Tuesday, October 23, 2007


The Charity Shakedown

A long-suffering correspondent writes:

My SLAC employer conducts an annual United Way fundraising drive. Earlier this fall, a letter was sent over the university president's signature to every employee (faculty of all levels and staff) expressing the president's hopes for generous employee support of the fall UW campaign.

The university has now initiated the "asking" phase of the UW campaign. At the beginning of this phase, each university employee was sent a packet of printed material promoting various incentives for donating and a UW donation form that suggests that an employee's "fair share" donation equates to 1% of her/his salary.

The United Way contribution form discloses that roughly 12.6% of donations received go to UW's fundraising and administrative costs; the form asserts that this percentage reflects an "efficient" use of donor funds. I disagree and have chosen for years to contribute directly to the local non-profit I support; in my mind, 100% of my money going to my non-profit's operations is far better than 87.4%.

My institution does not offer any matching funds for employee contributions to charities, whether or not such contributions are made through United Way.

While my personal financial contributions to charity are less than the 1% suggested by the United Way, my unpaid volunteer service to the community in the last year is the equivalent of more than 19% of my full-time work hours. I volunteer this time in addition to working three paying side jobs to pay down my debt and maintain my relatively modest standard of living.

It rankles me that my institution uses pressure tactics to solicit money from us employees every year. Although agencies supported through United Way provide valuable and important services in our community, I'm already giving back.

I wonder what your readers think... should I continue to write "$0.00" and return my UW form every year, write a note to the UW campaign coordinator or an administrator justifying my non-giving, challenge the president's annual letters as pressure tactics, ...?

There are far more important issues to tackle on campus (better pay, more generous & flexible leave policies, work schedules less bound to rigid assembly-line modalities, etc.) ... should this one simply be left to run its course?

I've seen worse than this, actually. You don't mention any actual or implied consequence befalling those who don't participate.

I'm not usually one to recommend passivity and foot-dragging, but this seems like the perfect test case. I wouldn't fire off a poison pen letter – that would make you the bad guy – but would simply, politely, decline to participate. My guess is that nothing will happen, except that you'll get to decide what to do with your money.

Phrases like “worthy cause” have different meanings to different people, and rightly so. I generally prefer to target my giving to organizations that are trying to effect change, as opposed to the more traditional 'charities.' (That costs me some serious tax deductions, but c'est la vie.) That's not to deny that charities, as such, do some serious good, or that advocacy groups have their own issues; it's just to say that nobody can do everything, so we make our choices.

What makes me uneasy is when the folks at the top of an organization decide to put the organization's stamp on certain causes and, by extension, not on others. Implying that employee contributions are expected is that much worse.

One of the dirty little secrets of administration, actually, is that you are routinely expected to attend a battery of fundraisers (paying for tickets out of your own pocket). Attendance is also de rigeur at faculty retirement parties, with every attendee paying fifty bucks or so for the restaurant and gift. That doesn't sound like much, but do several back-to-back along with a couple of fundraisers and it adds up.

These usually hit around December – just in time for Christmas shopping, and why don't academics get year-end bonuses, anyway? -- and May.

The logic of the fundraisers, I think, is that we can't really expect other people to contribute to the college if we aren't willing to pony up ourselves. Which is fine, but the folks we're hitting up are typically far, far wealthier than we'll ever be. There's also the issue of just how 'voluntary' these contributions actually are. For certain employees, they're mandatory in all but name.

I've written before on my skepticism towards mandatory community service, so I'll just say here that there's something to be said for doing good without calling attention to it.

Wise and worldly readers – have you seen a particularly egregious charity shakedown? Have you found a graceful way around it?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I've watched the "United Way" shakedown for nearly 20 years. Every time, I'm disgusted by it. In the late 1980s, at one of my former institutions, the pressure was very high to give, but my salary was quite paltry. Supposedly, my unit had a 100% contribution rate (everyone gave), but I stubbornly refused, pointing out that I didn't make enough on salary to take the tax deduction. Eventually, the pressure lessened--particuarly when the head of the National United Way was caught inflating administrative costs to pad his lifestyle.

