employee giving programs

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

Has the organization you work/ed for ever 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: 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 feeling under pressure to give. However, this may not rise to the legal definition of 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…

Nonprofit Sustainability

Ephraim Gopin
Ephraim Gopin is the founder of 1832 Communications, an agency which will partner with your nonprofit to help you raise more money through smart and effective marketing and communications. He is always happy to connect with nonprofit pros on Twitter, LinkedIn, via his daily nonprofit newsletter, YouTube channel or his weekly podcast.