Sunday, October 30, 2011

Fundraising Fatigue Redux

Money & Society

One must be poor to know the luxury of giving.
George Eliot

Education costs money, but then so does ignorance.
Sir Claus Moser

Lack of money is the root of all evil.
George Bernard Shaw
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 personal 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, sometimes two) 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) have usually acquiesced to the appeal and contributed something. Yet, lately I have not, chiefly because I think such decisions are best made privately and not quickly without thought.

Allow me to elucidate. This process of fundraising at the check-out 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 and other consumable items. 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 items that I have purchased.

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 organizations) 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. A better less intrusive way is what one of my gasoline retailers does in its efforts to appear charitable, and hence better its public image. For every purchase, a percentage of the sales (typically one per cent) goes to a designated charity.

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." As the University of Chicago says: "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."
Photo Credit: Eva Watson Schütze
Source: University of Chicago

The Funding of Education

There is another area where fundraising has become an almost commercial endeavor. Institutions of learning have adopted business practices not only in how they operate but also in how they instill in students a mercantile approach to life. Such starts 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 nine -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. Now, many of these causes are worthy and do good work, so it's not about the charities themselves, but in their appeals to parents, using students and schools as the mechanism to raise money.

Now, I reside in a suburb of Montreal. Things are no different, it seems, in the United States with my American friends. There is a wonderful article, School Fundraising? Phooey!, in The Washington Post, written a few years ago that holds true today, as does this article from CBS MoneyWatch, "Parents Unite Against Dumb School Fundraisers!" There is also one from a parent who's involved in fundraising, who thinks we've gone too far—how about playground equipment that costs $100,000? (see here).

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 cross-country races involving a number of area schools (another ten dollars).

This is in addition to the three hundred and twenty dollars for lunchroom supervision, sixty dollars for school supplies, and 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 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.

As for funding of schools, it seems that the federal government does an adequate if not good job, earmarking about 3.5 per cent of its national wealth (i.e., GDP) to education. In national standardized testing, Canadian students fare well, near the top in reading, math and sciences (see here). Kudos to the teachers for a job well done. This is indeed good news for the future of Canada and Canadians.

Yet, school boards and school principals complain that they do not have enough money for their students. If this is so, then it means either the money is not being spent well, or that education today needs more funding, and governments at all levels have to consider such things more carefully. Like most parents, we want the best for our children, and that includes a good education. So, it might come down to this question:  If the various forms of government truly value education, why are they not funding schools to the level that they need?

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