Flipping hell at the school fundraiser

Photo credit Belathee Photography

Flipping hell at the school fundraiser2

Finance | Ian Allsop | 3 Apr 2012

Foul play and a lack of transparency is suspected  by Ian Allsop at the PTA pancake-day fundraiser.

While the relentless tide of health and safety regulation means we are no longer allowed to employ children to clean chimneys, they can usefully and legally be put to work in other ways. Such as by columnists looking for things to write about. Several years ago I was able to use my then three-year old’s insistence on putting loose change into every charity collecting bucket he saw to calculate the contribution toddler philanthropy makes to the UK voluntary sector. 

As well as saying and doing the funniest things, children naturally renew the way you view the world. Being involved closely with the education system presents plenty of source material for a columnist. For example, I am chair of governors at our local school, which has given me an opportunity to observe the school’s approach to charity, to community, and to fundraising from the stance of both a parent and commentator. 

Encouragingly, there is as much emphasis in our school on what money is being raised for as simply cash gathering. This is something the curriculum has given due prominence to, in an ‘equipping future good citizenship’ sort of way. Sport Relief, Comic Relief and Jeans for Genes Day are regular events that the school structures activities and assemblies around, while recently the school held a one-off ‘zumbathon’ to raise money for the mother of a pupil with advanced motor neurone disease, a situation it has handled sensitively with the children. 

Zumbathon is a good example of how language evolves, in that ‘thon’ can be appended to any pursuit used for fundraising, as a derivation of the portmanteau word telethon – a hybrid of television and marathon. As an aside, and for 30 points, in which country was the first telethon held in 1978?

I now know that if you want outstanding results from your fundraising teams then employ anyone involved with a PTA.

As well as achieving margins on home-made cakes that a Mayfair patisserie would be proud of, their programme of discos, fetes, coffee mornings, quiz nights, pamper parties and mother’s day gift sales (my wife can never have too many musical mugs) raises significant sums for the school to spend on things such as additional playground equipment or extra books.

After all, this free state education won’t fund itself. And this fundraising is done in a way that involves the local community and the children, giving them a sense of ownership and involvement with the school.

However, there has to be a level of trust and transparency in how results are reported and I fear recently the PTA overstepped the mark. They held a sponsored pancake flip in school. We unthinkingly pledged £1 a flip. My youngest is nearly five and I actually worried whether he would manage any at all. And even if he did, I was fairly certain the airborne pancake would be eaten before it returned to the pan.

Imagine my horror when he emerged from school boasting that he had managed 20 flips. The looks on fellow parental faces indicated similar surprisingly unexpected results from children whose tossing skills had remained hidden up to that point.

Foul play

I suspected foul play. I took him home and demanded answers. He refused to talk, even when I tied him up and left him in the shed for two days without food. Eventually he cracked and admitted they had received help from grown-ups.

The next day I was straight down to the school demanding the event be re-run with independent witnesses, perhaps the same UN officials who observe elections when it is suspected that democracy isn’t being strictly adhered to in dodgy countries such as Zimbabwe or Russia. Or the US. 

I didn’t really do either of those things of course. The PTA has subsequently commented on the “staggering success” of the pancake flip and I am sure the money will be put to great use and the benefit of the children. But it did make me think that there is a certain level of trust in how the achievements that are used as the basis for collecting pledges are verified and accepted. 

Perhaps kids are constantly chatting their way through sponsored silences or completing lengths of the swimming baths from the warmth of the spectator’s gallery. As well as fuelling a false belief that we are entering a golden age of British pancake flipping, inflated results could dampen parental enthusiasm for contributing to future events if they feel their trust is being compromised, even if it has reinvigorated my long-established cynicism.

Before you ask, there is photographic evidence of me completing my half marathon last year. And award yourself 30 points if you said Chile.

Ceris Morris
Head of Fundraising & Partnerships
Museums Sheffield
10 Apr 2012

Thank you Ian for your very funny article which made me laugh out loud on my first day back at work after my holidays (never a good moment). It is inspiring how much charitable activity goes on in schools though the hidden cost behind some events was brought home to me by my daughter who was delighted to be missing (for various reasons) a fundraising 'wear your own clothes day'. She was relieved as it would mean she wouldn't have to buy a new outfit - apparently the norm for the girls participating. I don't think these costs for the poor parents are every taken into account.

Corrie Darker
Independent Fundraiser
3 Apr 2012

As Chair of my PTA I couldn't agree more about inflated results and levels of trust. We aim to be completely transparent about how much we raise and how we raise it. Our parents are always amazed at the quality of goods and events we are able to provide while always bearing in mind the constant financial pressures on families. Our challenge remains showing accurately what that money is being spent on and ensuring it doesn't disappear into a school budget "black hole"


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Ian Allsop

Ian Allsop is a freelance journalist and editor specialising in not-for-profit management and financial issues.

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