Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fundraising Fatigue


“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.
George Eliot [1819-80] , English novelist

“Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.”
Sir Claus Moser, British statistician 

“Lack of money is the root of all evil.” 
George Bernard Shaw [1856-1950], 
Irish Nobel laureate in literature

John Dewey [1859-1952], American philosopher and educational reformer: “The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.” In Hyde Park, John Dewey was part of a closely knit group of friends and colleagues that included George Herbert Mead, James H. Tufts, and Eva Watson Schütze, the PhotoSeccessionist who produced this imposing portrait. 

I am suffering from fundraising fatigue. It seems that every charitable or non-profit organization is appealing for money to support one “worthy cause” or another. There is no end of appeal letters that come my way, from schools, as well as community, health and religious organizations. I am sure that most, if not all, of the causes have some merit, and that they “desperately” need my money to further advance their work.

My decision on what organization to support has been made easier of late, since we have less money to give, owing to our fragile economic situation. That, however, does make the task of saying no any easier. Which is precisely the way such appeal letters operate, to make you seem like a selfish or heartless individual if you would dare to exercise your right to say "no."

Even so, if you receive such a letter in the mail, you can just as easily toss it in the trash, and ignore its appeals. But fund-raising organizations have become better at extracting money in two areas, which involve a kind of emotional manipulation.

One is at retail outlets, notably supermarkets. So, after shopping for food and waiting at the check-out, the cashier will ask whether you would like to contribute a small amount (usually one dollar) to some worthy charity. This is often an ethical or green cause, or a medical- or children-related cause, which the supermarket chain has partnered with, to use the parlance of business. (There are no shortage of such partnerships, as Cause Marketing Forum shows.)

This seems like a win-win-win situation, where everyone feels good, bettering the world: the charitable organization, the supermarket and the donor or contributor for donating to such a worthy cause. You have at most a few seconds to decide whether you would like to support this cause. It could be for any charity. It's hard to say no, so most people (including myself) usually contribute something.

Yet, this process is counter-productive, a nuisance and an affront to my dignity. I am in a retail store, which by definition is a private space dedicated to shopping, and I am there to buy groceries. That is the chief and only reason that I am entering that space. Yet, I face an appeal for money when I am most vulnerable, at the check-out, while paying for the groceries.

I find this shameless manipulation and an ill-considerate tactic. (I often ask the cashier why they ask each customer and their response is that they are mandated by management.) Such emotional and manipulative tactics is an affront to human dignity, to both the cashier and consumer. It's not a win-win-win situation, as the smiling cashier might imply, if the donor is "compelled' to give, so as to ward off shame and humiliation. It can be likened to panhandling, but legalized and socially acceptable, since it takes place in the confines of a reputable business.

This raises the question of ethics, namely, is it ethical for supermarkets (and other retail outlets) to ask for a charitable donation in a private retail space, if the space has been reserved for a particular purpose? It's a valid ethical question, since appealing for charity, when the client has other interests, namely, buying food and exiting the store, is contrary to the store’s purpose. People entering have no expectation of facing requests for charity while food shopping, just as panhandling on most urban streets is against municipal bylaws.

I suggest that we ought to have freedom from such fund-raising tactics.

The second are institutions of learning, which have adopted business practices not only in how they operate but also in how they instill in students a mercantile and capitalistic approach to life, starting at the elementary or primary school level. Schools are asking increasingly more from parents: time, money and resources in fund-raising efforts. But it is money that they want most.

For example, each week, my eight-year-old son returns from school with a packet of fund-raising requests, from such causes as read-a-thons for women's shelters to walk-a-thons for cancer to raising funds for grad dances.  You name it. Young minds are drawing certain conclusions about money and its necessity to support  a consumer-driven society.

There is a wonderful article, School Fundraising? Phooey! in The Washington Post, written a few years ago that holds true today. So, I have to say no more times than I feel comfortable with to the countless appeals for TCBY frozen yogurt days, Pizza Fridays, Terry Fox Walk-A-thons, and other assorted charitable appeals that helps raise money for the publicly funded school that my son attends. As well, there are the field trips, such as this month's visit to the city's Botanical Gardens (another fifteen dollars).

This is in addition to the three hundred and twenty dollars for lunchroom supervision and the fifty-five dollars for, as the school puts it, “consumable items such as workbooks, certain exercise books, paper, art supplies, cross-country skiing and the Agenda” that the school bills us for each year. School taxes are another four hundred dollars a year.

This raises the question whether parents, who already pay school taxes, ostensibly to operate the schools, ought to receive appeal letters for fundraisers for gym equipment, musical instruments, dances, to name only a few things. This also raises the unpopular question on what is the chief purpose of an education.

Equally important, if the various forms of government truly value education, why are they not funding schools to the level that they say they need?

If you have the answers to these questions, I would be happy to hear from you.