Guest Blog: School Fundraising in Alberta, Moving Beyond the Thunderdome

I was seven when the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome opened in theatres. I was too young to see the PG-13 flick but throughout my childhood, it was part of pop culture. Tina Turner was a bad ass and it was the days before Mel Gibson made questionable choices.

 Thunderdome is much like the state of school fundraising in Alberta today.

Every time a school completes a grant application or sends home another request for students to sell something, it feels like a silent crowd is chanting, “Two men enter, one man leaves”. Like Thunderdome, there is one winner and many losers, and the competition is fierce.

The competition for grant funding is fierce. Some grants receive hundreds of applications and only have funding for one or two recipients across Canada. More and more, grants are moving toward a most-votes-wins style that is more like a popularity contest than a measure of most needed. I can’t blame the organizations that structure grants this way – they also have limited resources and it is only natural to want to see a return on investment in the form of clicks to their website.

The competition for parent dollars is fierce. If you have children in more than one school or involved in extra-curricular activities, expect a constant stream of fundraisers coming home in the backpack. Buckle your seatbelt – you will never again worry about how to renew your magazine subscriptions, what book of coupons is the best or where to buy wrapping paper. You will have a continuous supply of bacon, steaks and cookie dough in your freezer. And your social calendar will be dotted with casinos, silent auctions and bottle drives. Every holiday will have options of flowers or chocolates and occasionally, you will even get an invitation to a cheque writing party.

The competition for corporate sponsorship support is fierce. With many non-profits looking to supplement donors that have dried up during the downturn of the economy, companies large and small are receiving more and more requests. Corporations must choose between supporting local projects (like school playgrounds), Calgary-wide initiatives (like the United Way) or national campaigns (like the Canadian Red Cross). All while balancing their own books during an economic recovery.

Although the competition is fierce and can feel like a fundraising Thunderdome, it is only open to those with the ability to compete. There are many schools where volunteers are scarce, and money is limited. There are just not enough hours in a day or bodies around the table to apply for grants, organize fundraising events or approach sponsors. These groups are almost always the loser in the fundraising Thunderdome.

Ultimately, the fundraising Thunderdome has an impact on students. The focus has shifted from raising a bit of money to support field trips and “extras” that enhance learning, to raising a lot of money to support basic needs like playgrounds. School councils dread the words, “We’ve been told we will need to replace the playground” nearly as much as, “Our student results are decreasing”. Increasingly, school councils are spending more time discussing grants and fundraising than students and learning. In the end, students always lose when the focus is forced away from learning.

The Alberta Government offered a ray of hope in July 2017 when they announced that new schools would each receive $250,000 toward a new playground – a huge step forward for schools and communities. However, the devil is always in the details. The funding only applies to schools announced in 2014 or later, meaning that the 8 schools in Calgary announced in May 2013 do not qualify. Nor do the countless schools that need replacement playgrounds.

As Tina Turner so famously sang it, “All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome”.

— Amber Stewart is a Calgary parent and former school board trustee with the Calgary Board of Education(2013-2017). 


Notes From the Playground – Winners & Losers October 19, 2018

This series about current issues in education, Notes from the Playground gives a nod to the very early beginnings of SOS Alberta and where we first organized, as citizens talking to each other about one of the most powerful influences on our daily lives, our kids’ education. These are my thoughts on education matters this week, as always we welcome yours!

Carolyn Blasetti – Executive Director

Since Support Our Students Alberta began we have been concerned with the way schools consistently need to fill funding gaps through fundraising. There are few other issues more top of mind for Alberta parents than fundraising. Visit any school council or parent fundraising society meeting and you’ll hear both parents and administrators discussing how to raise money for basic resources, supplies and even infrastructure for their school. Often the conversation about fundraising hijacks discussions about other school issues and concerns. No longer are parents talking about building their school community or what’s happening in the school’s classrooms this month, they are talking about running coupon sales, deciding how to spend thousands of dollars on school furniture, flooring or computers or books. Schools find themselves becoming dependent on the rise and fall of fundraising dollars. And this is only if they are a school lucky enough to have the capacity within their school community to have a fundraising society.

Last year we highlighted concerns around schools competing in corporate contests for basic educational resources like books. Our concerns went unheard by decision makers in both government and school boards. We shared these concerns again this year. This year again, schools in lower income neighbourhoods pleaded their case in corporate competitions so that their kids, in their schools, could have books. No one, not city councillors, not trustees, not MLA‘s, expressed any concern for the inequity and injustice of having to compete for resources.

Thankfully, Eva Ferguson of the Herald expressed an interest in this issue. What followed has been some engaged discussions around schools needing books and schools needing playgrounds. Our goal of starting a dialogue around fundraising as being a way to absolve the government of its responsibility to properly fund public schools was finally playing out in public discourse.


We subsequently pointed out that St. Peter Elementary School in Calgary is also currently competing in a national corporate contest for funds to build a playground because they do not have any playground at all. We were pleased that Minister Eggen responded to this situation by providing much needed funding to St. Peter Elementary School. However, the reality remains for many schools across this province that they do not receive enough funding for books, playgrounds, technology or other resources.

We find ourselves in the same position as four years ago when we began our advocacy,  wondering why schools must fundraise for the most basic of resources? Knowing that schools in affluent high income neighbourhoods will not experience the same hardships and challenges of lower income communities. This dependency on fundraising and corporate donations creates have and have not schools, winner and losers.

Our goal as public education advocates has always been and will always be to build a system on UNIVERSALITY. Every Alberta child deserves a safe playground to play, every community deserves a place to build relationships with their neighbours, every child deserves books to read and every child deserves access to the same technology. We are very happy St. Peter Elementary School received funding for their playground from the Alberta government. But they are not alone. Since the announcement came out we have heard from multiple people about the need for a playground in their community public school. There is no reason that roughly $275 million a year should fund private schools when public schools go without. So while we are very thankful this particular story has had a happy ending, we know there is more work to do and we will reiterate our calls yet again for a review of the Alberta education funding model so that no student, no school and no parent must plead or compete with a corporation for basic educational resources.

Please feel free to share your experience with fundraising at your school! Comment or email us at