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From the archives: What a Mitzvah! A Day in the Life of Fundraising for a Preschool

Continuing with cleaning out my files, I keep coming up with old gems that I don’t just want to delete. Here’s another, from my days as the director of fundraising for our preschool.

Each year for the last few years we have had a big rummage sale to benefit our preschool, which is a program supported by our local Reform Jewish Temple. We ask all the temple members and our parent community to give donations, then on a Sunday morning we park on the front lawn of the temple and sell it.

It’s a pretty good fundraiser, pulling in well over a thousand dollars a year. Preschool education is expensive, no matter how you cut it, and our school needs the funds. It’s also a good way for the parents to get to know each other—hauling loads of other people’s stuff seems to cement a bond like nothing else we’ve tried.

As the fundraising director for the last few years, I have only minor grumbles when it comes to the parents. The first year we did it, apparently the parents thought their participation was optional…and more than a few didn’t turn up. That was pretty bad. But since then, I’ve started our rummage sale season with the threat that if not enough parents signed up, we’d call it off and they’d have to haul away the junk we got. That seems to work.

I also have few complaints about our customers. We get our share of nutty people (who usually pay) and scofflaws (who try not to). But we also get lots of young families, new immigrants, and people on small incomes. It feels good to do good—in Judaism this is called a mitzvah.

The thing that makes me wonder, however, is the motivation of some of our donors. I have to say that the majority of things we get are good, sellable items. And I know that a lot of our temple members and parents (myself included) save up our stuff all year long so that we can donate it. It’s a pretty easy mitzvah to do.

But I’m really not sure where some of our donors get their ideas about what belongs at a rummage sale. We can start with the people who admit the quality of their junk, like the parent who arrived with a truckload and told our director, “This is the stuff our neighbors couldn’t sell at their rummage sale.”

And then, perhaps, people like me who think the things they donate are eminently usable until we see them in the stark California sunshine and think, hm, perhaps that should have gone in the recycling bin.

But what motivates our donors to give us (this year alone)…

…A ripped garden hose…

…A cat box with used litter still in it…

…A box full of mysterious wood pieces that probably fit together to make…something…

…Half-eaten boxes of crackers (several flavors!)…

…A pair of sweatpants ripped nearly in half…

…Lots of very used underwear…

…A queen-sized mattress with urine stains…

You have to wonder what they were thinking. I prefer to think that most of our donors are motivated to do good. Temple members are generally very supportive of the preschool, even though it’s a drain on the budget because tuition just can’t be high enough to pay our costs. And I’m sure that our donors aren’t out of the ordinary. One parent told me that she’d seen even worse stuff when she worked for a relief group taking donations for flood victims. “We had to sort it,” she said, “or the people would get mad and make us take it back.” Imagine the nerve of those flood victims!

I guess I prefer to think that a lot of us just aren’t comfortable with our disposable economy, and can’t bear to put things in the trash when “someone might have a need for it.” When I donated the sippy cup bottoms that didn’t have tops, I swear that I thought that perhaps another family was in the opposite situation: perhaps those sippy cup bottoms would find their life partners through a rummage sale! Of course, they were still there at the end of the day.

But I guess as hard as I try to access my preschooler’s elastic imagination, I can’t find a rationale for some of the donations. Couldn’t they have emptied the catbox—and the diaper genie that came equipped with some used diapers? And did they really think that we’d be able to sell that mattress? A mitzvah is to do good for someone, but all that mattress got us was grief. All day we watched it towering up there, leaning against the porch, while people picked through the clothing, eyed the furniture, and tested the heft of the silverware. Our all-volunteer staff (which counts our director, who doesn’t get paid anywhere near enough to get up at 4:30 a.m. on a Sunday) didn’t need the added stress of what to do with a mattress.

What saved our life was the Free Cycle, our local branch of a national network of folks who believe that we need to rebel against our disposable economy. These people believe as a matter of faith that there’s someone out there who wants pretty much anything.

Even, it turns out, a stained mattress. Kelley, a plain-spoken computer engineer who has a dad with a big truck, came and took it all from us. She didn’t ask for anything in return. When we broached the idea of making the last straggling customers take entire bags of clothes, she said, “I’m afraid if we did that, they’d just throw them away.” Instead, she let them pick out what they wanted (it was all free by then) and waited patiently to take away the remains.

Everyone involved in this sale tried to do, in their own way, a small mitzvah. I felt great when a man with a hard-earned wizened face told me he was taking lots of our free stuff to the program he runs to help other men get off the streets. The young couple who spoke little English seemed embarrassed but happy that they could take away the baby changing table for free, and that we even took it apart for them. The temple’s janitor helped carry tables back inside, though he really didn’t have to.

But the greatest mitzvah of the day was from the Free Cycler, who took away all our leftover follies: the mangled picture frames, the worn out shoes, castoff dishes, the book inscribed “to my darling,” my formerly precious sippy cup bottoms, and even, yes, the mattress. They took the stained mattress and by golly, they are going to find it a home.

We tweak the workings of this fund raiser every year, though often the suggestions are impractical. Could we have a parent on duty to sift through the stuff people want to donate? What would they say if one of their fellow parents wanted to donate a used catbox? Would we get any donations at all if we restricted donation times? Fund raising for small nonprofits is fraught with these sorts of logistical questions. We all love our school, but just how much do we love it?

Near the end of our mercifully cool day, our director suggested that perhaps next year, we could do a silent auction. I wonder what sort of donations we’ll get for that!

Posted in Education, Parenting.


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  1. Mom says

    The generous (ahem) donations bequeathed to your fundraiser are perhaps analogous to the leftovers given to gifted kids, allowing those who serve the gifted to feel satisfied that they have done their best.



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