Does your help hurt?

different - verschiedenCreating Dependency

In developing countries, aid programs give things and services. They compensate for the state’s shortcomings in education, food, or shelter. I was reminded of this by a Forbes article which highlighted the failures of an NGO in Eastern Europe. By pursuing the classic charity model–giving locals things they didn’t have–the NGO created dependency on their services (mostly clothing and food programs). They choked development. Recognizing this, the NGO switched gears. Instead of giving stuff, the charity realized that it needed to empower people to realize their own vision.

It got me thinking. How different are booster clubs from these big NGOs? Do they get stuck just giving stuff, blocking school districts from taking care of themselves? In many school districts across the country, booster clubs are becoming a structural necessity. As I’ve written elsewhere, booster clubs have been leaned on during this past recession to cover everything from basic materials costs to program staff salaries. Funds from booster clubs even cover teachers’ salaries in some schools. That may be causing a harmful dependence.

I’m writing this post because I think every booster club volunteer should consider these three questions.

  1. Are schools fundamentally responsible for the basic costs of education, in and out of the classroom?
  2. Should booster club funds be used more often for a strategic investment,  or a structural necessity?
  3. How much more effective are fundraisers for capital campaigns and one time costs, compared to fundraisers for recurring operating costs?

Like those charities from the Forbes article, it’s hard for booster club volunteers to see schools struggling and not try to fill in budget gaps. It’s easy for them to rally when administrators say they are cutting funds to integral to programming. Then, when an administrator looks down a line-item of costs, they start to see where booster clubs might chip in, and naturally they look to those areas to start trimming the budget. But shouldn’t booster clubs serve as an ancillary fundraising mechanism, instead of a central one?

I’ve seen schools where booster clubs provide more than “extras.” A new booster club just started in upstate New York. To fund the basic elements of the junior varsity program, they had to raise $50,000. To fund modified (freshman) teams, they need another $80,000. These costs used to be met by the school district, and that puts the booster club in a tough position. If they succeed, the district may rely on them forever. If they fail, children will lose access to the key parts of their physical and social education, important preparations for adulthood. Booster clubs also provide more than extracurricular funding. In some cases, they pay for basic school costs. I know of at least one booster club that hired teachers to create additional sections to reduce class size at their local schools. Clearly, booster clubs are playing a central role. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Empowerment Means Support, Not Reliance

What would a world look like for booster clubs who didn’t have to worry about basic costs? Fundraising would be easier and more effective. Instead of raising funds for everything, they could focus on major capital improvements, special trips, and other one-time costs. Like the NGOs in Eastern Europe, booster clubs can ask “beyond meeting basic needs, what’s your dream? We can make that happen.” One time costs focus fundraising efforts. For donors, it’s a way to support something extra special, instead of things they think they already pay taxes for.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of booster clubs at raising money for basic costs may lead to their demise. If you follow boosterland on twitter (@boostertweet) you might have seen a story I posted on the Montgomery County Council and Board of Education, who are considering leveling the playing field, that is, forcing booster clubs to to share money with other districts. In lean budgetary times, districts envy successful booster clubs. In communities with nonexistent or ineffective booster clubs, that extra cost cushion doesn’t exist. To make matters worse, these are often in communities with a lower tax base, where residents lack the means to run successful fundraisers. In Montgomery at least, booster clubs are multiplying the inequality that already exists because of the way we fund our schools.

By all means, get out there and fundraise. Build communities of volunteers that support extracurricular activities. Generate value for your school and your district. But be aware of the systematic dependency that can arise from success.

  • Are voters likely to further defund schools with an assumption that booster clubs will cover costs?
  • Will funding of essential programs lead schools to cede their responsibilities?
  • How much of essential programs does your booster club already fund? Is it appropriate?

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