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). 


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