Sunday, September 28, 2008

COLUMN: Psssst ... Wanna buy some popcorn?

When I was a kid, some under-funded organization I was involved with assigned me the task of selling tremendous chocolate bars for $1 apiece. My strategy was to leave them on the kitchen counter at our house, whereupon they would eventually disappear (not a small number of them into me while I sat on the couch watching Scooby-Doo cartoons), requiring my parents to write a check to cover their cost. This plan never fails — I think there’s a class on it at Wharton now.

Today I am a parent, and I have discovered that there’s been a very important change in fundraising since then: The candy bars have gotten smaller. Other than that, it’s pretty much the same.

Actually, I should give my kids more credit. For instance my son, a freshly minted Cub Scout, has already taken to his task of peddling popcorn, adopting a have-order-sheet-will-travel mentality and cornering friends and family wherever he goes. So far he’s accosted people at the park, his sister’s soccer games and at least one funeral (or at the meal afterwards, anyway). He wants to know what he needs to do to get you into a gigantic tin of popcorn today.

It’s tough though, because as we all know people don’t have the expendable income they used to, and also there’s a lot of competition — at this rate it won’t be long before the Treasury Department is out canning. So the majority of the purchases tend to fall to a young salesperson’s family, which speaks to one of the great truisms of parenting: Don’t have kids unless you really, really like Yankee Candles.

Of course, there are some people whose eyes light up when your child asks them to shell out for whatever they’re peddling, because it means that they can then ask you to buy something from their kid without feeling guilty. Let’s face it, when you come down to it we’re all passing the same $20 around town to each other over and over again. OK, $200.

Now, so far my kids, age 7 and 9, have sold candles, cookies, cookie dough, popcorn, wrapping paper and housewares, not to mention soliciting pledges for miles walked, home runs hit and cartwheels, er, cartwheeled. And I’m sure soon someone will have them out there holding cans for passing cars; some people object to this practice because it’s like begging, but I like it because when the smoke clears, you’re not left holding another Yankee Candle.

And even if you get paying customers, there are other hazards. This is particularly true when you have a daughter who sells Girl Scout cookies, since the customers inevitably pay cash, which you then put into an envelope labeled “cookie money.” Then, you need some cash for takeout, your wife needs to get gas, your kid needs lunch money, etc., and suddenly it’s time to turn in the cookie money and you discover that you’ve indirectly purchased enough Thin Mints to cover the down payment on a Saturn L200.

I’m tempted to suggest that we all just make a pact to put aside a few hundred dollars a year to donate to these various organizations flat-out, in exchange for the abolition of fundraising drives that involve selling things people don’t really need or want. (Say, a raffle chance to win $1,500 in scratch tickets. Wait, no, that one I need and want.) But I look at my son peddling his popcorn, and I can’t help but think maybe these efforts are teaching him some usable skills or even building character — which is what these organizations are supposed to be about anyway.

At the very least, it might give him a future in retail. Or at the Treasury Department.

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