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THON Has Become A Competition Instead Of A Celebration, And We Need To Get Back To That

The announcement that THON’s third canning weekend was cancelled yesterday was met with reactions from the Penn State community ranging from shocked outrage to unwavering support.

THON Executive Director Katie Mailey cited the death of Tally Sepot and the subsequent citation of reckless driving to be only a small portion of the causes for the cancellation in a letter that was published on THON’s website. The bigger shock occurred later in the letter when Mailey referenced reports from both parents and students claiming that volunteers were feeling pressured to fundraise for THON. When considering whether or not to proceed with the canning weekend, THON took this into consideration and emphasized its disapproval of these practices:

“This year we have received an increased number of reports from both parents and students about volunteers being pressured to fundraise for THON. THON does not condone any type of forced fundraising as outlined in our rulebook. In recent weeks, we have learned more about forced fundraising and that there are different pressures, both implicit and explicit, that our volunteers are facing to fundraise for THON which we were not aware of before. These feelings are amplified around events such as Fundraising Outreach & Canning Weekends, when there is an increased pressure to fundraise on the three designated weekends that allow canning. It is not acceptable in any way for a volunteer to feel that they are being forced to fundraise for THON, and we recognize that there are underlying influences in our culture that contribute to forced fundraising. We feel strongly about acting on these reports to improve our fundraising methods. We came to the conclusion that there are remedies such as alternative transportation to make canning a safer fundraising practice, but there is a tendency to force fundraising in our community that we must address immediately and throughout the year.”

Though many people are still fiercely opposed to the cancellation, the idea that students are potentially being peer-pressured and threatened into volunteering and fundraising for THON raises some huge questions about the culture surrounding the both the organization and the event. It is extremely likely that the future will see new regulations placed on the organizations heavily involved in fundraising and volunteering, which is a good thing.

One member of OHANA, Alexis Amico, says that she has never felt any pressure to go canning; rather, the members are encouraged to go, “to have a fun weekend raising money and getting to know different members of the group.” OHANA is one of the largest Special Interest Organizations that consistently raises high totals for THON, so the fact that members don’t feel pressured is significant.

Amico maintains that while canning is encouraged, she has never seen anyone ordered into it and that she has even opted out at the last minute to study for exams. The organization, which raised the third highest total of all Special Interest Orgs last year, rewards the most active members with the opportunity to be dancers. Those who are less active may not get that opportunity, but they are not punished and most people would agree this process is a fair one.

Not all volunteers may feel “pressured” into participating in THON, but the fact that this problem exists speaks volumes about how THON culture has changed since its founding. There are certainly many examples of volunteers who do fundraising the right way, but somewhere along the line the system has become flawed to the point where some organizations place too much emphasis on the competition and spectacle of the event. Even if an organization doesn’t openly punish members who are less involved, there are underlying influences in THON’s culture that prompt a competitive or negative aspect of the fundraiser.

For some, the process of fundraising for THON has become a stressful one that is less about curing pediatric cancer and more about maintaining an image and reputation. One fraternity member, who requested to remain anonymous, recalled the first canning weekend where he wished to stay home to study for several upcoming exams, but was required to participate or face a $50 fine. If he didn’t pay the fine himself, the organization had the ability to add it to his bursar account. This, along with the pressure to raise a total higher than the previous year’s, made the individual feel that THON was becoming more about how much an organization can raise, rather than being a supportive force for its Four Diamonds family. Sure good attendance for canning weekends is imperative to raising a high total, but it becomes a problem when organization members face real repercussions for asking to opt out of one trip.

Choosing a THON partner has also become highly political, instead of organizations focusing on the families the pairs are partnered with. The fraternity member mentioned above also cited the heartbreak his fraternity felt when its partner left them for an organization that was bigger and had more members and therefore the ability to raise more money, thus ending the group’s great relationship with its family. Rather than being concerned with how the family felt, the other organization was more interested in the amount of money its partner raised. The fraternity still attempts to organize events with the family, despite the fact that they are not required to maintain a relationship.

People who don’t participate in THON are often looked down upon, even though many people have valid reasons for not partaking in the activities. Some students don’t participate for extenuating circumstance, such as personal health problems and culture contradictions. However, many students cite the fact that getting involved in THON is too hard or stressful for them because of all the politics and exclusivity involved.

The testimonies above reveal that, depending on their organization, people can face varying levels of pressure ranging from none at all to being put in stressful situations come canning weekend. This shows that individual organizations are largely in charge of how their fundraising is conducted. In order to prevent organizations from placing pressures and threats on their members, THON will have to put new regulations in place that apply to everyone. This may seem unfair to those who treat canning weekends and other aspects of THON with the right attitude, but it is worth it in the long-run to prevent THON from becoming taxing for the volunteers.

It may hurt to admit, but THON has turned into a competition. Efforts to raise money have become severe in some organizations, but not for the right reasons. It’s undeniable that underneath it all, there are some among us that may be simply striving for bragging rights or besting others, even if some organizations can publicly maintain that they put these practices into place because they are FTK. Unfortunately, THON was not founded on the idea that the org who raises the most money is the best or the most FTK, but instead was organized for Penn Staters to come together as one to raise money for sick kids.

THON serves an extremely honorable purpose, and over the years, its name has become synonymous with Penn State for good reason. So it’s understandable that many people whose hearts are very near to the cause took the news that canning is cancelled as something that is both outrageous and incomprehensible. However, after the circumstances surrounding the first canning weekend and some of the realizations that have come to fruition because of it, some of the practices and values aligned with THON need to be reconsidered.

The number of  people who love and support THON is so large that there is no way the decision to cancel two canning weekends was an easy one, but the fact that many people have reached out to THON and expressed concerns is very eye-opening. While it’s upsetting that the THON total may go down as a result of this, the necessity to re-evaluate some of THON’s rules and practices is definitely present, and will benefit everyone in the long run if fundraising becomes safer and THON returns to its roots. Katie Mailey and those involved in THON made a tough decision this week, but ultimately it was the right one.

About the Author

Katie Klodowski

Katie is a senior from Pittsburgh, PA and a retired editor at Onward State. Currently, she works as a staff writer. True to her hometown, she is a fan of Steel City sports but also uses her ballet and music training to be a tough critic of all things artsy. The fastest ways to her heart are through pizza, sushi, and a solid taste in music (this means no Taylor Swift). To be constantly razzle-dazzled, follow her on all social media forms at @KatieKlodowski

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