August 16th 9:03 a.m.
“I am on the phone right now with Customer Service for Great American Opportunities, Inc. Their Facebook Page has been removed and the customer service rep is transferring me to her Supervisor …”
Julie Palmer frantically wrote on the We Support Paula Deen Facebook fan page from her home in Minnesota.
August 15th 6:04 p.m.
Just 15 hours prior to Palmer’s comment, page administrators of the popular fan page, boasting over 612,000 “likes” posted a photo of a letter that prompted thousands of Paula Deen supporters to flood the Facebook page of Great American Opportunities, Inc. (GAO), a for-profit fundraising company for schools and charitable organizations, on Thursday evening with comments, ultimately causing GAO to delete the page all together by Friday morning.
Thursday started off like any other day for Tamara Holley Campbell of Grovetown, Georgia. She packed her four boys up and sent them off to school. When they returned home on Thursday afternoon with the school’s annual fundraiser packets from their elementary school in their backpacks, she found something she wasn’t expecting. Little did she know, her discovery would reach 330,000 people a few hours later.
“It came across that they were apologizing for having Paula Deen in their catalog,” Campbell said as she described the very odd letter inserted into the Great American Opportunities fundraiser catalog. Printed on plain white paper, the letter, signed by Great American Opportunities, Inc. refers to the racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuit that was filed against Paula Deen and her brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers last year, and subsequently dismissed on a lack of legal merit last week, and goes on to explain that the company felt it would be wasteful to discard the catalogs.
With a Sales Force of Children
Great American Opportunities, Inc. is an independent operating subsidiary of Southwestern/Great American, Inc., which is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and offers fund raising services for non-profit groups. The company’s website claims that it has helped raise over $5 billion for schools and non-profit organizations since 1975, and employs over 400 employees who primarily work from home.
According to Wikipedia, since 1982, Southwestern has partnered with, acquired or established companies around the world for a total of 10 companies within the corporate family as of 2013. These companies’ services range from fundraising to consulting to financial services to executive search and real estate with more than $425 million in annual revenues.
A Community that Cares
Grovetown, Georgia is part of the Augusta, Georgia metropolitan area as well as the Central Savannah River Area with a population of approximately 13,000 people. The town prides itself on maintaining its family-friendly atmosphere, quality schools, and small town simplicity while offering the amenities of a 21st century city and remaining steeped in tradition while embracing the future.
Its combination of country charm and modern amenities serves as the basis for why Grovetown proclaims itself as “A Community that Cares.”
The Power of Social Media, Y’all!
Campbell, a dedicated Paula Deen fan, found the letter from GAO offensive. “I was pretty shocked,” she said. She snapped a photo of the letter and sent it in a message to the We Support Paula Deen Facebook page.
Part national protest, part fundraiser, and part fan club, the We Support Paula Deen Facebook page was launched in June by John Schmitt after reports that Deen admitted in a court deposition that she used the “N-word” nearly 30 years ago, causing her culinary empire to crumble.
Page administrators posted the photo of the letter on Thursday evening at 6:04 p.m. Within a few hours, the GAO Facebook page was bombarded with over 1,000 comments and recommendations from outraged Paula Deen fans.
Deen supporters in Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Minnesota and Florida chimed in on the very heated discussion that ultimately derailed the company’s Facebook presence… at least one of its many accounts.
Fans in the five states said in comments that they too had received the same letter, and did not understand its intent. The letter does not specifically state that Paula Deen products are not available, but fans found it distasteful and inappropriate.
Paula Deen fans who support the We Support Paula Deen Facebook page strongly believe in certain principles that they feel Deen exemplifies. Their loyalty is based in their respect for Deen’s integrity, her honesty, good will and charity. The letter is an insult to these traits that unite them.
GAO deleted its Facebook page in response to the firestorm of comments. Julie Palmer in Minnesota resorted to the company’s customer service telephone number. She spoke with a supervisor who admitted that the company is providing the letter as an optional insert to schools and organizations. Palmer posted on the We Support Paula Deen Facebook page:
“[GAO does] in fact support Paula Deen and her products, and will continue to have her products available in their catalogs… they have given the choice to the individual school systems, churches, communities, whoever is doing the fundraising, as to whether they want to do a letter or insert…”
A representative from Paula Deen Foods provided a statement to the We Support Paula Deen Facebook page:
“Great American Opportunities is a fundraising company that serves thousands of schools. They have not ended their relationship with Paula Deen, but must allow schools to make the choice as to which products they sell. Please continue to support your local schools in their fundraisers, as they are very important and needed. GAO has maintained their agreement with Paula even through these tough times, and we are very grateful and appreciative. Many thanks to those that continue to stand by Paula, and for your unwavering support.”
Rob Corley at Great American Opportunities, Inc. said that the company heard the feedback from Deen supporters and is reviewing and considering whether or not it will continue to include a letter at all.
“After feedback received, Great American is reviewing the note carefully. In addition, we are considering discontinuation of inclusion of a note directly from the company.”
Great American Opportunities made this statement in response to the backlash:
Great American Opportunities is saddened by the recent post on social media sites that suggested we have tried to hurt Paula Deen and are attempting to prevent people from ordering her products. We truly believe that there is a misunderstanding of our position.
