Making Intelligent, Intentional Donations

The article at the end of this post got me thinking about the whole issue of fund-raising and how we spend our time and effort on activities (such as collecting box tops) to raise money for a favored institution. If we really thought things through, would we intentionally choose to support our causes by doing this type of thing?

Let’s look at the specific program discussed in the article: the use of various cutouts (box tops, bar codes, etc.) from certain products to be turned in to the company making the product in return for a certain amount of money per cutout. The article says that the refunds/reimbursements range from about “5 cents to 38 cents.” So it seems fair to take the midpoint of that range for my discussion, around 20 cents.

We’ll say that every large box of cereal will result in a 20-cent donation to your kid’s school. (That’s probably high—I think it’s realistically more like 15 cents, but the higher amount means that I’m bending ov er backwards to be fair.) So maybe, if your family eats a lot of cereal, you could get . . . four box tops a week? That’s 80 cents to your school per week, or a little over $3 per month. (Dry cereal is a terrible breakfast, but I’m leaving out that point for now.) And then you might have some chicken (Tyson’s apparently participates in this type of promotion/donation program) and some cookies (yuk!) and crackers. (I just took a look at the huge box of Ritz crackers I have in the pantry from the last Chorale reception, and there’s a “brand seal” with a dotted line around it, clearly designed to be cut out. So Ritz is probably a participant in some program.) If you strictly confined your purchases for certain products solely to brands that were in these programs, you could maybe come up with about $10 per month, I would think, at most. But $10 per month per student as donation money for school supplies and equipment is not trivial when you add it all up. Why am I, Grinch-like, questioning this program? Well, let me ask this question:

What has to happen for all of this to work?

1. Participants have to buy the specified brands, as I said above, and those are always more expensive than store or generic brands. So in order to get that 20-cent donation to the school you might have to spend at least that much and probably/possibly more. In other words, as far as the individuals are concerned, they’re being asked to pay more for products in order to make a donation that is probably less than the added price. Does that make economic sense?

2. Participants also have to buy prepared, processed food items, ones that are much less healthful than fresh items. This particular sticking point is the one addressed most strongly in the article. There are no Box Tops for Education on a bunch of broccoli. (Or raw chicken that you prepare yourself, apparently. I just looked up the Tysons A+ products and they’re all at the very least pre-cooked, with most of them having a boatload of extra ingredients added. Buh-leeve me, folks, you’re paying extra for Tysons to cook your chicken for you!)

3. Someone (or a group of someones) has to put in the time to sort all of those box tops and cut-out badges into the relevant piles and mail them in to the reimbursement center. I’ve seen this happening myself. It’s not a trivial matter, especially when you’re talking about an entire school.

4. Children need to feel invested in the programs, as they’re the ones who bring in the labels and who are sometimes involved in class contests. Although the food companies strain every nerve to say that they’re not marketing directly to kids, that’s a total laugh. Of course they are! When the kids are told that General Mills provided the money for the new class computer, do ya think that they might be more motivated to lobby for Froot Loops?

I could go on and on here about other fund-raisers that make no sense. There’s the ever-popular wrapping paper, for which you pay through the nose for beautiful, elegant, heavy-weight paper—that gets torn up and thrown in the trash when the gift is unwrapped. Or the selling of food items—bake sales, cake sales, pie sales, you name it. Or the holding of dinners to which people have to buy tickets. I myself personally as a teacher at a private school was involved in some of this. One class fundraiser had us baking heart-shaped cakes and delivering them all over town for Valentine’s Day. Another one involved a big spaghetti dinner after a football game. That one was a total pain in the neck—and the feet. And once you add up all the expenses and subtract them from the money you took in, you’ll often find that your hard work doesn’t amount to much in the end. Far better to just ask people to give $5 apiece, I wold think. No one wants to do that, but it might be spun very cleverly: “Would you like to avoid being asked to buy all sorts of items that you don’t need or want? Then just write out a check for $5, payable to the school. That’s all you need to do! No box tops, no wrapping paper, no stale cakes. How can you lose with such a deal?”

