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When children come knocking, and selling, at your door

How many times have you answered the knock on the door to find a child wanting to sell you a candy bar or a box of cookies in support of Scouts or a local youth group? Such knocks seem to be more frequent these days.

As the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Sector, a nonprofit coalition of volunteer organizations, points out, volunteerism among youth is up. One fund-raiser says: ``Children are more involved with organized activities in general these days, and they all take money to run.''

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While most organizations ask the community for outright contributions, some find it easier to solicit funds by offering something in return -- everything from gourmet popcorn to a ticket to the event being sponsored.

The trouble with this approach -- laying aside the wear and tear on grandparents' pocketbooks -- is that a large portion of the amount collected is eaten up paying for the items themselves. For example, only 40 percent, on the average, of the amount paid for Girl Scout cookies goes back to the council doing the selling.

And it's worth checking the organization whose cookies, candy bar, or other product you're about to buy. Some people have had children coming to their doors from outside their area selling goods to support organizations they've never heard of, and some fund-raisers admit privately that children are being used to support illegitimate causes because they're such good salesmen -- who's going to turn down a child?

``If there's a buck to be made, somebody will find a way to take advantage of someone to do so,'' says Phil Lerner from the Child Welfare League.

Regulations governing such practices vary from state to state and sometimes city to city. Not all fund-raising activities are sponsored by nonprofit organizations, for example, and few, if any, have age limits on the ``volunteers'' selling them.

Some of the selling activities offer direct benefits to the children -- such as a certain percent of the money raised. ``I went to the drugstore the other day,'' says Dianne Carroll, an Arlington, Va., Parent-Teachers Association president who receives three to four offers per week from fund-raisers wanting to involve the PTA, ``and there was a girl selling magazine subscriptions standing outside, telling people that she was putting herself through college.

``I asked her exactly how much she was getting for this work, and she admitted that it just kept her in makeup. I asked her how often she did it, and she said every day. Then I asked her how she got her homework done, and she said that it was tough.''

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``If a solicitor is paid by the organization or offered a percent of whatever is raised, this is where a lot of the abuse comes in,'' says Eric Destreich of the American Association of Fundraising Councils.

Still, ``fraud and abuse are not that widespread,'' according to Steve Delfin of United Way, ``although it tends to blacken everybody's eye when it occurs.''

The answer to such fraud is not necessarily more regulation. ``Legitimate organizations tend to obey the regulations anyway -- it's the criminal entrepreneur who's out there disobeying the laws that are already on the books,'' explains Mr. Delfin.

He believes that the burden for regulation should fall, to a certain extent, on consumers, and he advises that they open their purses only to children and organizations they recognize.

``If you don't know the child or have never heard of the place they're supporting, you can always take their name and number and promise to call them back.'' Then, he says, you can call the Better Business Bureau or National Charities Information Bureau to see if the organization is legitimate.

Joe Mayers of the International Fundraising Association has additional advice if you're suspicious. He suggests checking with the Internal Revenue Service or the state attorney general's office to see if the organization has 501C3 (nonprofit) status, is in good standing with the IRS, and has its books audited.

Some organizations -- notably the National PTA -- guard against abuse by refusing to get involved with any fund-raising activities that involve children unless they have direct educational benefits for the child.

Others, like the Girl Scouts, think such door-to-door sales can be very beneficial to children, if handled correctly.

``Through cookie selling,'' Girl Scout guidelines explain, the approximately 1 million girls involved ``develop responsibility and learn how to handle money and to follow through on a promise to deliver a product.''

The Girl Scouts follow strict procedures to protect their members, including written permission from parents to take part in cookie sales, thorough training in cookie sale procedures, advising the girls to use the buddy system -- to sell with another Scout, advising them to bring an adult along after dark, and telling the girls never to go into anybody's house.

But the best technique for protecting adults being solicited by organizations they don't know or care to support, says Mr. Delfin, is to ``learn to say no.''

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