It was my first PTA meeting. I was excited. I was eager to help. Then the meeting turned to fund-raising and there was no turning back.
For the next two hours we talked about why we needed to raise funds, different ideas on how to raise funds and what plans had already been made to raise funds.
The school year is filled with fund-raising events--a gift-wrap sale, a walkathon, a spring book fair, a cheesecake auction, a silent auction and, of course, the inevitable plea for supermarket receipts, box tops and soup labels.
By the second PTA meeting I turned to my husband, exasperated. "Can't we just write a check?' " I whispered, not daring to say this too loud for fear of being shunned.
I don't want to walk, run, bake, collect or sell anything. I can barely find time to do the laundry. My goodness! My oldest kid is only 4.
I can't believe this is my fate for the next 18 years--chasing down relatives, cajoling friends and coercing co-workers into buying overpriced peanut brittle, wrapping paper, calendars or Gummi Bears stuffed in a "dishwasher safe tumbler with a snap-tight lid."
But the experts say I shouldn't have to get used to this.
"We don't encourage fund-raising," said Patty Yoxall, director of public relations for the National PTA. "I know the lack of funding is a complicated issue, but our kids are in school only a limited amount of time and they shouldn't be spending any of their time raising funds. The bigger issue is why we don't fully fund public education."
Other experts say the demand on parents to raise funds--for public and private schools--increasingly takes away the time they should be focused on their kids and their education. Frankly, I think schools and parents are being used.
The guidelines of the National Charities Information Bureau say a minimum of 60 cents of every dollar spent should go directly to the charitable cause. On the average, however, schools get 46 cents per dollar of what they raise from selling merchandise for professional fund-raising operations.
"All this fund-raising is described by the companies as a win-win situation for everybody. I think that's a bunch of baloney," said Alex Molnar, a professor of education and director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "This primarily benefits the businesses. They get us to buy stuff we wouldn't normally buy by attaching their products to a school. The kids have just become a marketing device."
School merchandise sales total about $4 billion a year, according to the Association of Fund Raisers and Direct Sellers. Schools and other nonprofit organizations raise $1.7 billion annually through fund-raising sales of gift wrap, candy, magazines and other products.
Believe me, I understand the psychology behind all this selling. It's not easy to get folks to fork over money, even for a good cause. I also realize this type of fund-raising is successful in providing money for needed school supplies and activities.
But seriously, how many of us--without the guilt--would spend $11 for a 5-ounce Coca-Cola mailbox tin filled with mixed candy? I know I would never pay $7 for sheets of wrapping paper, which most of the time aren't long or wide enough to cover anything I want to wrap. How about paying $11.50 for a tin of animal cookies?
"I don't think people mind paying a premium if it's a fair market value for a product if they know part of the money is going back for a good cause," said Vickie Mabry, associate director for the Association of Fund Raisers.
Well, I mind, especially when it's a for-profit company benefiting from my guilt money.
And, is it really a fair market value? The National PTA plans to find out. The Chicago-based group is forming a task force to evaluate the companies involved in school fund-raising programs.
"We want to see if they are giving back a fair share of what is collected and whether consumers are getting a good value," Yoxall said. Next year, the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education plans to begin tracking these product fund-raising deals.
But here's a suggestion: Why don't we parents agree to stop peddling to each other? If you want to give money to a school, fine. But this routine of "I buy from your kid, you buy from mine" is maddening.
If you're willing to buy $25 worth of peanut clusters, scented candles, or holiday tote and tissue bags, which will surely end up in a hall closet, then why not give directly to the school? That way the school gets 100 percent of our donations and we get to skip all this selling. Now that's a value.
Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. She will be discussing this column on the "Insight" program with Herman Washington tomorrow at 6:40 p.m. on WHUR (96.3-FM). Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.