Can Johnny Raise Money? How Public Schools Exploit Social Networks


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Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and raising money. For public education, building the latter competency has never been more important. Schools want your money and they are pushing harder than ever to get it. If you haven’t already felt the heat, you will soon.

This month, a strange envelope arrived in our postal mailbox at home. It looked like a bill, but different, because the envelope had three windows instead of the usual one, and because our name and address was scrawled in freehand. On closer inspection, I saw the handwritten name of our nephew above the printed name of his elementary school in Florida. (My wife and I live in Virginia.) I bit the curiosity bait and opened the letter.

It begins with a handwritten salutation: “Dear Aunt Barbara and Uncle Andy,” followed by preprinted text saying, “We’re hoping to raise much-needed funds through the sales of magazine subscriptions—either new ones or renewals!” At the bottom: our four-year-old nephew’s name—written in adult cursive. How’s that for bravado? And just the week before, we received a similarly-packaged solicitation from our niece (not related to our nephew) asking us to buy magazine subscriptions to benefit her school in California!

Both letters contained several pieces of collateral, and a convenient postcard to send to our school-aged loved one informing him or her of our donation to the school. The postcard was thoughtfully pre-printed with the salutation “Dear,” a message, and amazingly, a closing sentiment, “Love,” followed by a blank line for me to fill in my name. (This technique of fundraising enables all parties to be equally perfunctory!)

Even stranger is what’s not included. The communication didn’t provide any information about how the proceeds will be used, or how our relatives will benefit. (Great American Opportunities, the marketing company that sent one of the solicitations, doesn’t provide an address or corporate website to learn more.) There isn’t a website listed for the school, or even a picture of the school (or of any school, for that matter!) to make a visual connection.

All of which leaves me feeling weirdly hollow about my role in a value chain that encompasses magazine publishers, marketing promotion companies, school districts, nieces and nephews—and finally, me. Here’s why:

1. Schools are part of the fabric of local communities. I support close family ties, but those bonds don’t mean I feel compelled to fund my niece and nephew’s schools. That’s the fiscal responsibility of their neighbors, and local government and businesses.
2. The marketing junctions don’t work. Family members making product pitches on behalf of big media companies ostensibly in support of vague school programs seems an odd and convoluted arrangement.
3. The charity request is utterly insincere.
4. The economics are flawed. One letter touts that “Forty percent of every dollar goes to our school.” Assuming the claim is valid, wouldn’t my niece or nephew’s school be twice as well off if I contributed 80% directly, and saved the remaining 20% percent myself? Clearly, media companies are the primary beneficiaries of this marketing program.

The low-overhead appeal of this fundraising tactic is undeniable. Schools compete for the diminishing number of volunteer hours of time-strapped parents. So they ask parents to tap address books and dash off thirty or so letters to relatives and acquaintances, and voila! Money for the school! And no one even had to get off the sofa!

But what’s sacrificed in the process? For starters, sixty percent of every dollar spent. In addition, local communities are circumvented and kids lose the valuable experience of learning face-to-face sales—an important skill no matter what field they enter. Finally—as I can personally attest—away goes the goodwill of otherwise affectionate relatives who now get hit up for donations anytime and anywhere.

Maybe I’m wistful for a kinder, less harried time. When I was in elementary school, a fundraising drive meant hopping on my bike to get every neighbor on Oak Leaf Lane to buy one or more boxes of peanut brittle. That was before “working mom” became a mainstream term, before No Child Left Behind, before federal and state school budget cuts, before child predators, and yes, before big marketing companies salivated over how social networks and heartstrings promotions can stem declining sales for products like magazines in the age of the Internet.

Whether or not such promotions are successful, they’re degrading. If schools need to raise money, they might be better served to hire marketing specialists that understand the nuances of fundraising. In the meantime, my advice: don’t overlook appealing to local community. The most valuable social networks are just a bike ride away.


  1. Nice article. I am a sales rep for the company mentioned in your article, so my input is biased. Nonetheless, I am always amazed at how philosophical and emotional people get about something as simple as a school fundraising promotion. The insinuation that “social networks are exploited” is a little melodramatic, to say the least. From that viewpoint, one could argue that friend and family are exploited for various causes all the time for all sorts of reasons, school fundraising probably being one of the least significant or prevalent. A few comments about your 4 points:

    1. Fine, but what happens in local schools affects all of us. Johnny will graduate, go to college, and probably live in a city different from where he grew up. He will, in all likelihood, live and work for the benefit of a community where he did not attend school. In that case, it makes perfect sense for Johnny ask his relatives to invest in his success and skills that he will be able to take with him anywhere. The federal government recognizes this fact, which is why we now have federal programs such as Title 1, No Child Left Behind, and a host of others.

