“Trick or Treat for UNICEF” Turns 65

In 1950 a school librarian in Philadelphia named Mary Emma Alison, her husband Clive and their two children started a Halloween tradition that lives on to this day. Here is the official origin story, as told by UNICEF:

In late 1949, Mrs. Allison took her three young children to buy winter coats at Wannamaker’s store in Philadelphia. They came upon a parade of children and followed it to its destination: a booth collecting donations to help UNICEF purchase powdered milk for children in postwar Japan. Ms. Gertrude Ely, a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who had organized the event, discussed UNICEF’s work with Mrs. Allison. Afterwards, Mrs. Allison rushed home to share the good news with her husband: she had found the perfect beneficiary for their campaign.

In anticipation of Halloween, 1950, Mrs. Allison wrote a passionate appeal, published nationally in the Presbyterian youth curriculum, asking children to collect spare change for UNICEF. And so Trick-Treat-for UNICEF was born.

It’s helpful to put fundraising efforts like this in broader perspective. UNICEF is funded entirely through voluntary contributions. It’s essentially a charity. The largest donors are governments: top among them the USA, the UK and the European Commission. Last year, UNICEF’s budget was $8.4 billion.


But what distinguishes UNICEF is that citizens and private enterprise also contribute, though they do so through what are called “national committees.” In the USA, the United States Fund for UNICEF is what’s known as a 501(c)3 organization, meaning contributions to it are deductible from income tax in the US tax code. It is essentially the private fundraising arm in America for UNICEF. There are over 30 of these national funds worldwide, but none are as successful as the US Fund for UNICEF, which is a fundraising behemoth. Last year, they contributed $269 million to UNICEF’s operating budget, making them the fourth largest contributor to UNICEF overall.

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“Trick or Treat for UNICEF,” which turns 65 years old this year,  is one important part of this larger effort. And this year, with humanitarian emergencies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Central African Republic, South Sudan and elsewhere, fundraising is more important than ever.

Bonus: Listen to my conversation with Caryl Stern, CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF