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About 700 million -- yes, million -- box tops poured into a General Mills processing center this school year, marking record-high participation in Box Tops for Education, a school fundraiser that has exploded to become the biggest in the nation.
The program, launched in 1996, has paid out nearly half a billion dollars to more than 90,000 schools. Born in Minnesota's back yard, it's in the midst of a major growth spurt: School payouts zoomed from $33 million to $74 million in just the past five years.
Cheerios box tops have been joined by 240 products, from Kleenex anti-viral tissues to gluten-free cake mixes. And parents can acquire virtual box tops by doing everything from watching an online Ford commercial to participating in a consumer survey.
While some critics charge that it's one more example of corporate marketing seeping into the nation's schools, volunteers who run the programs say cutting box tops for 10 cents a crack is a relatively simple way to raise money for cash-strapped classrooms.
Last week, about 600 volunteers from across the nation came to the Minneapolis Convention Center for an annual pep rally and educational seminar called National Box Tops University.
"School budget cuts have made it even more important than when it started," said Joan Fering, box tops coordinator at the Shakopee Area Catholic School, taking a break from a day of workshops and networking with fellow box top enthusiasts.
Her school was Minnesota's top fundraiser this school year, raking in $10,835. Said Fering: "This money goes for field trips, buses, teaching supplies, speakers for special programs. We have earned some serious cash."
Most parents are familiar with the drill. A volunteer at their children's school notifies parents that they should cut box tops off various products and send them to school with their kids. A collection box is set up at school or in classrooms. Parent volunteers sort and mail them out.
Many schools go far beyond that, however, offering frequent competitions and prizes for classrooms hauling in the most box tops. These go-getters raise far more than the average of $900 per school.
Grocery stores optional now
The fundraiser's soaring popularity reflects the tough economic times facing schools, as well as new ways of courting parents.
Check out the Box Tops for Education website and find that visiting the grocery store is now optional. Parents can shop at the "Online Marketplace" and earn virtual box tops at about 175 stores, from Best Buy to Baby Gap. At the "Click and Earn" section, parents earn box tops by participating in such activities as watching a promotional video.
There are also retailer-specific projects, such as a Cub Foods promotion that offers 25 bonus box tops to shoppers who buy 10 eligible General Mills products.
"We continue to evolve the program," said Zack Ruderman, director of Box Tops for Education.
That includes reaching out to the nation's growing Hispanic community, which accounted for 40 percent of the program's growth last year, Ruderman said.
That makes sense to Cyndi Rodriguez, who flew to Box Tops University from Houston, where she helped jump-start her school's fundraiser. Thanks to new prizes and incentives, including a Kindle Fire, earnings jumped from $2 to $2,000 in two years. Said Rodriguez: "We're getting there!"
Not everyone is thrilled
But the boom in popularity is not welcomed by all. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., has been trying to convince General Mills to offer more healthy options.
In 2007, the center evaluated the nutritional content listed on the box tops of products ranging from Cocoa Puffs to Bugles, she said. It found that 80 percent had "poor nutritional value." That was five years ago, she said, so the data may have changed.
"It is not consistent with General Mills' pledge to not market unhealthy food to children," Wootan said.
Ruderman responded that parents can choose to buy whatever they want, including nonfood items -- and that Box Tops for Education does not market to children, but to parents.
"If it's for parents, why not run it through a workplace, or a Kiwanis club, or some other organization?" Wootan said. "School is where the kids are."
No one denies that Box Tops for Education is an exceptional marketing strategy.
The $74 million sent to schools this year represents hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. Volunteer leaders in the program also become market testers, trying out new products and promotional materials.
But for the upbeat crowd that attended Box Tops University on last Friday, participating in a survey or cutting box tops was a small price to pay for supporting their schools.
The volunteers learned new ideas for promoting the program. They entered a miniature wind tunnel and grabbed box tops whirling around them. They filled bags with giveaways in the vendor hall, from Ziploc sandwich bags to Hanes socks to boxes of raisins.
The gold standard
In the world of cause marketing, Box Tops for Education is the gold standard. The program stands out for its longevity, its transparency and its dollar volume of support to schools, said David Hessekiel, president of Cause Marketing Forum Inc.
"It's extraordinary," Hessekiel said. "Hundreds of millions of dollars raised 10 cents at a time."
Ruderman hopes to raise even more by expanding virtual box tops, reaching out to more schools and finding ways to leverage box tops through services, not just products.
The program also plans to give more support to volunteers through webinars on subjects such as using social media.
"We're on quite a pace of growth," Ruderman said. "We'd like to do it on an even greater scale."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511