Thanks to the late 1980s bullying tactics the UW will NEVER get a dime from me. I give directly to the charities I care about. UW? Never, never, never.
I am torn about this one. My partner is a social worker who was employed for years at an agency that benefitted from the United Way. Because she did homeless work, it was difficult to get direct donations, so the United Way largesse was really necessary. (Some charities do better than others; there is no way around that.) In fact, she was regularly asked by UW folks to go and speak at companies. The UW does some great work, and their administrative percentage is not unreasonable. And while many people SAY they will donate to a charity on their own, studies show that far fewer do because it is a bother. Coordinated campaigns work.

That said, when UW decided to ignore their own policies that required recipients not to discriminate on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, or religion and give money to programs like the Salvation Army and other religiously-oriented programs that can require that employees be of a certain religion and recipients of service attend prayer meetings, I stopped giving through UW. They had a choice, and they caved.

Every year, I write a note explaining why I will not give through UW. Some schools, like Duke, have a second charity distribution group that includes activist organizations in the list of those you can support while also enforcing a requirement for nondiscrimination by all participant agencies. I wish we had one of those. Instead, I just give directly to charities of my choice. But I bet that my giving is lower than it would be if it was taken regularly out of my check.
In the federal public service, the United Way has been co-opted into the (wait for it) Government of Canada Charitable Workplace Campaign. What a mouthful! Anyway, I understand that our biggest bosses actually have employee participation rates and fund-raising goals written into their performance mandates so that it affects their performance bonus. You can imagine that the campaign is pretty well supported by upper management.

Anyway, I decline the official donation each year, choosing to donate directly to charities, but still drink the corporate kool-aid enough that I'm paying $2 today to have a coffee and krispy kreme with 500 of my colleagues in a "coffee with the boss" fundraiser, and I buy into about half the raffle tickets and other stuff. I don't mind the goodwill or the altruism, but I'm skeptical of how they're enforcing it at the highest management levels.
This is not *directly* about charities, but it's close:

At a recent dept. meeting, we were told that, from an external fundraising point-of-view, it was very important to have a high staff/faculty contribution rate to our university's foundation. ("If the employees aren't giving . . . why should we?")

For the present, at least, there's a wall between department chairs/deans and the people who receive the checks.
I give $1 per paycheck. It gets everyone off my back and goes towards our "goal" of 100% institutional participation.
At a recent dept. meeting, we were told that, from an external fundraising point-of-view, it was very important to have a high staff/faculty contribution rate to our university's foundation. ("If the employees aren't giving . . . why should we?")

Yeah; I was arm-twisted into donating $10 to the foundation for that very reason. They wanted to say that faculty participation was at the 90% level. They didn't think it was important to say that most of us gave less than 0.01% of our salary.

Our UW contributions, however, can be directed 100% to a specific organization in town, in some cases organizations that receive no other UW funding. So I give fairly liberally to UW. I know too many folks at my own institution who have benefitted from UW-funded services for their disabled children or parents to say no.
Okay, wait a minute. The University (also known as the EMPLOYER) is asking professors (also known as EMPLOYEES) to contribute to the University Foundation in order to encourage outsiders to donate? Does IBM expect their employees to pony up for R&D? Does the Royal Bank expect employees to chip in to build a new branch? Am I just horribly naive or is this just crazy?
This semester I received the UW with a request for money to be deducted from each paycheck. I would rather give a lump sum up front. Personally, I find it really offensive to be harrassed at work about donations. The booklet did provide a huge list of charities, action-based organizations and museums to select from, but I still question how all that money is distributed. I think it is more effective to send a check or products needed to the charity or service organization directly. I regularly donate money to animal organizations and feel it is not necessary to go through my employer, a secondary party. This all seems alot like donating to a church.
The 100% contribution rate is what gets me. My boss once asked everyone to contribute a dollar so that we could say that our department reached 100%. This seemed inane, to say the least, (though I know that he meant well). Please do something meaningless so that we can pretend we're doing something meaningful and make others think the same. I'll happily contribute when my university demonstrates mature and responsible money-management practices and 1) tenure is abolished, 2) someone who can do something does something about the dollar-burning orgy that takes place at the end of every fiscal year to ensure that the gods will bring next year's dollars, and 3) the woman who emails me about the school's campaign stops using fifteen exclamation marks and forty-two smiley emoticons to punctuate her requests. Every single one. Thanks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :) :) :) :) :) :)
Vicki comments that UW lets you designate your gift, which will then go 100% to the designated agencies.

Well, not really, The UW decides on an allocation among agencies. If you designate an agency, your money goes to t hat agency, but the overall allocation to that agency is not changed. I'll let you figure out what to call that.
I work at one of the agencies United Way gives to.

