Tossing your cookies: grassroots fundraising at its best

When asked, ‘What is your earliest recollection of making a charitable donation?’, most Americans respond: ‘Buying Girl Scout cookies.’

Written by
Ruthellen S. Rubin
June 25, 2011
A great American tradition. Girl Scouts and their cookies seem to have been around forever.

The adorable kid next door with the pigtails left her watchful mom at the end of your driveway then tentatively pulled her cookie-laden red wagon up to your front door and rang your doorbell. The merits badges for dog care, stamp collecting, basketry, beading and citizenship lined her diagonal green sash. This was a little girl who was putting her spare time to good use. The future of America was in good hands with kids like this. Your heart melted when you saw her toothless smile and earnest appeal to ‘help send other children to Girl Scout camp’. With two dollars you could make little Miss Pigtails happy, send another little girl to camp and get a box of Girl Scout cookies.

You could not possibly say no to this solicitation.

You had the option of investing in the sure thing or stepping out of your comfort zone and trying what could be the next Girl Scout classic.

There were the melt-in-your-mouth shortbread squares, the pull-‘em-apart sandwiches in chocolate or vanilla, or the freeze-them-for-a-real-treat thin mints. For the risk-takers, there was usually a ‘new’ cookie, often with coconut or peanut butter. You had the option of investing in the sure thing or stepping out of your comfort zone and trying what could be the next Girl Scout classic. It never bothered you that you didn’t exactly get to choose how your two bucks would benefit scouting, or how much of it went to administrative overhead. You still could pick the cookies you wanted and determine your own level of risk.
You had choices.

Most people agree that nothing quite compared to those two sleek tubes of bite-sized choco-minto delight. You could slide a tube into your coat pocket. Thin mints: how fattening could they possibly be with a name like that? The small brown discs could be enjoyed room temperature or frozen. Their perfect size and ideal shape made them the ultimate one-bite crumble-less delicacy.
The reward for your generosity was great.

Your contribution (some part of it, anyway) was going to that all-American wholesome organisation that helped create generations of our nation’s finest citizens. In fact, giving two dollars to Miss Pigtails made you feel so good it obliterated any and all guilt related to consuming those scrumptious sugary slivers. The reward for your generosity was great.

Giving dispelled the guilt.

Girl Scouts have been around forever and you could not imagine a time in the future when there would not be Girl Scouts. It was okay to feed your addiction to the cookies because you knew for sure they would be readily available next year. And, when Little Miss Pigtails went off to college, there would be another little girl to take her place. Girl Scout cookies were a dependable commodity.
You invested in a dependable institution.

Cookies were usually cheaper from the grocery store and better tasting when your mom cooked up a batch. But you still bought the Girl Scout ones.

Perhaps your first recollection was when you were ten years old. You saved up two bucks from raking leaves for your next-door neighbour. You were learning how hard it was to work to earn money and you also felt the joy of independence with cash in your pocket. Your mom had just baked a batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies that was cooling on the counter, so you didn’t need more cookies. The doorbell rang. You answered it and Margie (your freckle-nosed crush from down the street) was standing there with her wagon of treats. Without hesitation you pulled the two crumbled bills out of your pocket and chose the easy-to-dismantle chocolate sandwich cookies. Instantly you felt older, taller, smarter, and more confident.
Giving made you feel important. It felt especially good to give your own, hard-earned money.

Think back to your personal Girl Scout cookie memories. Cookies were usually cheaper from the grocery store and better tasting when your mom cooked up a batch. But you still bought the Girl Scout ones – and bought them often. It wasn’t that the scouts were more compelling than hundreds of other good causes and it was hard to imagine that your two bucks could possibly make a difference or save the world. However: you were asked to give by an attractive solicitor and couldn’t possibly say no. You had choices; you were rewarded; your guilt was alleviated; you felt important and happy to give your hard-earned money to a dependable institution.
It wasn’t about the charity – it was about you.

There are very few Americans who, at sometime in the long history of Girl Scout cookies, have not reached into their pockets in support of this.

The first Girl Scout cookies were baked in 1917 in a high school cafeteria in Muskogee, Oklahoma as part of a service project. The Girl Scout cookie website is thorough in its 90-year history as it traces the evolution of this remarkable and sustainable fundraising initiative. Grassroots and responding to the tastes and concerns of the times, Girl Scout cookie drives have touched the lives of five generations of Americans. And there are very few Americans who, at sometime in the long history of Girl Scout cookies, have not reached into their pockets in support of this – one of America’s most classic fundraisers.

The FAQ portion of the cookie-site thoroughly articulates the ‘case for support’ covering every imaginable topic from the distribution of cookie revenue to the tax deductibility of your donation. It answers questions of nutritional value and whether the chocolate contained therein comes from a free trade zone and whether children pick the cacao beans. (They are not and they don’t.) Girl Scout cookies are not just a fundraising initiative of the past – they are poised to lead us into the future and to continue to introduce future generations to the joy of giving.

Let’s consider the perspective of some other nonprofits.

  • ‘Good for them…but this has nothing to do with me…’
  • ‘Our struggling Growling Tummy Food Pantry can’t raise money by selling cookies…we need to give the cookies to our clients for free.’
  • ‘I can’t relate…our advocacy group, There’s More of Them to Love, fights obesity in children; we can’t even mention the word ‘cookie’. ’
  • ‘We had a cookie sale, Southfield Soccer Moms Spring Sweets Sale, to raise money for new soccer uniforms and the kids who were supposed to be selling the cookies ate them all.’
  • ‘Leverton University’s board of trustees has charged our development office with raising $20 million for The Leverage Your Legacy Endowment Fund; I have important stuff to do and I don’t have time to read about dumb cookies.’
  • ‘At Mercy (of government funding) Pre-School for homeless children we can’t make payroll, but the bakery around the corner always gives us their day-old cookies. The kids dip them in milk and they soften up – they’re not too bad.’
  • ‘Cookie and David Bigbucks just pledged $5 million to our children’s hospital Campaign for a Brighter Tomorrow. We desperately need every penny to build a new cancer ward but the Bigbucks insist on setting up a David’s Cookies franchise in the hospital lobby. ’
  • ‘One of our field scientists at IFAHFCO (I Feel a Hot-Flush Coming On) is a Girl Scout troop leader. Every November she sells tons of cookies to the rest of the office staff. They all buy cookies but few bother to donate to our staff campaign in support of our annual appeal for our environmental-watch group.’
  • ‘I’m always looking for supporters for our Forget-Me-Not Alzheimer’s Day Care Center. This had something to do with cookies but I forget what it was…’

Well…you are correct in your concerns. Nonprofit organisations have a lot more to worry about than cookies. Let’s toss the cookies and consider what we can learn from this model.

The fundamentals of giving are the same regardless of the size or the mission of your organisation. A commitment to focusing on these essential ground rules on the part of a nonprofit organisation’s staff and board of directors will add value to your development initiative and raise more money for your organisation.

  1. Your solicitor should be someone to whom it is impossible to say ‘no’.
  2. Give your donor choices.
  3. Reward your donor for her/his generosity.
  4. The ‘ask’ must be framed as an opportunity for your donor to feel good.
  5. Offer evidence that your organisation is dependable.
  6. Make the donor feel important.
  7. Remember: fundraising is not about your organisation, it’s about the donor.
  8. Your website and marketing material must reflect the ‘case for support’ as well as the reliability of your organisation to properly steward a donation of any size.

Rather than just consider the needs of our organisation or charitable cause, we must be mindful of (the ability to give) charity as a reward and privilege to the donor. As food nourishes the body and knowledge sustains the mind, charity fulfills the soul’s visceral desire to help others. It is even better if we can help others while downing a sleeve of thin mints.

About the author: Ruthellen S. Rubin

Ruthellen S. Rubin

Ruthellen S. Rubin, CFRE, fundraising consultant and member of the faculty, Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University.

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