    2. The “marketing junctions” work just fine. The vagueness is a legitimate concern. Simple economics dictate why each postcard cannot be customized for each school to address their specific needs; however, a good fundraising consultant will insist that communications to the local community (the explanation letter home to parents) include for what projects the money is going towards. Parent are not soliciting for big media companies-only 4% of all subscriptions come from school fundraisers (according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation)-they are using magazines as a tool to elicit a donation to the school. Furthermore, magazines are the most effective product to reward out-of-town donors (as you have already figured out).

    3. You give no basis for this assertion so it is difficult to counter. We must assume that you are a mind-reader, gifted in discerning the sincerity of others.

    4. The “why don’t we just give 100% to the school” argument has been around since the advent of professional school fundraising companies in the 1960s. If the “we’ll just give a donation to the school” plan worked, professional school fundraising would not be a multi-billion dollar industry. The fact is that people are more willing to contribute to a school if they get something in return. It is one of the unexplainable irrationalities of human behavior. Most of the time they pay $8 for a $2 roll of wrapping paper knowing the school is getting a large portion. In the case of magazines, the prices offered for school fundraisers are some of the best available. Many households (yes, even the ones with internet access) spend $100 per year on magazines. Why not divert some of that money to Johnny’s school? Furthermore, this type of direct mail campaign is extremely effective; yielding response rates up to ten times greater than the typical direct mail solicitations.

    A few more points–face to face selling is not lost just because you receive a postcard from Johnny. All magazine drives still involve orders from locals and Johnny will still get his sales experience. Johnny will also get a lesson in expanding his marketplace and, yes, cost effective ways to generate more sales. Fundraising companies are not sitting around “salivating” with ideas on how to save the publishing industry hard hit by the internet. To the contrary, we look forward to utilizing the internet in our business to use technology to help Johnny get even more support for his school from the social networks of the 21st century-networks that are not constrained by street blocks or bicycles, but are exemplified in the cyber worlds of Facebook and Myspace (AKA “social-networking’ sites). For example, on our website (yes, we have a terrific site) Johnny can create his own address book and e-mail his entire virtual community with a link to his school’s on-line store where all orders are drop shipped to the purchaser and profit checks are sent to the school. Offended by a postcard? Better get your spam filter ready.

    Yes, the good ‘ol days were good and are sorely missed. Time marches on and everything evolves. We take college courses over the internet, watch church on TV, “Skype” with our friends overseas and even pick our spouses with the help of on-line match makers. Schools should feel no shame by using all available tools get support from the ones who should care most about their students.

  2. Murphy: Interesting points. Let’s look at the ‘sincerity’ one by stepping out of school fundraising for a moment:

    Two weeks ago, three CEO’s appeared before Congress to ask for $25 billion to prevent their flailing companies from going out of business. I’ve read many analyses, and I don’t remember any journalist or blogger using the word “sincere” to describe their sales pitch.

    Were Messers. Wagoner, Mulally, and Nardelli sincere? After all, they were asking–no, begging–for a large sum of money in a very public venue. Even the most critical observer might charitably say these individuals had a shred of sincerity given the circumstances. But, as we all now know, it’s hard to appear sincere when you’re flying in your corporate jet and evading questions about how the funds you’re begging for will be used.

    Of course, we all know The Outcome: a full-on sales belly flop off the high dive. The CEO’s looked so ridiculous, it was painful to watch.

    What’s the takeaway? Sincerity is a two-way street. Whether we like it or not, the ultimate sincerity decision maker is the person receiving the message, not the one giving it. There’s a knot on the head of each auto CEO as proof of that painful reality. They should have known better.

    So, back to school fundraising. Yes, I do discern the sincerity of others. Let’s be honest. I got a form letter from a close relative asking me for money. The letter offered no information about the uses of the money. It lacked transparency. (Sound familiar?) Am I callous because I failed to conjure up an image of bright, eager third-graders crowded around a microscope that the school just bought through the magnanimity of magazine readers? You decide.

    Which goes back to the question that our auto CEO’s and other marketers should ask: “How will people perceive this communication?” Asking that question means thinking beyond your suggestion of “using all available tools to get support.” It means acquiring an empathetic view of how people want to be treated in the fundraising equation.

    Post Congressional sales debacle #1, Messers. Wagoner, Mulally, and Nardelli now know how important it is to think past sloppy communications while mistakenly expecting people to respond positively. I hope that you and others raising money for schools and other worthwhile charities will learn from their folly and will become equally circumspect.


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