(As a little sidenote, I remember a meeting with parents of students at the aforementioned private school where I taught in which the parents were expressing some weariness about the constant fundraising that they were asked to help with. Well, they were told, all of the fundraising would go away if the school could just raise tuition, but that idea wouldn’t fly. I wondered how much tuition would actually have to rise. Would it really be that much? Had the exact amount ever been determined? Had parents ever been polled on the matter? Etc. The teachers were certainly weary too.)

Just to prove that I’m not a totally anti-social misanthrope, I will say that sometimes fundraising events are actually social events in disguise and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would never, ever dispute with, say, the local fire station that holds a pancake breakfast once a year. Sure, people could just give money, but events such as that help get people acquainted and involved in the community. So the breakfast serves a dual purpose. But those big galas held in support of nationwide charities—well, they’re really just an excuse for rich people to get all dressed up and get their names and pictures in the papers (digital ones, of course). My Scrooge-y side feels compelled to point out that the wealthy couple (especially the woman) that attends one of those events will spend way more on new clothes than will be paid out for the ticket. Seems kind of silly when you look at it that way. (Again, they could just write a check.)

In the end, the whole concept of intentionality could be very helpful in any situation where you or your children are being asked to help raise money for something. The point is that we need to question and examine what we’re doing and see if it makes sense. If it doesn’t, then what a good opportunity to strengthen our own backbones and those of our kids, to say, “We don’t care to participate, thank you, but we’re happy to donate some money.” To say to a kid, “You can go out and rake leaves for an hour and I’ll donate the money you earn to your school.” To quit mindlessly going along with things just because everyone else is doing it and instead to examine the economics and logistics of the effort and make a conscious decision about whether or not to participate.

Here are some donation/charity ideas that do work:

1. Donating a car to an organization. I can’t see how anybody loses here. We donated a car to a local charity that fixes the cars up and re-sells them at a discount to people who really need transportation to get to work. That seemed like a total win-win to me. My community Chorale accepts cars, too, and we’ve made quite a bit of money from that one source.

2. Giving money through an organization that provides matching funds. Why not? Again, as with the car idea, this seems like a totally rational way to channel your contributions. You get a tax deduction and so does the company (although that’s a leetle bit up in the air with the new tax bill), and your target gets double what you could have given on your own.

3. Using gift cards, especially the ones you get from the grocery store, that make a specific donation to the organization that sells them. Again, as with #2 above, everybody wins. You pay no more for your groceries and gas than you would normally, and the corporation gets a tax write-off. I have a friend who goes on at least two missions trips a year that are pretty much funded with gift card money. I helped her one year with a fund-raising dinner, and she said she’d never do that again. The money she raised wasn’t enough to make all the work worthwhile. It was kind of a fun evening, I guess, but it didn’t really accomplish its purpose. Far easier just to whip out that card!

4. Just giving money, period, and not palming off your unwanted items onto people who will now have to deal with them. Or being absolutely sure that you’re giving items that are needed. I’m not going to spend the time it would take me to find the specific post, but Dana K. White over at the “A Slob Comes Clean” website tells a story about her church sending out a call for donations to help the people in Houston after the hurricane. (She lives in Texas.) When the truck pulled into the parking lot at the church there were piles and piles of . . . junk. Stuff no one needed, especially not the people in Houston! The call for donations had been very specific: diapers, diaper wipes, and (I think) formula. Something like that. Instead, people had gone out to their junk piles and said, “Why, we can just take all this stuff over to the church and dump it!” Not, not, not a good idea, folks. The poor people with the truck were saddled with having to cart off the discards that just needed to be discarded. (In this particular case, the actual requested items were probably better than cash, since Houston’s stores were pretty much stripped bare. But cold hard cash is almost always way more helpful than those items you just want to unload. Be sensible!)

Ho-kay. I’d better stop this rant. I’ve written almost 2,000 words and I need to get to the grocery store. (Homemade chicken pot pie tonight, from the Smitten Kitchen website. And an update: I did get it made, but not until almost 7:00. It was good, but I’ll do a couple of things differently next time.) I’ll just end with a plea for rationality: Let’s think things through, people! Don’t get swept up in others’ notions about how best to spend your time and money in a helpful way. And if people think you’re weird, well, consider that a compliment!

End of rant, at least for now.But read the article:

A Popular School Fundraiser Is Just ‘Junk-Food Marketing to Kids,’ Experts Say

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