We see them all the time - the catalogs filled with junk, passed half-apologetically, parent-to-parent, with signatures on the back signifying orders for the least expensive item in the catalog - a token acknowledgement of the fact that we will soon pass along a similar catalog for our own child.
When I was in school, we went door-to-door selling chocolate bars. We sold them for a buck to our neighbors and ourselves, scrambling to replace the sales that were made "on credit" after school when the craving struck. The orchestra got 1/2 of the proceeds, and a few hundred boxes of chocolate later, we went on a group trip to Six Flags.
Assuming you weren't stuck with the chocolate crisp bars and had a monopoly on the caramel ones, it was pretty easy to sell the candy. It was a decent product that wasn't too costly, and our buyers knew that they were helping our cause. However, the fundraising items today are increasingly expensive, yet we are co-opted again and again to sell (and buy) these horrid products to help our kids go on that really cool field trip or get those new uniforms.
There's nothing wrong with fundraising for a cause. Done properly, it is quite a bit of fun for both the donors and the fundraisers. However, it is my feeling that the fundraising product companies take advantage of the fact that people don't know how to raise money. Instead, they co-opt parents and children as a sales force, giving a token of the cost of hiring a real salesman to the school or cause in exchange for hundreds of man-hours of work. The end result is that it mixes motivations. Many of us would gladly give twenty bucks to help a friend's kid go to camp, and many more of us would pay a few bucks for a box of chocolate... but we resent paying 20 bucks for a box of chocolate.
A fundraising program that costs 50% of the proceeds is a poor program, yet this is a very common figure for the "catalog" fundraisers. The industry standard for capital campaign expenses is around 10% of the money raised. Most of the groups that do such programs only need a few thousand dollars - not a lot of money in the non-profit world. The overhead to raise this money properly would extend to some postage, several boxes of thank-you cards and letterhead.
Wouldn't it be refreshing if, instead of purchasing another tin of stale popcorn, you were just asked to give the club or activity member who needed it ten or twenty bucks, knowing that it was actually going to the group in need? However, direct contribution isn't encouraged by such programs - the prizes awarded to the children are based on product sales - not collections. This is because the fundraising company is actually a company that sells products, using volunteer labor. Their end goal is not contributions, but product sales. Girl Scout cookies are, of course, an exception... if only because they are so good. I haven't even checked on the profit margin of the cookies; because, really, who cares?
Any parent organization or club can learn how to fundraise rather quickly. The best book I've found on the subject is Asking, by Jerold Panas. It takes an afternoon to read, and if several members of a club were encouraged to read it, it would be a relatively simple thing to arrange a fundraising campaign that would make that field trip or uniforms a reality... without the need to sell and deliver another product that no one needs or wants.