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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

Get out there and sell

By Kevin Epp

Fundraising in the public education system is commonplace. New schemes are being launched daily, aimed at the customer base that our sales force of students have direct access to. It appears that these new revenue generators are designed to maximize profit but little, if any, thought is put into the subliminal messages our involvement sends and what this teaches our students.

At many schools in BC one such fundraising program is the annual Canadian Community Reading (CCR) Magazine Program. The Parents’ Advisory Committee at the school signs on with the CCR and the students are enlisted as the sales force. The campaign kicks off with a school-wide assembly. The professional sales agent from the CCR presents a well-designed pitch aimed directly at the students, playing on their hypersensitive material desires. The students are shown an amazing array of incentive awards. The sales agent begins by introducing the snack food items students can win on a daily basis and then slowly, stepping through the movements of this symphony of sparkles, he introduces the video games, the cash, and the toys the students can earn through their sales efforts. At the crescendo of this production, the students are introduced to the enormous stereo system that the champion of the program will receive.

The staff is told at a staff meeting when the program will begin, when it will end, and the paperwork responsibilities they have. Teachers must collect completed orders and monies from their class, organize them as per instructions, and submit them in the customized envelope from the CCR. Quietly, and without any of the fanfare of the motivational assembly held for the students, the teachers are informed that the teacher with the top-selling class will receive an expensive gift. The campaign lasts for several weeks after which the PAC receives a substantial cut of the profits from the CCR.

Although the amount of class time that the paper shuffling takes is minimal, the overall impact of the program on instructional time is significant. There is the opening assembly, draws, daily announcements, which sound like poorly scripted commercials, and reminders to complete the required paper collection. When considered in their entirety, the particulars of the program take a chunk of instructional time. The school does not spend any class time helping the students and the program achieve greater results. We do not teach any sales techniques or communication skills that could assist the students in being more productive, and relieve some of their anxiety about selling.

The loss of class time is significant and disturbing. Instructional time allotted to meaningful curriculum is already stretched too far. Using the entire student body as a labour force to raise funds for the school seems inappropriate. In at least one Lower Mainland district, mailings home are now accompanied by advertisements, which the school board sells to local retailers. Students are being used to reach their audience of homes and the district endorses certain retailers by providing direct delivery of their mailings.

One thing is clear about most fundraising in BC schools. Teachers are not consulted about what type of work is done to raise the funds. Many individual programs raise money through a variety of sales drives and fund-a-thons, and these programs are rarely, in my experience, discussed at a school-wide staff forum. Whether it is a food drive for a local charity or a band trip to Timbuktu, the school’s focus is "get out there and sell it."

The kick-off motivational assembly for the CCR every year is a catalyst for me. It disturbs me or forces me to wrestle with an ethical dilemma. Gandhi says we should ask how our actions benefit the poorest man (Nair, 1997). When I consider some of BC’s poorest school citizens and the magazine program, I see that they may benefit from the funds raised. When I shine the light of ethical discourse on sales-based fundraising, and in this specific case, the magazine sale, I am compelled to examine it from the three directions—action, motive, and outcome.

The entire magazine process is ill-conceived and poorly executed. The PAC’s motive behind the sale is admirable. The motives of the students and the teachers seeking material rewards are clear, and their own to wrestle with. The outcome of the magazine sale is superb. The school, many teams and groups within the school, and a number of the school’s neediest students benefit directly in a variety of ways. It is also abundantly clear that without PAC money earned through fundraising, many of these benefits would not be realized.

This year, after the program was under way, I held a discussion with my class about the ethical issues around the magazine sales. These 13-year-olds had a variety of opinions on the sale, their involvement, and the worthiness of such a program within the school. I shared the highlights of this discussion with the principal and the PAC fundraising chairperson. Finally, I have brought the issue of rewarding a staffperson as top producer to the staff for discussion.

I would prefer an environment where fundraising for the school was unnecessary, however, that is a naive notion in today’s economic climate. By working through this dilemma via some ethical guidelines, I have reached a place where I understand why the PAC and the school participate in this type of fundraising. I do not agree with the actions. I understand the motives. I approve of the outcome. Until the current government in BC funds school programs adequately, I will have to struggle with the contradictions of this situation and watch everyone else "get out there and sell!"

Kevin Epp teaches at KVR Middle School, Penticton.

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