Elementary school students are in their school gymnasium for a pep rally. An extremely enthusiastic young host shows them a video based on the year’s theme: a community spirit called “Rock’n Town Live.” He leads the students in loud cheers of “go Tigers,” “can’t believe it,” and “thirty to thirty-five laps.” And in addition to whipping the kids into a frenzy, he and the school’s principal take turns asking the kids to go home and get two adults to pledge a contribution. Roughly half of that money will go to benefit the school. Roughly half of it will go to Booster Enterprises Inc., a Georgia-based for-profit company putting on the event.
This is the scene in a video was shot at a Memphis Lutheran parochial school, but the same story plays out in hundreds of public and private schools across the country.
Booster Enterprises, which says it currently hosts Boosterthon events in schools in about 35 states, is one of several firms offering to outsource fundraisers known as “fun runs.” In 16 states, kids are participating in a similar program hosted by an Arizona-based company called Apex Fun Run. And still other schools use a comparable fun run fundraiser company called FundRunners. The general structure for all three appears to be pretty similar: the companies send a team to each school to promote “character education,” fitness, and pledges. They host pep rallies, spend several days getting the kids excited for the fundraiser, and then cheer on the students as they run laps around a track to earn sponsor contributions. And they take a large percentage of the haul.
Some parents and administrators rave about fun run fundraising events as the best and easiest fundraising they’ve ever found. Others have strongly objected to the the use of school-day time for the efforts, and the 48-percent cut often pocketed by these companies. Charity watchdog groups advise that no more than 25 percent of proceeds from a fundraiser should go to outside fundraising firms.
And some experts say these programs are emblematic of a national move toward more corporate involvement in public education. At the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Education Policy Center, experts have extensively studied commercialism in America’s schools. They have noted that in times of educational funding challenges, “beleaguered educators are ever more open to offers of corporate ‘partnerships’ that might bring in additional money for their schools. Unfortunately, many school-business partnerships are little more than marketing arrangements that have few benefits for schools while carrying with them the potential to harm children” psychologically, educationally, and health-wise.
The price of outsourced fundraising
Since the 1980s, the Key School in Annapolis, Maryland, has raised a good chunk of funds through its annual 5K, 10K, and Family Fun Run event. Trish Gallant, the parent programs and special events director for the private school, said the school organizes the entire thing in-house each year and gets many of the necessary overhead costs donated by parents. “They are kind enough to sponsor it, they carry the expenses,” she told ThinkProgress, and with over 200 runners participating from inside the school and the running community, “it’s a good moneymaker for us.”
But not every PTA, PTO, and school has the resources to put together a fundraising event by themselves. Chris Farri, the development director at Grace Christian Academy of Maryland in Waldorf, Maryland, told ThinkProgress that with the decline of volunteerism that has coincided with the growth of two-income families, her school does not have “the army of volunteers you need to put on something like this.” Recognizing the “you have to spend money to make money,” the small Christian school turned to Boosterthon four years ago. The company sends a team to the school, it does just about all the work, and the school gets just about half of the proceeds. And, according to Farri, it has been “very much a success,” and has helped bring in the funds needed to purchase smart boards and smart desks for the classrooms.
Boosterthon markets itself as a “hassle-free event that rallies families to get involved and provides the resources to fund their budget.” Apex says that “’hassle-free’ is not just a bullet point on our marketing materials — it’s a promise from our team to yours.” And FundRunners says its program is “designed to keep the hassles off the schools and parent organizations. But in return for the enthusiastic team of young facilitators, the recipients pay a price.
A Boosterthon spokesman told ThinkProgress that in the past, the company simply charged a $2,000 fee and took a flat 48 percent of all contributions. But since, it has created a sliding scale option based on how much the event raises and how much staff time goes into the effort. Apex founder Scott Donnell told ThinkProgress his company also adopted a similar flexible package. FundRunners did not respond to a ThinkProgress inquiry, but the company’s website similarly notes a sliding scale option.
Donnell notes that while critics object to the percentage the company receives, much of that does go toward Apex’s costs. “We spend about 12 to 15,000 dollars for every school for t-shirts, race day equipment, a team of three athletes, sometimes more. We pay those athletes the same as teacher pay — so not much, but they’re roaming PE teachers.” The profit, per school, he estimates, is only about 13 to 14 percent of the amount raised. And, he points out, the schools get to keep much less should they opt for the more traditional candles, cookie dough, candy bar, or gift wrap sale fundraising companies.
But Charity Navigator, a non-profit group that evaluates charitable organizations, has frequently criticized these sorts of fundraising programs for their poor rate of return. Last year, the group’s vice president for marketing told the Richmond Times Dispatch, “Unfortunately, these rates are not unusual. But that doesn’t make them acceptable.” Her group recommends that no more than 25 percent of the money raised should go to the outside fundraiser. “When the middle man gets between the charity and the donor, there is going to be a lack of efficiency,” she observed. CharityWatch, another prominent non-profit that evaluates non-profits, notes on its website that it considers a charitable cause to be “highly efficient” when its cost to raise $100 is $25 or less.
Come for the fundraising; stay for the ‘character education’
One of the selling points for all three companies is that they provide “character education.” Because in many schools, the fundraising teams dispatched to the schools are using classroom time, their presence is sold as not just about raising dollars but about teaching values. Boosterthon, for example, claims that it “ultimately exists to impact students with an unforgettable nine day experience that leaves the lasting value of an engaging character and fitness campaign.” How does the company “creatively teach daily character lessons to students?” In large part through videos featuring songs and messages about community, inclusion, and bullying.
