Fun-Size Hustle

How school fundraisers teach kids that work is sweet

By Mary Porto

A painting of blonde boy and tan girl vending fresh fish
Fisher Children by Charles W. Hawthorne, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Walter Bachrach

“Last year’s sale was incredible! Students, you raised over $60,000,” says Roger Casey to a camera in an empty room. “Give yourself a big round of applause.” “Mr. Casey,” as he refers to himself in a YouTube video from September 2020, explains that he has been leading fundraising efforts for Valley Christian Schools, a group of private K-12 schools in San Jose, California, for 25 years, via his company Ezfundz Fundraising (which appears to no longer operate.) Each year, parent-teacher associations and school boards across the U.S. pay private companies to train their kids to be sales people — and Valley Christian Schools, with their shiny, state-of-the-art campuses, are no exception. When sports teams lack proper equipment or a computer lab needs to be updated — or when a school is in need simply because of the myriad of ways that the American education system is underfunded — many institutions opt to turn children into miniature marketers.

Sometimes students are enlisted to sell things like holiday presents or pancake breakfasts to their classmates, and sometimes students are asked to sell items to adults out of a catalog. In most of these arrangements, the schools and the companies specializing in fundraising split the profits, while students are rewarded on the basis of how many sales they generate. In his video, Casey shares some prizes up for grabs at Valley Christian, including dorky swag (making one sale gets you a backpack tag with the school logo on it), a sweet taste of freedom (not having to wear your school uniform for a day? 10 sales), and free food (a Chick-fil-A meal for 15 sales, which is definitely more effort than the prize is worth). Sometimes the options are more enticing: One list, from the company Free Fundraising Zone, promises perks like an iPad, a Nintendo Switch, or a $300 gift card in exchange for hitting 185 sales. Even accounting for the money spent on prizes, some sales-based fundraisers can earn schools up to 60 percent in profits. 

Though student fundraisers are traditionally kicked off in a school assembly, complete with pump-up music, mascots, and banner ribbons, the pandemic has made the usual fanfare go online. The only hype men with Casey, in what appears to be his living room, are two cardboard standups — an anthropomorphic bear with a book (from a fundraiser selling magazines, operated by American Publishers) and two kids playing instruments made of giant cookies (from the Mrs. Fields cookie dough fundraiser). He has all the enthusiasm of a Covid-era remote worker forced to have his camera on. 

“I know, again, these are unusual circumstances,” Casey says. “But you really will want to get out there and just get as many sales as you can.”

Despite a global pandemic, kids, like the rest of us, must stay on their grind.

Valley Christian Schools’ website boasts “some of the finest facilities and equipment in the Bay Area,” including a space observatory and arts conservatory. Selling cookies didn’t pay for that. The $60,000 intake sounds impressive, but it’s peanuts compared to the 50 richest PTAs in the U.S., which raised an average of $851,000 in the 2013–14 school year, much of it from parents. Why go through the trouble of getting kids to sell things, especially at an extremely well-connected school, when you could instead solicit direct donations from wealthy parents and community members? 

Naturally, it’s not just about the money. After all, fundraising is also about learning something. PTAs and the companies they work with stress the benefits of youth participation in such schemes; the fundraising company Original Works, for instance, says that students may acquire fundamental life skills when they sell products for school — such as “customer service.” If it’s hard to believe that parents and educators would want to produce an army of customer service agents, remember that schools are not outside the logic of capitalism. The message of school fundraising is the same one that adults are taught about jobs: Working hard is rewarded, whether with a paycheck or a toy. And if your paycheck is too small or you want more than one backpack tag, work harder. Never mind that this message completely disregards the fact that who a person knows and where they’re from can lead to wildly different outcomes for doing the same work as their peers. 

My Filipino family moved to a mostly white, suburban Colorado town when I was eight months old. Over the years, I participated in several school fundraisers at my public school. Unlike some of my classmates, I didn’t have an extended family nearby or a large network of family friends I could solicit. Ironically, the students who didn’t care about the prizes (who needs to work for a free gaming console when you already own several?), were the ones most capable of making sales to their wealthy neighbors. 

I remember selling a few home goods out of a catalog — a gaudy candle holder to my piano teacher, for example — but what I enjoyed most were the Valentine’s Day and Halloween fundraisers where I could sell candy to my friends. At our school, teachers would bestow upon select students the privilege of selling comically large sour suckers that were, almost obscenely, shaped like giant lips. When I was chosen to sell suckers, I felt inexplicably powerful, not just because I got to use a cash register and guard the vast inventory of flavors, but also because I felt that I was doing something productive for the school. By the time my family became citizens, when I was in fifth grade, I had already learned to be something of an American entrepreneur.

There are many accounts of entrepreneurs who cut their grade-school teeth selling to other children. In 2019, a personal finance writer said in Business Insider that seventh-grade candy-selling taught her how to “understand profit margins” and “re-invest the profits.” In 2018, an analyst at Nike penned a LinkedIn post titled “What selling candy as a middle school kid taught me about entrepreneurship” (apparently, such advanced concepts as “supply and demand”). There is a YouTuber whose entire channel is dedicated to the subject of candy selling, with videos like “How to Price Your Snacks When Selling Candy at School (Complete Prices Guide)” and “How to COMEBACK After Getting CAUGHT SELLING CANDY At School! (5 Step Easy Guide)” garnering over 2 million views. The kids really are hustling. 

While these fundraisers aspire to teach children that hard work pays off, they actually say a lot about the nature of our communities. When there are potholes in the road, or if a sewage pipe bursts, we understand that the government has a responsibility to fix it. We are not supposed to reward individuals for patching the road. But as public school budgets are slashed, fundraisers that rely on individual initiative from children are trying to mask what one study labeled a $150 billion problem with underfunding. This has been romanticized as a warped kind of community care, which in fact reduces “community” to a series of transactions. Many may applaud school sales for teaching kids the value of hard work, entrepreneurship, and capitalist lessons like “the customer is always right.” Personally, I think it’s depressing that school sales had 11-year-old me already aspiring to work through lunch.

Mary Porto is a writer based in Washington, D.C.