I found your recently penned article titled “Why nonprofit staff should not be asked to donate to the organizations they work for” thought-provoking and see it touched a nerve, engendering a lot of commentary, pro and con. I found the article and the commentary stimulating, hence this open letter.
I respectfully disagree with you, while applauding your taking a stand and beginning this discussion. I see the real bottom line here is to be making a shift from pussyfooting around the subject of fundraising – even among staff — to embracing it warmly. The first attitude comes from a place of fear and loathing — and our deep cultural antipathy towards the subject of money. It’s not about money.
Sadly, money remains a huge taboo in our society. No one is comfortable talking about it. Let alone asking for it. But if your nonprofit relies on fundraising for survival, people must be asked for money.
Staff are people. Good people. Dedicated people. And people with an investment in the mission. In other words, they’re not ‘cold’ prospects. They’re ‘insiders’ – the very people who should not be ignored when it comes to offering an opportunity to feel the joy of giving.
Vu, I read into your article an underlying feeling that when people are asked to give they feel the antithesis of joy. This makes me sad. Because research with MRIs shows when folks even contemplate making a gift, the pleasure centers of their brains light up. They get a shot of dopamine and experience a warm glow. Why would we deny our own staff this warm, pleasurable feeling by not even asking them to give?
I take issue with all of the key reasons you offer in support of your argument:
- It is inequitable
- It is insulting
- It is weird and disingenuous
- It does not take power dynamics into consideration
- It perpetuates the nonprofit hunger games
- It reinforces the overvaluing of money
Let’s review these one at a time.
“The people most affected are the staff who are paid lowest and have least seniority, and they are more likely to be from marginalized communities: people of color, people with disabilities, etc. We take it for granted that what is easy for us may be a hardship for someone else…. Sure, a $5 donation may not seem like much of a burden, but when you combine it with dozens of other expenses, it adds up and disproportionately punishes people from marginalized communities.” — Vu
The fact people have different backgrounds, opportunities for advancement, education, skills, salaries and such is where the inequities arise. This doesn’t mean it’s our obligation, as a charity, to assume staff – from whatever background or pay scale or level of seniority – might not want to be asked to make a philanthropic gift. By that argument, we might as well just set an arbitrary income/asset base below which we won’t ask any prospective donors for money. Yes, what’s a stretch gift for one may be a token gift for another. But the answer is not to deny someone the opportunity to participate based on our perceptions of them. And I really take issue with viewing a request for a philanthropic gift as a “punishment.”
“When many of us are already making financial and other sacrifices to work at our jobs, to be asked to give money as if it were the only acceptable way to demonstrate dedication to our mission, is insulting.” – Vu
Working in the public benefit sector should be a joy, not a sacrifice. If an organization makes its staff feel this way, that’s the real insult. Not the ask. If you’re feeling negatively towards your job, of course you won’t be feeling the love that comes from philanthropic engagement.
Weird and Disingenuous
“So you’re paying me, but then you expect me to give some of it back? Why not just reduce my wages by whatever amount you expect me to donate?” – Vu
I find this argument weird. Would anyone really prefer to have their wages reduced – especially when they already feel they’re being underpaid? At the heart of this argument is a belief that the lion’s share of nonprofit staff resent their employers. This just makes me sad. I’ve worked for organizations where staff took great satisfaction in their own philanthropy – of whatever amount they could manage — as a statement of their passion and pride in working for their cause.
Power Dynamics at Play
“Staff who do not donate for whatever reason risk being perceived and treated negatively, a lot of it unconscious.”
This is an organizational culture problem. Without a culture of love, abundance and acceptance, philanthropy cannot thrive. That’s the problem that must be addressed first. If the true problem is overlooked, then it’s not unusual to come up with false solutions. Not asking staff to participate in one of the most important endeavors in which the organization is engaged – assuring there is funding to continue the mission – is not the answer.
Perpetuation of Nonprofit Hunger Games
“For our sector to be effective, we have to believe that our missions are interconnected and work to support one another. The staff giving campaign aligns with the default philosophy that our own mission is the only one that matters.” — Vu
I don’t see how giving to our own organization precludes giving to others as well. Would we tell our board members not to give to us, since they’re already giving us their time, and to spread their monetary gifts elsewhere? That would be a bizarre argument. Giving begins at home. And… it doesn’t end there.
“The push for staff giving often goes like this: “We want 100% staff giving. Please give any amount. Even one dollar!” But why do we value money so much? Why do we rarely have campaigns like “100% of staff have mentored someone this year” or “100% of staff have voted in local elections” or “100% of staff have volunteered at a nursing home?” — Vu
Again, it’s not about the money. It’s about what’s in your staffs’ hearts. One hopes they are coming from a place of love. Which brings us to the critical importance of developing a culture of philanthropy (translated from the Greek to mean ‘love of humanity’). A culture in which everyone understands the mission doesn’t move forward without philanthropy – what Bob Payton of the Lily School of Philanthropy defined as “voluntary action for the public good.” That action can be money or time. But it must be voluntary, not coerced. And, of course, it must be oriented towards public good – not to satisfy a boss. Exhorting folks to vote or mentor someone is no less coercive than asking them to give money.
What it boils down to.
We need to work harder to create cultures of philanthropy.
I consider a culture of philanthropy to be your nonprofit’s secret weapon. And you know what they say about culture, right? It eats strategy for breakfast! It eats up everything else as well. A culture of resentment breeds resentment. A culture of competition breeds competition.
In an organization where people are treated well, it’s likely a culture of philanthropy exists. Folks will feel valued. They won’t feel taken advantage of. They’ll love the mission, the donors and each other. They’ll ask “what can I do to help you?” — all the time, inside and outside the organization’s doors. If there is a staff giving campaign, they’ll want to help in whatever way they’re comfortable. And they’ll feel good they were asked, and given the opportunity to experience the joy of giving.
Where love and positive, mission-focused – ideally passionate – feelings don’t exist, a staff giving campaign is doomed.
Frankly, other campaigns and initiatives are likely doomed as well. People shouldn’t have to work where they feel undervalued, underpaid and overworked. Those are issues to be addressed head on, not subverted by thinking/feeling “well, I’m not doing this because they mistreat me.” No one should be working 12 hour days, considering four of those hours as “volunteer service.” No one should be paying for office expenses out of their own pockets. Stop doing that if that’s you! Figure out why you can’t get your job done in 8 hours and try to fix that problem – rather than making it the reason you don’t contribute philanthropically to your own organization. If you can’t fix the problem, you may need to move on to another place where you won’t feel constantly burdened. Don’t starve your soul.
If YOU won’t contribute, and you live and breathe the mission, then why would you expect anyone else do to so? This is the same argument we make to nonprofit board members who shy away from giving. As nonprofit leaders – and you’re all leaders in your own way – it’s up to you to lead by example. If you’re not setting a good example, you’re setting a bad one.
So please, Vu, champion the role of nonprofit staff, but don’t discourage people from experiencing the joy of giving and facilitating that experience among others.
Thank you, Vu, for inspiring these thoughts and for your many excellent contributions to the social benefit sector.