It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Candles and candy and raffles and bread braids and pizza and punch cards and gear! When mom, dad, and the teacher just want a beer! There’ll be tickets for selling and tickets for selling and tickets for selling and …

The onslaught of school-year fundraising can be like a broken record playing a song that wasn’t all that fun to dance to in the first place. Athletic teams, groups and schools themselves depend on fundraisers to fill in shortfalls, and the number of appeals increases every year. It’s a head-spinning trend that weighs heavy on purses (and patience). But sales are often the only way for schools to afford trips, gear, technology, even education. Fundraisers are a necessary part of community life. They’re a way for kids to learn personal responsibility and group work toward a shared goal. They can teach tenacity, dedication, creativity. They can even be fun.

But what’s the true total price of fundraising on your child? Are your schools and groups bettering families with their fundraisers? Or are they riddled with hidden costs that will stay with your student for life? Some fundraisers are worth it. Some are not. Here’s how to tell.

• Good fundraisers unite a team, not divide it: Teams, bands, groups, and schools all contain excellent individuals. But they sink or swim together. Events and appeals are healthiest and most effective when a team works toward a common goal — without pitting students against each other. Giving the top five sellers a special prize package might sound like a great way to ramp up sales. But the underlying message cuts across the more valuable message of teamwork. It teaches children that looking out for Number One is the most important part of a group effort, a strategy that can have devastating effects on the success of a football team, the sound of a band, and the values of a developing mind. 

• Good fundraisers are their own reward: Author Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The reward of a thing well done is having done it.” Children don’t need (and shouldn’t get) cheap plastic toys or pizza parties for meeting sales goals. This teaches them to undervalue their own and their families’ precious time and labor. It cheapens the real reward of a successful fundraiser — the new uniform, field trip, or updated technology itself. 

• Good fundraisers are worth the investment: Take a close look at what your child is selling. Is it something you’d actually want to buy? Is it a worthwhile item or service or event? If it is being managed by an outside company, what percentage does this company get? What return does your child’s group get? How much work are your student and his peers putting into this, and what are they getting out of it? Will your child truly be marketing a good product, or simply exploiting his connections to family and friends? These questions seem a little cold when it’s a fresh-faced kiddo selling a candy bar, but what we teach our children about business and consumer education now is what they will believe as adults. Think twice before teaching them that low quality and low return is worth hard work and high emotions. Think even harder before teaching them that it’s OK to see your family as a consumer pool for cheap labor or shoddy crap.

• Good fundraisers do not treat children like grown-ups: Sales is a hard job. It’s challenging and frustrating even for talented and educated adults. Marketing may be where your child makes a career — but she’s not ready for the fast-paced pressures of an adult career. This means no quotas, no punishments, and no (none, never) opportunities where the success of a child depends entirely on circumstances outside her control. True, life is never fair, and not within our control, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to introduce those hard truths to little ones. The quickest way to undermine family cohesion and respect for elders is keeping a child from a prize because his parents wouldn’t sell raffle tickets at work. The quickest way to teach children that hard work is not worth anything is to give them a task that’s impossible to achieve on their own. The quickest way to make a kid a failure is to set her up for failure, again and again.

Athletic teams are important. Extracurricular activities are important. Technology, modernization, opportunity, travel? All important. But as you work toward these goals with your student this year, sit down and calculate the deeper costs and greater lessons. Make sure that your long-term investment, your ultimate investment, is in the well-being and development of your child. 

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