teams, conversely, mostly helps the seller have a snazzier uniform. And how necessary is that? So, even though I'm weary of watching them ring door bells, my maternal pride rises when my sons burst in the door, announcing it's time for their elementary school's annual Jump Rope for Heart fundraiser.

"It feels good to be helping other people," Michael says, referring to those who suffer from heart disease. "You want to help others because you know if you had that problem you would want others to help you," chimes in his twin, Matthew.

That's the message from Jones, physical education teacher for Pleasant Ridge Elementary School in Glenview and coordinator for the school's Jump Rope for Heart event for the past 15 years. A program of the American Heart Association, Jump Rope for Heart raises money to fight heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer.

Under Jones' leadership, Pleasant Ridge has become the No. 2 all-time fundraising school in the United States. In the annual numbers, Pleasant Ridge came in second in Illinois last year and 15th nationally.

"Participating in [Jump Rope for Heart] helps teach kids the idea of helping others," Jones says. "It broadens their ideas of what living in society means. For the past decade or so, society has emphasized the importance of each individual's rights. It's important for children to learn that, yes, you do have rights, but you also have responsibilities to others. Sometimes your rights need to go down a little so that you can give back to others who are less fortunate."

While Shawn Dragman won't let her kids support causes that solicit funds, she encourages altruism in other ways. Each Christmas, the family purchases gifts for a local family through an elementary school program. And her kids tote toothpaste, peanut butter and canned goods to school for the Northfield Food Pantry.

Sometimes kids can combine fundraising for themselves with helping others. One amazingly ambitious Lake Forest Boy Scout, 14-year-old Craig Utterback, sold $11,000 worth of popcorn this year, making him the top seller in Illinois. With the help of his family, a glib tongue and creative selling techniques, this diligent young man sells popcorn door-to-door during his troop's annual monthlong fundraiser. (My sons made a credible effort and sold less than $400 each, so I can only stand in awe of this teen's dedication.)

As with most Scouts, a portion of Utterback's proceeds go to his troop's operating budget and a portion into his own account, which funds the various activities he chooses to participate in throughout the year. In addition, due to his high volume, popcorn supplier Trail's End puts an additional 6 percent of Craig's sales into a college scholarship account for him. Thanks to his peddling prowess, he now has $3,500 in that account.

But this benevolent Scout opted to share his largess with those less fortunate. Realizing that families with parents in military service frequently feel a financial pinch, this year he donated some of his funds to send fellow Scouts from military families to summer Scout camp.

Surviving the selling As we enter a new school year and gird ourselves for the new onslaught of peddling programs, my credo is this: Be the master of my own fate. With a clear conscience, I resolve to support only those fundraisers that jibe with my family's priorities. I vow to go into each fundraiser with clear objectives for financial and personal development. What skill or personal quality does each child need to develop? How can I ensure that beyond drumming up dollars, my children will mature a mite more than they would have without this fundraiser?

Maybe the payoff will be far greater than the profits from selling boxes of microwaveable Butter Light and tins of Caramel Popcorn with Cashews and Almonds. Maybe the payoff is that my freckle-faced son will stand on his own financially a little earlier and a little more steadily because he trudged down the block towing a Radio Flyer loaded with popcorn kernels.

"When you get into real life after college," Michael explained to me recently, "you learn not to depend on your parents for all your needs. You wouldn't want that to happen, to be dependent on your parents for all your needs."

So when I'm retired and writing my best seller, revisiting Europe or puttering in my garden, maybe I'll even mutter a "thank you" that these all-too-frequent fundraisers helped empty my nest at the appropriate season.


Getting the biggest bang for your buck

Help your kids learn while they earn. Our experts offer these tips for turning fundraisers into character-building, life-skill-equipping occasions.

• Put it in perspective. Help your kids understand that community groups and nonprofits survive because members support them through their time and effort. The beginning of the school year is a good time to look ahead to the activities your child is likely to participate in and anticipate associated fundraisers.

