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Published December 02, 2013, 02:53 PM

Peddling for a purpose: These days, raising kids means plenty of fundraising for parents

Fargo -- When Eli Hunt needed to sell popcorn for Cub Scouts, his dad stepped in to help.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

Fargo -- When Eli Hunt needed to sell popcorn for Cub Scouts, his dad stepped in to help.

Phil Hunt created a poster featuring Eli in oversized sunglasses with the caption “This shady looking character is pushing popcorn.”

The humorous poster had Hunt’s co-workers at Flint Communications laughing, and a few people even bought popcorn.

“It was funny to call him a popcorn pusher. I treated it as this illicit trade that everyone could participate in,” Hunt says. “I try and make people aware of it, and if I don’t make a single sale on his behalf, I don’t sweat it.”

Third-grader Eli called friends and relatives to “push” more popcorn, and eventually sold a handful of tins. Starting as young as kindergarten, many children sell items to fundraise for their school or extracurricular activities.

Nationwide, schools and youth groups earn nearly $2 billion each year by selling consumer items, according to statistics by the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers. The child’s parents or guardians usually help them sell their share.

“A lot of people have to do it. Eli’s sold coupon books, then there’s a 4-H fundraiser … there’s something all year it seems,” Hunt says.

He and his wife have a relaxed approach to the fundraising and don’t push Eli to sell an “insane amount.”

“We want to do our part with those kinds of fundraisers and keep the money rolling in for whoever needs it, but we also don’t see it as a competitive thing,” Hunt says. “It’s more of a chipping in and helping out kind of thing.”

Jen Vickers, of West Fargo, helps her 8-year-old daughter, Julia, sell wrapping paper, cookies and pizzas once a year to benefit L.E. Berger Elementary. After the second-grader has sold some of her goods, Vickers buys out the rest.

“It eliminates the need to drag the catalog around and proposition the friends/family members who are most likely being approached by all the other little people in their lives at the same time,” she says.

More than three-fourths of all Americans (77 percent) support school fundraising by purchasing at least one item, and 89 percent of parents with children in school support fundraising by purchasing at least one product, according to the Association of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers,

Some parents seem more enthusiastic about selling than their children, or at least that’s what Vickers sees when parents go to school to get the fundraised goods. She notices that some parents “are a little like peacocks with their big boxes of stuff filling their SUVs.”

“But I have never felt direct pressure to sell more. I am happy to participate and do our share, but do not feel compelled to go over and above,” she says.

Hunt, too, is happy to participate on Eli’s behalf, although it’s not “necessarily the thing you’re dying to do when your kid is participating in these organizations.”

“But they also need to fund everything,” he says. “It keeps those organizations a little more self-sustaining. In that respect, it saves parents a bit of trouble in writing a check, although it’s hard to say what the trade-off is. On one hand, it might just be easier to write a check for the organization rather than shelling out $20 to $30 for cookies, candy or popcorn.”

Like Eli’s Cub Scout pack, children in Fargo Public Schools aren’t required to sell items, and if they do, there’s no minimum, says Mary Schultz, president of the Fargo PTA.

She coaches her eighth-grade son through selling so he can be part of it but doesn’t pressure him to reach selling goals. She says there can be a little peer pressure to sell, depending on the group of children.

Vickers agrees that it’s likely something children talk about, so she wants to ensure that her daughter doesn’t feel left out.

“If we were not able to supplement, and she couldn’t reach her goal, I would feel terrible. I think it is something the kids talk about amongst themselves, and if she was unable to feel a part of this, I would be saddened for her and for our family,” she says.

Schultz’s son has Asperger Syndrome, so it’s especially challenging for him to approach people and make a sales pitch.

“I’m not a salesperson. That’s just not what I like to do,” she says. “I sure wouldn’t want to make a family or child feel bad if they weren’t able to sell as much as the next kid. I’d prefer they not know how much everyone sells.”

Although children aren’t required to sell anything, Vickers says they’re encouraged to, and incentives are the motivation, at least for her daughter.

“I don’t think she has any idea how or why the fundraiser helps the PTA or her school. She is able to recite what she’s been told, but the understanding is lacking,” she says.

Incentives that’ve been offered at Julia’s school include a limo ride, T-shirts, Visa gift cards and small trinkets.

Schools may not force children to fundraise, but they rely on it. According to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, 94 percent of principals say their schools rely on fundraising, 64 percent would stop fundraising if they could afford it, and 87 percent say they see a valuable return on their fundraising investment.

For PTAs, fundraising money typically goes to school activities, staff appreciation days, classroom items and school-improvement, like installing new water fountains, Schultz says. Groups like Cub Scouts raise money to cover scouting feeds, camping fees, badges, equipment and other items.

A school in Moorhead takes a different approach to raising money for its Parent Teacher Advisory Council. Students at S.G. Reinertsen Elementary don’t sell to fundraise. Instead, the PTAC hosts a school carnival and book fair each year, says PTAC president Bridget Walthers.

“It’s more of a fun activity to benefit the schools rather than a door-to-door sale,” says the mom of two. “I’m not against door-to-door type family things, though. I think it’s a great way for parents to teach their kids about talking to people and interacting with their community.”

Selling items door-to-door is discouraged by most organizations for the child’s safety. Hunt kept his son Eli’s selling to friends and family so he wasn’t uncomfortable about it.

Although Eli didn’t sell as much popcorn this year compared to last, he came close to reaching his goal. His dad’s content with their efforts and might create an even funnier poster next year.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525