Remember Alyssa Milano? The actress of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Charmed” fame was recently in the news after she started a fundraising campaign for her son’s baseball team so they could travel to Cooperstown, N.Y. Critics were quick to respond that a Hollywood star like Milano could easily write a big fat check herself and not place the burden on others.
I’d argue it’s not really anyone’s place to weigh in on the situation. After all, we don’t know the ins and outs of Milano’s finances and the actress indeed responded to criticism on Instagram
saying she wasn’t in a position to cover all the team’s expenses.
“Also, if I did pay for everyone — my trolls would find something else to be hurtful about,” she added.
So, instead I’m going to ask a question that goes well beyond the Cooperstown contretemps. Namely, why do we need to engage in any of these youth fundraisers?
I’m talking about the whole gamut of campaigns, from the 800-pound gorilla that is the annual Girl Scouts cookie program to the ubiquitous candy bar/magazine subscription/what-have-you sales that support any number of groups and activities.
When my now-adult children were in school, it seemed hardly a month went by when we weren’t roped into one of these things. Sometimes it involved my kids and one of their clubs or organizations; other times it involved a friend or neighbor’s kid asking me to buy something. I think I probably gained 20 pounds over the years from all the candy I ate.
If anything, I’ll come to Milano’s defense. Her campaign didn’t involve the sale of some product nobody wants or needs under the pretense of offering something of value — it was a straight-up ask for cash. Plus, she didn’t have her kid doing the shilling (or, rather, asking), though I’ll qualify that statement in a moment.
You see, my issue with so many of these efforts is they turn our children into beggars of sorts. Even when the campaign involves the sale of a product we might like — and I’m the first to admit I love those Girl Scout cookies — it’s still often about the kid going out and desperately soliciting support for their school, team or club.
“The ‘ask’ is often targeted at those who will be hard-pressed to say no — say, the kindly next-door neighbor or the ever-supportive aunt.”
And even when the parent is doing the soliciting, it’s still arguably sending the signal to the child that asking for money in such a way is perfectly acceptable, with mom or dad becoming a proxy for their progeny.
And naturally, the ‘ask’ is often targeted at those who will be hard-pressed to say no — say, the kindly next-door neighbor or the ever-supportive aunt.
Am I the only one who thinks it’s all a bit unseemly?
Apparently not. You’ll find many social-media posts speaking to this point. On one Reddit thread, I found this comment: “My children are not salespeople and I don’t want them going around begging people to buy overpriced crap.” In an opinion piece on the Kveller site, I came upon this blunt assessment: “It’s begging. It shouldn’t be allowed. If your kids want to sell me something, please tell them that I have three of my own kids to pay for. I am not interested in buying wrapping paper or cookie dough. I don’t want a $20 coupon card.”
Niloufar Esmaeilpour, a Vancouver-based counselor who works with children and families, summarized the criticisms for me by noting the fundraising ends up “blurring the lines between community support and [child] exploitation.”
But that’s not the only problem. Critics also say that this type of fundraising often puts children from lower-income families or those with smaller social networks at a distinct disadvantage because they might not have the same cadre of people to tap for purchases or contributions.
On a similar note, critics also say the fundraising often benefits schools, teams or clubs in communities where ironically there’s not as much need. In effect, the youth-baseball league in some comfortable suburb rakes it in, while the one in the inner-city may struggle.
Of course there’s a different side to the story, some say.
You’ll find plenty of people who embrace the youth-fundraising model. Not just because they say these campaigns and sales drives do support worthy causes, but also because they say they teach children key skills, from money management to entrepreneurship to you name it.
“They’re learning about marketing, they’re learning about customer service,” said Jennifer Seitz, director of education at Greenlight, a family finance app, and a mother of three kids.
Seitz also comes at it from having been a Girl Scout in her youth — in fact, her mother was a troop leader — and she told me just seeing the cookie truck pull up to her house and unload hundreds of boxes taught her a lesson about inventory management she’s never forgotten.
“‘They’re learning about marketing, they’re learning about customer service.’ ”
It could also be argued that the ongoing success of some of these programs speaks best to their worth. The Girl Scouts, for example, have been selling their cookies since 1917. A spokesperson for the organization noted it “is the largest girl-led entrepreneurship program in the world,” with nearly 700,000 participants.
But the cynic in me wonders if there are better ways to teach entrepreneurship, ones that don’t involve kids knocking on neighbors’ doors and that might actually make more money (the Girl Scouts often net just around $1 per box sold, according to some reports). I suppose parents can also do the door knocking with these drives — that’s effectively what Milano’s GoFundMe was about — but again, it’s a form of shilling nonetheless.
Which is not to say Milano, whose representatives didn’t respond to my request for comment, should have paid the full bill for her son’s team to go to Cooperstown, presumably to see the Baseball Hall of Fame and participate in related activities. But maybe she and the other team parents involved could have dug individually into their pockets for their children to go — and if there were families who couldn’t afford to do so, Milano and company could have made up the difference in those instances.
Or maybe they could have simply told their kids they couldn’t take the trip because it was beyond their means. The solution isn’t always to fundraise for something you can’t otherwise afford.
Perhaps that’s the real lesson to be learned here.