For the 2013–2014 year, the company advertised its “Kid-tastic Character Videos,” including “40 total minutes of crafted character entertainment, plus two music videos,” through which it boasts that “students will learn the importance of friendship by watching our videos at school and online at home, all while experiencing the best of summer camp.” This year, its “Rock’n Town Live” theme encouraged kids to be part of a community through lyrics like “sing just a little bit louder, hands up a little bit higher… we’re a community tonight, that’s right.” Another song encourages listening skills with lyrics, “oh, just let me know anything that might could help me break the mold, with my ears open and your words spoken, I’m becoming a stronger me.”
Watch the “Rock’n Town Live” theme song:
For some, like Chris Farri, these “character lessons” are a selling point. “As a Christian school, we are looking at things like that. The character lessons had been really, in my opinion, one of those components that have made Boosterthon unique.” She praises the messages as “about leadership, not going along with the norms that may not be serving your community in the best way.”
Others have a less sanguine view. In many schools, these lessons are presented during class time, which some have criticized as salesmanship education under the guise of character education. Some school districts have enacted regulations prohibiting in-school fundraising efforts that conflict with instructional programs. In those schools, the lessons are often presented during homeroom time.
It’s not as if the school decided, ‘We really want a character education program, so let’s find a good one.’
Faith Boninger, a research associate at the National Education Policy Center and part of its Commercialism in Education Research Unit, sees this as a threat to the integrity of education. Her work focuses on the impact of commercial activities in schools and the pernicious rise of schoolhouse commercialism. She told ThinkProgress that programs like these fun run companies take up school time for things that are simply not part of the school’s curriculum: “A lot of commercial programs that try to get into schools will claim to be consistent with Common Core, claim to be bringing education values, but they’re not promoting the democratically agreed upon curriculum. They’re coming in as opportunists.”
“It’s not as if the school decided, ‘We really want a character education program, so let’s find a good one. Let’s have some meetings, involve the parents, etc.’” she observed. “These guys come in and say, ‘Oh, we’ll help you with fundraising and by, the way, we do character education. ‘ And whatever it is that they offer is what you take.” She calls them a “waste of time” for the kids and teachers and, “really it’s kind of teaching them to go out and beg for their education” and “to work for trinkets.”
Boosterthon and Apex defend their character education programs as a minimal time suck, accounting for less than two hours over the course of the school year, and say the programs are designed with input from stakeholders. Brett Trapp, vice president of client experience for Boosterthon, told ThinkProgress that the curriculum is designed with input from education experts and 12 moms, while Donnell said Apex creates its curriculum by “interviewing principals and teachers.”
The Character.org is a non-profit organization that works to promote educational programs that help young people become “ethical and engaged citizens.” Tucker Wannamaker, the group’s director of communication and outreach, told ThinkProgress that “character education is an intentional, systemic approach of change in a school, and not just some nice poster on the wall or single event.” He noted that if schools are using programs like Apex, Boosterthon, and FundRunners “to check off their proverbial ‘character education’ box of obligation, then we would see that as not being true character education. However, if these programs are part of an intentional and systemic character transformation journey in the school, then we could see that as being a part of the whole puzzle.”
Begging for education
The Virginia PTA’s “Local Unit Resource Guide” spells out the organization’s position on fundraising:
EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN FOR FUNDRAISING ACTIVITES MUST BE AVOIDED: • Children may be included in programs that are an outgrowth of class work or projects • The regular school day schedule should not be disrupted, nor should the children be expected to give up their free time • Protect the instructional time of children • Fundraisers that promote vendors/companies using school time for assemblies for training of students as sales persons for their products should not be planned
Still, across Virginia numerous PTAs have worked with schools to host Boosterthon events during the school day. In Fairfax County, Virginia, White Oaks Elementary School’s PTA is one such member group has hosted an annual fun run fundraiser with the company.
In April of 2014, the school’s then-PTA president appeared in a YouTube video with the elementary school’s student body president to encourage participation in the event. She notes after raising $30,000 the year before, the goal for 2014 was $45,000 to enable the PTA to “put a ceiling mounted projector, brand new, in every single classroom.” The “small goal” for each kid, she said, was for each to raise $100. If the kids attained the goal, she promised, each would get a shot at their school’s principal and PE teacher in a dunk-tank. She notes that Boosterthon is the PTA’s only major fundraiser each year. Neither the White Oaks principal nor its PTA responded to a ThinkProgress inquiry about the program, but PTA minutes indicate the event raised a net total of about $26,000.
Watch the interview:
Indeed none of more than a half dozen schools in three Virginia counties that have hosted fun run fundraisers responded to ThinkProgress inquiries. Boosterthon’s Trapp observed in an email: “My understanding is that [one of the school districts] has instructed their people not to talk to you.” He did not specify which.
Booster Enterprises boasts of a 75 to 80 percent re-book rate annually. Apex says 80 to 85 percent of its customers return each year. And all three companies point to large number of customers who are delighted with their experience.
But the White Oaks PTA decided not to re-up for 2015. According to its minutes, it opted to switch to a direct-donation campaign because Boosterthon “was prize driven which prompted a competitive environment,” because “teachers believed the daily huddles were disruptive to learning,” and because families preferred to just give directly.
The National Education Policy Center’s Boninger told ThinkProgress that commercialism in schools is not an entirely new phenomenon. “In 1929, the NEA did a study of propaganda in schools, sponsored education, materials companies send to schools to help teach the kids.” But, she notes, “in our tough economic times, the funding has been reduced nationally, districts are really looking for any funding they can find, so companies are coming in to fill that need to offer different kinds of fundraising options.”
Asked what the best alternative to commercial fundraisers during school time would be, she proposed a simple idea: “I recommend adequate school funding, so kids can learn in school and not be put into the fundraising world, so teachers can teach, and administrators can administrate.”