• Know the need. Make sure your child understands the purpose of the fundraiser. Assess the cause, the organization and the fundraiser. Do you and your child support the objectives of the group? Do you have confidence that the group is well managed? Make sure your child understands how the money from this particular fundraiser will be used. Will it help your Scout pay for summer camp? Will it be used for medical research? Will it pay the salaries of umpires, maintain fields and purchase sports equipment?

• Set a goal. Help your child set his own goals; don't let the organization dictate goals, urges Dave Jones, physical education teacher for Pleasant Ridge Elementary School in Glenview and coordinator for that school's annual Jump Rope for Heart event. Younger children often set unrealistically high expectations, which parents can help temper.

• Set limits. Participation in fundraisers should be driven by a child's desire and guided parental approval. Don't let the organization dictate how you choose to support a group.

• Plan the work. Help ensure success by encouraging your child to map out a strategy for achieving her goal. Who will she approach? When will she do it? What days is she free to spend time on this? What's the deadline? How many hours will she devote to this?

• Be prepared. Like any good Boy Scout, successful fundraisers prepare by rehearsing their sales pitch, role-playing various scenarios (including rejection), gathering the necessary materials and reviewing all safety rules.

• Work the plan. Here's where kids can exercise their ability to execute and follow through, key life skills that will serve them well in years to come.

• Reflect. Debrief your children afterwards, suggests Linda Rubinowitz. "Consider where they succeeded and what they could have done better. Then celebrate a job well done," she suggests.

Too much fundraising? Readers share their stories • It just seems like no matter what you have your child involved in, there is some type of money raising. We are very proud to be able to help raise money when it involves the poor or the sick. But.... I am normally left with the responsibility. After the kids ask family members and I ask co-workers, it gets a little harder. I think it is too much on all of us. In one school year, we had math-a-thon, read-a-thon, Fannie May Candies, wrapping paper, Taffy apples, pizza, hop-a-thon, more candy and one of our favorites... Chicago Parent's Red Wagon Pull at Navy Pier. It's as much a physical strain, as it is a financial one. Again, we love to be to help, but cutting down to a couple of year would be nice. Adriana of LaGrange Park, mom of Talia, 13, and Joey, 9

• Our school does a yearly fundraiser in the fall. We usually ask family first and then ask neighbors on the block. Does it teach responsibility? I don't think so. The kids are trying for an incentive prize-that usually breaks as soon as they get it. Linda of Plainfield, mom of Christopher, 8, Anthony, 8, Michael, 6, and Nicole 5

• Fundraising has escalated in the 11 years between my children. My older daughter used to collect funds to support her school band, but my younger one now brings home flyers selling wrapping paper, cookie dough and Market Day. I would prefer to make a donation to the school. Let the children work on a community service project to teach responsibility and leave the selling to the commercial world. Sheri of Skokie, mom of Toby, 24, and Molly 13

• Our children have enjoyed raising money to support missionaries and their organizations. They have offered free home-made cookies and lemonade at Grandma's garage sales. A hand-made sign tells how the money will be used. More than $60 was raised for families living in Burkina Faso, Africa, and Lima, Peru. The girls experience first hand the true joy of giving and learn responsibility. They never tire of it. Patti of Gilbert, mom of Whitney, 8, and Devin,6

• My kindergartner came racing home eager to hit the pavement for wrapping paper sales. He was convinced he would sell enough to win the top prize-a bicycle. We argued for a long time. The next thing I knew, he and a friend raced out the door and were gone. His friend's mother and I got into our cars and went looking for them. We found them on the porch of (thankfully) someone I knew. I called his teacher and asked her what she had told the kids because he was so excited to SELL, SELL, SELL. She set the record straight and explained the safety issue of selling door to door. I know he's a natural salesperson, but he gave me quite a scare that day. Lynn of Hinsdale, mom of Kelsey, 10, Warren 8, and Lily, 7

Cindy Mehallow is a writer who often covers health and family issues.

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