As a service provider of programs who assists schools and groups in their fundraising campaigns, we must allow every school to make the decision as to whether or not they wish to include our brochures with licensed products from Paula Deen in their fundraising campaigns; We ARE giving our customers that choice.
Some schools have requested a note in the packet that includes the brochure indicating why products are there. Some have indicated that they will only sell the brochure with the Paula Deen products if the note is included in the packet that goes home. The note is ONLY used if requested by a school.
Each school makes the decision on how they will participate on behalf of their parents and supporters. Just as with any of our other products, any Paula Deen items that are ordered from our catalogs will be fulfilled and will carry our 100% Customer Satisfaction Guarantee.
We appreciate your concern, and hope you will always support students and schools as these fundraising campaigns are critical to their many needs.
The general response from fans has been indecisive, at best. While fans want to support Deen, many do not agree with Paula Deen Foods’ position. They’re faced with a dilemma. Would it be a betrayal to Paula Deen to refuse to support GAO?
What’s a Paula Deen Supporter to Do?
It’s simple. Say no to fundraisers. Well, not all fundraisers, but the fundraisers that sell products through fundraising companies would be a good start. These fundraisers can provide crucial funding where no other funding is available. They can provide access to critical resources and tools for schools. But, product sales fundraisers aren’t the only way.
Rather than spend $25 on an item in a catalog, leaving only $10-$12 for the school and the rest in the company’s pocket, just write a check for $25 to the PTA and give the full benefit of your hard-earned money to your kids’ education rather than a company that uses them as salesmen.
A parent who receives this letter or one like it might consider sending a copy of the letter along with a donation to the PTA, rather than ordering from the catalog.
Catalog fundraising companies often disrupt education activities with orientation assemblies, campaign updates and even training sessions. Rather than spend time learning something like math, US history, or science, kids are corralled into auditoriums to listen to the motivating fundraising pitch, complete with prize “incentives.” Then, throughout the few weeks, they’ll spend time focused on their sales rather than their homework, tomorrow’s math quiz, or spending time with the family.
Every vacant space on every wall at the schools will be plastered with product ads, posters and goal charts. According to the Frequently Asked Questions on the GAO website, “it’s called promotion. When a new movie comes out, you’ll see the ads, the posters, the displays and all types of advance promotion. Borrowing from that idea, Great American knows you’ll ALL (you included) get “into it” if you make a big deal about it.”
GAO even acknowledges that in general, kids participate unwillingly.
“Most students do not like to participate in fundraisers, that’s a fact. But Great American offers the best products, the best prizes, a motivational video tape and a professional fundraising consultant…” – Great American Opportunities, Inc.
The Yacolt Primary School PTA in Yacolt, Washington cut catalog sales fundraisers from its programs entirely in 2009. “Not only was concern expressed about the safety of our children, but is it really appropriate to ask our kids to solicit money for schools?” a PTA representative said. “We believe that many families would rather not support fundraisers that ask children to sell a product (cookie dough, magazines, catalogues). The number of kids participating in the Yacolt/Amboy fundraisers, and profit to the schools, have both been declining in recent years.”
All That Glitters is Not Gold
Janet Hinz at HuffPost Politics – Politics Daily says that car washes and bake sales aren’t cutting it anymore. “The most popular fundraisers sell products, many of them of questionable value. Shockingly, schools (and other nonprofits) only get 20 percent to 50 percent of profits from these sales. Most of the money goes to the fundraising company itself, which makes the case that children involved in these efforts benefit from boosted self-esteem, a sense of teamwork, and even an enhanced résumé. Even if that were so, I wouldn’t want the trade-off of seeing my preteens selling goods door-to-door.” She also encourages parents to skip supporting a catalog fundraiser, and to opt for direct donations to the PTA.
“It also safeguards important relationships and allows your family to focus on other activities like school work, athletics or just spending time together,” she concludes.
“And there are terrible sales schemes, which raise some money for schools, but do more to pad the bottom line of the companies marketing cheap goods,” ~ Katherine Wertheim, CFRE, a professional fundraiser in Ventura, California
Wertheim recommends avoiding product sales and restaurant fundraisers at all cost, and consider alternatives such as, silent auctions, local business sponsorships, and walkathons.
Crowdfunding is fast becoming one of the most effective funding methods in the country. Websites like FundAnything allow people to create fundraising campaigns for any purpose. It uses social media to rapidly broadcast a campaign with exposure to a wide audience. While creating a campaign on the website is very simple, a successful campaign is dependent on social connections. You don’t necessarily need a large number of friends or fans on Facebook and Twitter, but social media experience and savvy are critical to success.
A social media crowdfunding campaign could be promoted in addition to a fundraising activity like carwashes, dinners, performances, raffles, etc., and is a great way to expand a PTA’s interactions with parents into social media. The best part, donations are transacted immediately into PayPal, less a 4-9% fee.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Wertheim sums it up best, “I think the parents need to go to principals and say, ‘There will be no more product sales to our children, and no more catalogs. Tell us what you need and make the case why you need it. We will make the case to other people why we need it. We don’t mind walkathons, but you are not going to have our students taken out of class to view a presentation by a corporation that is going to make at least 50% on the dollar from kids selling their schlocky products.’”