January 3, 2017

FTV: The Art of Fundraising

 I managed to make it through a whole year of teaching before the field trip bug hit me.  I had fond memories of visiting Marquette hotspots like the Burt Pioneer cabin and the Bunny Bread factory in elementary school, so I guess it was inevitable that I would end up looking into taking my students somewhere.  This was no small undertaking because in the fall of 1976, my seventh grade class numbered some 125 students spread across five class periods.  In field trip terms, this equated to two very full bus loads of bodies that would need to be transported.

    My first stop was to see then elementary principal Jim Ollila.  He listened to my proposal and tried to let me down as gently as he could without crushing my hopes and dreams of taking a field trip:  “That sounds good, but there isn’t any money set aside for field trips.  You will have to raise the funds to take a trip.”  A shudder ran down my spine and I heard the voice of Dr. McCoy paraphrasing the line used in many classic Star Trek episodes:  “I’m a teacher, Jim, not a salesman!”  A sudden wave of nausea swept over me because in all of my public school years, I had to sell stuff exactly once, and even that one time, although necessary, was not in my comfort zone.  This was my first lesson in the school of, “If you want to do it, find the money.”

    My hat is off to people who make a living in sales because it is something that I could not do.  The door-to-door Fuller Brush guys were still in operation in my elementary school days and they never gave me a bad impression of the calling.  They were always neat as a pin and had the level of charm and charisma needed to knock on the door and sell my mother those essentials of modern homemaking.  To hear them wax on melodiously about the wonders of Glamorene Rug cleaning powder was up there with James Earl Jones interpreting Darth Vader’s voice (“Luke, it will clean nasty spots from your carpet . . “).  I even found the bartering aspect of watching my father buy a car interesting as long as I could wander off and look at the new models when I got bored (usually in five minutes or less).  Even today I can’t find it in myself to bargain for a new car.  My trips to the car lot start and end with, “Sell me a car” and I haven’t once walked away unhappy with the deal.

    During my junior year in high school, our band director Bill Saari decided we should march in the July Cherry Festival Parade in Traverse City, MI.  If the name sounds somewhat familiar, I recently found his picture in some old Mass High annuals as he started his teaching career as a music teacher in the Greenland Township School.  His pitch was simple:  to qualify for the trip, one had to sell at least ONE case of candy.  As I recall, they were boxes of individual chocolate mints and turtles that came 24 to a case.  There was no possible way I was going to miss the trip but I still felt like someone kicked me in the stomach when they handed out the boxes at the start of the sale.  While some of my bandmates took four, five and even six cases with a gleam in their eye, I took my one case and headed home feeling like I was carrying a cannon ball.  

    I made my first sale right away thanks to my mother.  Actually, I liked the chocolate mints enough I bought one myself, so the first day it was two down, twenty two to go.  We were given a month to sell ourselves into the trip, so I managed to avoid any further thoughts of selling until the last week.  I was starting to consider just buying the rest myself when my mother suggested that I at least take a trip up the 1500 block of Norway Avenue and give our neighbors a chance to relieve me of my burden.  With heavy resignation, I started up the street one house at a time.  Mrs. Herlick next door took one off my hands as did Mrs. Bowers (my old piano teacher) and Mr. Buissier.  The only problem was there were only five more houses in my block and I was still toting 19 boxes.  

    The next house had belonged to the Lee family, but they had moved recently and not being all that nosy, I did not realize that the new owners were a professor and his family who were apparently  newly arrived from India.  The woman who answered the door in a colorful sari took me by surprise, but she smiled most pleasantly when I gave her my sales pitch.  When I finished, she smiled again,  turned on her heels and went back into the house without saying a word.  After a few uncomfortable minutes trying to figure out what to do next, I started a slow retreat back to the sidewalk when I heard her calling:  “Boy, oh boy, come, come,” as she waved me  back to the porch.  She handed me some bills and took two boxes.”  I said, “Thank you so much” as she smiled again and once again disappeared into the house.  My first double sale!

    The next house had been recently constructed and was owned by a woman who worked at one of the administration offices at the college.  Mrs. Bishop was very agreeable and apologized for only buying one box (“If I buy them, I will only eat them,” is how she put it).  I only sold one box but it took me twenty minutes as she told me half of her life story and how she came to live in my neighborhood.  She did buy a box so I wasn’t going to be rude and just trot away, but time was wasting away and I still had the lion’s share of my candy to sell.  With four houses left, I was able to unload a box each at the Farrell’s and Peterson’s, but  no one answered the door at the house in between them.   I as soon as I hit the intersection of Norway and Waldo,  I turned for home.  There were only 3 houses in the next block and it was a steeper hill than the 1500 block, so I packed it in and resigned myself to buying the rest just so I wouldn’t have to do any more selling.  It wasn’t an unpleasant task, but I kept thinking about The Death of a Salesman.

    Sensing my impending plan to gorge myself on a dozen plus boxes of mint truffles, my mother came to the rescue and took the rest off my hands.  I didn’t want to even ask what she was going to do with them because I was so anxious to be done selling, I thought, “Hey, a sale is a sale.”  I wasn’t the only one who made the minimum requirement for the trip, but it still hurt my pride to look at the sale totals on the wall and see my lowly X in the bottom square of the sales chart.  There were several columns filled to the point that those dozen or so super salesmen could probably have funded the whole affair, but I snuck in under the wire and resolved to never have to sell anything again.

    With this back story spinning in my head, I asked Jim O if we could just charge a set fee for everyone who wanted to go on the trip instead of selling stuff.  Then, as now, there were many groups in the area fundraising for various reasons and it seemed reasonable to not put another fundraising group into the mix.  “You can do that, “ Jim O said, “as long as you don’t make anyone pay.  If they want to go, fine, if not, then you can’t force them to pay.”  I assured him that I wouldn’t want to force anyone to take a trip.  The template was set for how we have paid for field trips with the junior high students for the past forty years.  “Pay as you go,” was always pretty economical when the classes were large.  Over the years, our shrinking student population and rising trip costs have changed the economics a great deal, but we still try to keep the costs down by doing our one and only fundraiser per year (our annual magazine sale) and with proceeds from the two JH operated vending machines in the school..

    Whoever first said, “Wouldn’t it be great if they held fundraisers to pay for wars and gave the US military budget to run the schools” would get my vote if they ran for office today..  Watching the school populations in the Upper Peninsula shrink has been painful.  To rub salt in our wounds, the Michigan Department and Education and the state politicians have decided to channel millions if not billions of dollars to non-public schools and non-educational uses.  I fantasize what all of the Upper Peninsula school districts would be able to do if the state gave us the same bailout money they gave to the Detroit Public Schools (a plan that failed, miserably, I might add).

    I hate fundraising, but what opportunities would we be able to offer our students if we relied only on the subpar amount of state aide we are given to run the schools?  We are mindful of and deeply appreciative to all of the folks in our communities who dig deep to help us help our students.  If anyone has a rich uncle or aunt out there to whom they would like to plead our case, please send them my phone number.  Perhaps they will be more helpful than the State of Michigan has been over the past decades.  Educational funding and support needs to look forward to 2020, not slide back to 1920.  

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