Ack! School fundraisers. (BigStock)

“Mommy, mommy! Mom!”

One of my twins harassed me from the backseat the other day, too excited to wait until we got home from school to share with me this super exciting, fun wealth of opportunity upon which she had chanced to stumble. She, and her entire class, were clearly the chosen ones, the few who could bring fortune and success to their school—heck, to the entire town!

It was a grave responsibility. One that she was taking seriously. The future of her scholastic housing was squarely on her shoulders. And, of course, given the gravity of the situation, she was absolutely positive her mother would not only be overjoyed at this fantastic turn of fate, but would bend over backward to help the young one in her mission to save the school system: by selling cheesy, overpriced wrapping paper and kitchen gadgets.

Yes. It was the day of the long-feared, long-anticipated, assembly for the school fundraiser.

For the three of you who are not familiar with this age-old tradition (dating back to at least the 1980s when I went to school), this is the day where flashy salesmen give a fun-loving pep talk to our babies, and convince them to bother all their friends and neighbors with the most amateurish of cold calls, for the good of the school, of course.

I tried to gather some basic information on third-party PTA fundraisers to relate here, and suddenly, I was transported back to my days of investigative journalism—a world of opaque answers, phone-tree runarounds, and passing the buck. I just wanted to know what percentage of money is actually given to the school system. I shouldn’t feel like I’m trying to infiltrate the CIA.

Trace my steps for a moment to get an idea of how convoluted this fundraising stuff has become: First, I searched the packets sent home, with their neon pictures of gaudy wrapping paper and prize posters full of stuff the kids will never manage to win. No information.

Then I did an exhaustive internet search for the company our school was using and found only sales pitch stuff. No information.

Then I called our school and asked them how much money they make from the sales of items. I promise I was not abrasive! I didn’t even allow a tired tone into my voice. I was given the e-mail of the PTA, and a general e-mail at that. No phone number, no name.

I looked up the name of the PTA president and found her LinkedIn and business phone number, but I’m not going to call that. She’s working and she donates her time to help my kids’ schools. This is not her fault. So I sent an e-mail to the general account.

Next, I called our fundraiser company’s customer service line, where I was informed that all the local sales representatives are independent contractors and run their businesses differently. They took my name, phone number and location, and they said they would have someone call me. Oh, really?

I’m sure no one is trying to hide anything or look shady, but what does it say about the “enhanced efficiency” of these fundraisers, when I’ve spent three hours of my life trying to answer one question?

I’d just like to make clear that I don’t fault the PTA. It needs money for exciting improvements to our children’s scholastic experience. The volunteers are good-hearted and hard-working, and the third-party vendors push their sales pitch on the poor, frazzled parents donating time they don’t have for the future of our children.

This all must make some money for the schools, I’m not saying it doesn’t. But there has to be a better way. Much like the fundraisers of this nature that I remember, the school has an assembly where someone explains to the kids how they’re supposed to go about selling this stuff. One of my daughters came home saying, “and then the man said I should follow you around all day and surprise you with the packet when you ask, ‘What’?” She found this adorable. I found it more than irritating.

Anticipating the completely understandable reluctance on the part of parents forced to pawn off junk on their friends and family (because at 6, no one’s going door-to-door), they manipulate the kids into manipulating the parents. And the whole pyramid scheme is even more sketchy because instead of your well-meaning, consenting adult friend who keeps trying to sell you organic cleaning supplies so she can make a $10,000 prize this year, the kids don’t really know what is going on. The money-making machine of consumerism has been tied to the altruism of helping your child’s school and education.

The problem is this: If I want to donate to my children’s PTA (which I do), I want all of my money to go to the PTA. I do not want to spend $75 and earn free shipping on stuff I don’t need.

Not to mention, since most children at this age depend on their parents and their parents’ friends buying from the catalog, lower income students can’t compete, and they will feel the intense sting of their better-off classmate winning prizes they can never get.

If my friends wanted to buy a tote bag that held rolls of wrapping paper and ribbons (sold separately), they’d go get one for half the price at The Christmas Tree Shop. And if I had to ask my friends to spend money on my kids’ school, I would much rather say, “Hey, the PTA is trying to get enough money to buy the students a new computer lab. Think you could part with $10?” over “Hey, the PTA is doing this buy-stuff fundraiser again. Can you please pick something random in this book of stuff to buy so that my kid can earn a plastic slingshot?”

It ends up the fundraising company finally got back to me. According to our sales rep, our school gets 40 percent of the money, meaning if I buy something for $16, the school gets $6.75.

So, I have an idea that I feel certain would have our PTA rolling in more dough than they’ve ever raised with this third-party stuff: I propose PTAs across the country send an e-mail to their parents that goes something like this: “This year, if you donate $20, we promise not to get your kids all excited about selling stuff to strangers, so that they cry at your cold, mean-heartedness for days, and then make you all go bankrupt if you give in.”

I’m not a great PTA parent. I do forget to donate, and sometimes I don’t participate when I should. But with the incentive of stopping the madness, I would donate $100. Every year. And I would then remember exactly why I’m doing it. Because PTAs do great things for our school systems. They are necessary and amazing. That’s where I want my money to go.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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