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Where is the Line Between Shopping and School Fundraising?

I was recently reminded that Macy's department store plans its fifth annual "Shop for a Cause" campaign on October 16, and began mulling over whether heading to the mall to buy clothes and cosmetics is really the best way for businesses to help schools raise money.

There are countless ways that businesses—often in partnership with school districts—have found to contribute to, or help raise money for, public schools. The range and creativity of these efforts can be dazzling. And, despite those who worry about polluting the purity of public schools with corporate dollars, I generally support private-sector efforts to support and become involved with our nation's schools.

However, there is often the question of corporate motivation: Are they mostly out to help schools or to burnish their own image and improve their often profitability? There's nothing wrong with burnishing one's image by doing good, but when a business-school "partnership" seems so obviously geared to raising a company's sales, I have to pause.

Under Macy's program, schools are being invited to sign up and sell $5 tickets that allow buyers to get big shopping discounts at Macy's on October 16. Schools get to keep the proceeds from ticket sales—and Macy's touts the fact that $34 million has been raised for schools and other nonprofits since 2006. A skeptical reporter might wonder, though, if this is less a case of win-win than a shopping promotion that uses the apparently admirable end of benefiting schools to lure people into Macy's stores. And Macy's is hardly alone in such cause-related marketing.

Indeed, schools need to be open to all creative ideas in building business partnerships, but is this a good way to go?

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