PORTLAND, Maine — When her son brought home a wrapping paper catalog from kindergarten more than five years ago, Masey Kaplan was at first enthusiastic about the opportunity to be a part of the time-honored school fundraising project.
But a year later, another wrapping paper catalog came home. And then another.
Kaplan didn’t need any more wrapping paper herself and she grew tired of the routine. But that wasn’t all.
“I did a little research, and they were selling materials from China and none of it was recycled,” she recalled.
That’s when the seed was planted for Close Buy Catalog, a school fundraising project using items made locally, adding not only to the variety of products being sold by the students but keeping the extra business in the state to boot. Now, what started out as exhaustion with wrapping paper sales has exploded into a business model that’s primed to go national.
“I thought about my friends who are artists and work creatively,” said Kaplan, a Falmouth graphic designer. “Everybody’s struggling in this economy. I thought, ‘Why aren’t we using their stuff [for school fundraisers]?’ It’s here, it’s local and it helps our neighbors.”
Since its pilot launch last year, Close Buy Catalog has exploded.
In 2010, 35 local product makers and 115 items were included in a fundraising catalog used by students in three school groups — from the Friends School of Portland, Longfellow Elementary School and what is now Falmouth Elementary School.
Word spread quickly. The 2011 catalog features 71 vendors and 210 products and was used in 45 Maine schools. Kaplan said she had to turn away another 30 schools to keep the workload manageable, but she’s seeking ways to accommodate more schools in 2012.
The locally made products in the catalog range from the functional, such as neck warmers and hand sanitizers, to the frivolous, such as chocolate lobsters.
More importantly, they sell.
“It is a fundraiser,” Kaplan told the Bangor Daily News Thursday. “If the school groups are not making money, they’re not going to use it. Everyone feels good about helping their neighbors, but they have to make money doing it.”
In the three pilot schools, Kaplan said the groups made more money in 2010 than they had in previous years using more widely distributed national catalogs. She said the program returned $200,000 to local artisans and producers in the inaugural year, but said all the numbers from the 2011 fall campaign haven’t been tallied yet.
The sales split is 30 percent for the school groups, 20 percent for Close Buy Catalog and 50 percent for the product makers, she said.
When no fundraiser programs are under way, shoppers may go to the company website to buy up gift baskets and donate portions of the proceeds to schools of their choice.
While Kaplan said she wants to take a slow, methodical approach to growing the catalog beyond its third year, she admitted, “We’re planning now how to take this model out of the state — most likely, Massachusetts is the next place we’d go with it.”
And she said the demand doesn’t stop there.
“I get calls all the time from people all over the country, saying, ‘When are you coming out here?’” Kaplan said.