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Nonprofits, Say No To Employee Giving Programs

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I’m underpaid and overworked. You want me to donate as well?!

Has the organization you work/worked for forever asked you to be a donor to them as well? How did you feel when they asked? Was the ask made in a respectful, polite way (like they would their actual donors) or was it implied to you by a senior supervisor that everyone donates and you should too (making you feel like a cash cow)?

The topic of employee giving programs is a complicated and contentious one. Everyone has an opinion about it and they’re very vocal about their yes or no stance. How do I know? I researched and then wrote the book about it. Well, to be precise, eBook.

Though to some of you it may seem cut and dry — “oh hell no!” or “heck yes!” — it’s not so simple. There are reasons why an organization should invite its employees to become donors and there are reasons why an organization should never ask its employees to give.

Forbidden Fruit

Everyone is constantly searching for fundraising’s “next great thing” to help generate more revenue. Surely digital giving will save us! According to Blackbaud, $37 billion was donated online in the U.S. in 2018. The problem with that: It accounted for only 8.5% of total giving in the U.S.

The king? Still direct mail.

The temptation to turn to employees as another source of funding is always there. After all, they are intimately familiar with your mission. They see your good work every single day. They want to assist as many people in the community as possible.

Essentially, employees are the “low hanging fruit” for nonprofits looking to expand their donor base. An easy ask. But should you?

There are many reasons why sector professionals are against any form of employee giving campaign. Let’s look at five reasons why a nonprofit should not make an ask of its employees.

1. I Give My Time

If I asked if you work unpaid overtime hours at your job, is there anyone out there who would answer no? Many nonprofit workers give time plus. They work a lot of unpaid overtime. If time equals money, they are already donating quite a fair amount to their organization.

The 2020 Global Trends in Giving Report contains this stat: 22% of donors surveyed globally had not donated. Why? They volunteer in lieu of donating. Why are employees any different? Their extra time should be like volunteering (i.e. a donation) because they don’t get paid for overtime.

As one member of a development team told me in a follow-up interview to my employee giving survey: “If employee giving was mandated, I’d start looking for another job. To me, forcing your employees to give to your organization is forcing them to take pay cuts. I give to my organization through my skills, experience and time, which no monetary value could make up that amount of goods they receive.”

Asking overworked workers to donate is just piling on. Add in that many are underpaid…

2. Employee Giving Programs Turn Employees Into Constituents

Nonprofit salaries are already way under market value. If you’re a woman, you’re making a further 27% less. If low salaries could potentially turn employees into constituents, we can’t ask them to also be donors. It’s a financial burden they can’t handle.

Asking employees to give is also double-dipping: We’ll pay you less than you’d get in the for-profit world AND we’ll take money from your paycheck as a “donation.”

Let’s not impoverish our office colleagues.

3. Pressure To Give

Pressure can be overt (“everyone has to give”) or it can be subtle (“it would be nice if everyone gave but if you can’t we understand, wink wink”). The fact is that just asking, even if the campaign is voluntary, puts pressure on employees to consider giving. Which means an employee giving program can never be considered voluntary.

In my survey, 20.1% of employee respondents said that they do not donate to their organization. Of those, 60.9% said they would NOT give if their organization started a voluntary employee giving program. When asked what would happen if the Board made it mandatory for employees to give, 56.5% said they would push back and complain to senior staff. 26.1% went further and said they would start looking for another job.

If you’re the CEO, do you really want more frustration in the office? Do you really need bitter employees?

4. Power Dynamic

What if a culture of fear is dominant at your organization? If your manager asks you to consider giving, can you say no?

Even if unintended, it’s all about how the receiver feels about the campaign (just like every fundraising campaign!). If the power imbalance whether real or perceived is the reason employees are giving, shut it down.

As Brooke Cunningham, Philanthropy Manager at Neighbor to Neighbor told me: “There’s an inherent power dynamic at play when asking employees to give part of their paycheck back to our cause that shouldn’t be ignored. The last thing our leadership team would want is for it to seem as though there’s a “pay to play” (or worse, a pay-to-work) mentality. Ultimately, as the head of our fundraising efforts, I would feel AWFUL requiring our employees, who already give so much to our clients, residents, and overall organization, to also give us back part of their paycheck. I think it’s unfair and immoral.”

5. Hostile Work Environment

This was the most oft-quoted reason for opposition to employee giving campaigns. The boss wants something and has to get their way. That perpetuates the imbalance between senior management and staff and creates a hostile work environment.

