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Smells Like School Spirit: Public schools are calling in the pros to raise money

Garett Chatham waits outside a classroom at Sonoran Sky Elementary School dressed from headband to sneakers in the orange and blue running gear of school fundraising company Apex Fun Run.

Garett Chatham waits outside a classroom at Sonoran Sky Elementary School dressed from headband to sneakers in the orange and blue running gear of school fundraising company Apex Fun Run. On a cue from the teacher, the 32-year-old morphs into Garett the Great, a combination motivational speaker, gym coach, and sales-team leader. For the next eight minutes he guides the sixth-graders through an exercise on the importance of saying thanks. And, because he’s also there to raise money, Garett the Great offers them incentives to hit classwide targets on pledges for the school’s upcoming minimarathon. One prize up for grabs: a chance to pie Garett. “You are doing an awesome job supporting your school,” he says.

Strained school budgets and overworked parents have opened the door for professional fundraising outfits like Phoenix-based Apex and Booster Enterprises, of Alpharetta, Ga. To the relief of families, there’s no cookie dough or holiday wrapping paper to peddle to friends and relatives. The companies’ core product is a so-called fun run, in which kids run laps around a course. Teams of three descend on an elementary school for two-week assignments, handling every aspect of the event—from hanging banners advertising the fun run to instructing parents on how to use social media to solicit pledges and handing out prizes.

Costs vary by school, and both companies offer various levels of service, but for an all-hands fundraiser, Apex and Booster receive 40 percent or more of total donations. On average, an Apex fun run nets a school about $23,000, says co-owner and Vice President for Franchise Development Jeremy Barnhart, with some bringing in more than $70,000. Apex expects to raise as much as $10 million for schools this school year; Booster, which had a decade’s head start on its rival, is targeting $30 million, according to Brett Trapp, executive vice president for client experience. With per-student funding for public schools in at least 30 states still below 2008 levels, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there’s plenty of demand. “Everybody needs fundraising,” says Barnhart. “It’s a necessary evil.”

Apex was founded in 2011 by Scott Donnell after he saw his girlfriend, now wife, Amy, spend $500 of her own money on supplies for her first-grade classroom. Barnhart, who joined the company in 2012 after it staged a fundraiser at his kid’s school, came up with the idea of franchising the concept; all Apex outlets are independently owned. “The beauty of our program,” he says, “is that it’s a local business owner with a local team, and they’re part of that community.”

Booster has a payroll of about 400 nationwide. “We work with the two things that are most important to people: their kids and their money,” says Trapp. “We don’t feel that we could have the quality program that we have under a franchise model.”

Both are growing fast. Booster will work with about 1,300 schools in 32 states this school year, according to Trapp. Apex, which since early October has seen its nationwide franchise count climb from 35 to 56, will stage fun runs at about 400 schools in 16 states. Says Barnhart: “We’d like to serve a million students within the next three years and 2 million within the next five.”

Over 10 days in early October, Apex’s Chatham and his team of “athletes,” as the company dubs the mostly twentysomething college grads it employs, become high-fiving fixtures at Sonoran Sky Elementary in Scottsdale, Ariz. Barnhart says the typical Apex team member is a recent college grad who wants to be a teacher or a coach.

The first day is spent with teachers, mapping out the event and going over Apex’s “curriculum.” (As an incentive to get educators involved, 10 percent of what each class raises goes back to it.) On Day 2 there’s a pep rally to get the kids pumped up. For the next six days, the athletes go class to class delivering six- to eight-minute lessons titled “Find Your Strengths” and “Be Brave.” It all leads up to the fun run, where students complete up to 36 laps around a 1/16-mile course.

Not everyone is a fan. Most complaints center on the size of the companies’ cut. Some parents resent the hard-driving salesmanship. Leila Holmann’s kindergartner, Gabriel, came home from his Atlanta school one day in 2012 fixated on getting enough pledges to win an electric scooter, Booster’s top prize that year. Booster’s “reps were using standard sales tactics, and my son was falling for all of them,” she says. Holmann and her husband started a campaign called No to Fundraising in the Classroom but drew little support. She says that while some parents shared their concerns, others shrugged them off, saying it was all in the name of a good cause.

Still, one of the reasons the companies are growing fast is that converts—teachers, administrators, parents, and especially parent-teacher organizations—are spreading the word. Donations for the October fun run at Sonoran Sky—the third Apex has organized at the school—totaled $79,159, according to Joe Muth, treasurer of the school’s PTO, which signed the contract with Apex: $41,110 for the PTO, $38,049 for Apex.

Muth and the rest of the PTO now have concerns about next year’s budget; the school district will no longer provide money for technology because of further state cuts. That means the Sonoran Sky PTO will need to set aside $20,000 to $30,000 of its budget to replace or repair laptops. The school has signed on with Apex for another year. Muth says that while some parents initially grumbled about turning over some of their hard-earned cash to a professional fundraising company, there were “zero” complaints last year. “It’s become part of our culture,” he says.

The bottom line: Apex Fun Run and Booster raise tens of thousands of dollars for public schools and take at least a 40 percent cut.

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