Here’s the thing about this specific line of reasoning: A hostile work environment is also a legal matter. Which means it’s more complicated than the arguments listed above.

Behavior around employee giving programs can be defined as offensive. Telling people they have to give. Employees feel under pressure to give. However, this may not rise to the legal definition of a hostile environment.

The fact that a boss or manager or even a peer asked you to consider giving may not be grounds for a lawsuit. If there are negative consequences for not listening to the boss and failing to donate to the internal campaign? Might be illegal. Might not be.

As a matter of law, this may not be an open and shut case. Although many people use hostile work environment to argue against employee giving, an employee may not be able to sue an employer because of it. I, therefore, urge you to speak with a lawyer and get proper legal counsel on what constitutes a “hostile work environment.”

Having said all that… Creating a hostile work environment, regardless of the legal ramifications? Wrong wrong wrong. It’s a disgusting practice. Any boss who oversees a workplace where people feel threatened in any way should be replaced immediately. Plain and simple.

Are Employee Giving Programs Really Philanthropy?

If the organization is taking a portion of the paycheck, employees will feel like it’s a transaction rather than an act of philanthropy. That’s not how philanthropy should work.

If an Executive Director were to tell employees “Join me in giving!” well, come on, the ED makes a lot more than other employees. But if the ED is giving, I have to give. That doesn’t feel good! That’s not how philanthropy should work.

Philanthropic giving should be something people want to do. An act of a person aspiring to help and impact their environment, their community.

Look at all the reasons listed above and ask yourself: Can employee giving be considered philanthropic? If not, maybe it’s better to avoid asking employees to also become donors.

As I mentioned at the outset, this is a complicated topic. The above arguments are just one side of the issue. More to come…

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  • Ephraim Gopin

    Thank you Kristi! I do agree that everyone should be able to participate in the joy of philanthropy, of giving. But there's no joy when it's required (and the United Way model is a whole separate issue and post :) ). When it's voluntary and employees are treated like donors (or as donors should be), then an employee giving campaign can do very well. But if employees have a feeling they're just being milked for more money they don't have, you're creating animosity towards the cause rather than a desire to be more active and involved.
  • Kristi Howard Shultz

    I LOVE that you took this topic on. I have worked where this has been done well, poorly, and everything in between. I've also been the gift officer in charge of running said campaigns and don't wish this job on anyone. While I fully agree with everything you wrote, I ALSO think that there can be tremendous value, as a gift officer in particular, in knowing the feeling of making a significant gift. Of course, you don't have to make that gift at your own place of employment. I also agree with Erica in principle. Don't say "no" for others. If it is a true invitation, not a requirement, there is no harm. I just saw a post yesterday where a registrar left a planned gift of million dollars to her place of employment. I think the larger problem is when FUNDERS require this--i.e. you are a United Way agency and the United Way requires 100% employee giving from anyone receiving funds. I recognize they, for example, have re-examined the approach over the last several years but situations like this "trap" the nonprofit employer. I'm very curious to hear others' thoughts and experiences. Thank you, again, for such a thoughtful piece.
  • Ephraim Gopin

    Thank you Erica for your thoughts on this topic! Totally agree on volunteers. I think that's a major missed opportunity for so many nonprofits. In terms of asking employees, your points hit the nail on the head in terms of why a nonprofit should ask employees to become donors. During the survey I conducted on this issue, what you mentioned came up time and time again: If you're going to talk the talk, then you better walk the walk. I'm appreciative to Bloomerang that they allowed me to cover both sides of this issue. The above post covers the "no." Here is the link to my other post which shares why "yes": I'd love to hear your thoughts about it!
  • Erica Waasdorp

    I understand some of the logic but I disagree with some other logic. think that it's totally okay to ask employees to consider a donation to support the organization. It doesn't have to be much. A small amount from your paycheck or $5 a month gift as a monthly donor. How can you ask other people for money if you're not even making a small gift yourself? The reality is that as an organization you're looking to generate gifts from donors who in many cases are also on fixed incomes or do not necessarily make that much money but they want to help. It's the 'widow's mite'. And the same argument goes for volunteers. Yes, they give their time but they may also wish to give their money. And that's totally fine. All you have to do is offer the option and see what happens. Some people will say, no, totally fine. Some people will say yes. Board members are volunteers also and we expect them to donate. Why not expand that universe. You want to keep your organization going, right? Include your staff, volunteers, board in your email communication and requests, especially when you have a match or if you're aksing for monthly gifts. see what happens.
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