So, of course, we have an annual United Way charity shakedown. (Actually, United Way and another fund that also donates to us, at the same time)

Since this is (was? by like, a day maybe) my first year working here, I'd never seen it before... but we have an All-Staff meeting about it, and they do the video and the pamphlets, and then the Really Heavy Leaning asking for 100% participation, because The Money Goes Back To Us!

Yes, that's right... they ask us to give money from our paychecks to a third party, on the basis that some of that money would go back to the agency to pay for programmatic stuff. Yeah. Not even "you'll get the money back in your paycheck, with interest!" ... just "give us money so that your department will have a bigger budget."

And, of course, since it's at an All-Staff meeting, and the presentations are conducted by our Development Director, under the oversight of our CEO... there's no way to get out of it. You can't leave, and they count the envelopes while you're sitting there. And then they announce the contribution rates (and amounts!) from each unit. I was... is there a word stronger than floored? let's go with "basemented" .... I was absolutely basemented about the whole thing.

(Granted, that's not the only time or way our agency asks its employees to give directly back. We're required.. required, with quotas and everything... to sell tickets and solicit ads and corporate sponsorship to our annual fundraiser (on our own time, mind you; they're not paying you to network!), and then they made us buy our own tickets to attend. And, of course, attendance is mandatory, as is a cetain level of volunteer service.)
Our university is currently doing a UW drive, but the pressure isn't too great, luckily. While I believe in the importance of charitable giving, I also believe that it's important for individuals to choose such gifts on their own.

The worst one I got? Years ago, the adjuncts all received fundraising letters from University Development, suggesting that we should make a donation so that we could claim that 100% of the faculty were donating to the school.

At that particular school, my paycheck didn't even cover my gas to get to work. I was young and in grad school and needed the experience, so I was willing to operate at a loss for a year or two. But to be expected to give back part of those measly paychecks every month, and to a school where I got no benefits? Forget it.

I don't doubt that if I had continued to work there, the pressure to give would have intensified.
Right there with you Terminal Degree! Every year all the adjuncts get a letter asking us to contribute to the University! (It helps the @#$^ rankings if high numbers of faculty and staff contribute to the school.) Gag! Need I say that it is the lowest paid adjunct gig in town?!

Sometimes the Dean (who hires us) sends a letter along with the request. Bleck!

Once again, I swear this is my last semester adjuncting!
That kind of pressure exists in a lot of workplaces -- academic, corporate, and non-profit. Although, honestly, I'd rather ignore a United Way campaign than have to deal with being pressured to buy stuff from somebody's kid. (I had a traumatic Girl Scouts experience.)

Oddly enough, I worked 3 years at a local United Way, most of it in the campaign department. I saw some of the usual variety of non-profit self-justification (I have a pet theory about non-profit leadership) but also a lot of people wanting very much to do good things for people.

Re: direct giving -- IIRC, those gifts are passed on directly, in toto, without admin fees. The "general" donations are handed out through an entirely separate process. Which, by the way, I was actually fairly impressed by, even if I didn't always agree with the results.

I'm with lesboprof on the cowardice of many UWs on discrimination. The month before I left, the UW in the larger city decided to defund the Boy Scouts because of discrimination. Our UW issued a fairly weaselly statement about only funding things that didn't have the discriminatory component, or something. What I remember is the sheer venom of the email that came to us because they thought we were the same as the other UW, and thus caving in to the gays or the atheists or something.

Oh, which brings up one last thing. United Ways are all pretty much run locally. Think of it like a fast food franchise. :) You have to look at the one closest to you to know what their practices are in fundraising and fund distribution.
Very simple solution. Round file the solicitation memos and remain silent. If directly confronted for donation, respond that your family has already made its charitable donation for the year, which it does EVERY year. Add the comment that giving back and charitable gifts are very important things to you and your family. That's why you don't wait around for someone to come soliciting each year - you donate directly. Usually ends the harassment for the year.

a generous Mighty Favog
"The logic of the fundraisers, I think, is that we can't really expect other people to contribute to the college if we aren't willing to pony up ourselves." (And to those talking about seeking a 90% or whatever donation rate...)

I work with a large community non-profit and many grants we apply for demand that we have 90% or 100% or whatever of membership donating. Some demand X number of hours of membership labor towards the cause. The traditional attitude in the group has been to cheerlead like crazy to try to get people to donate; MY strategy, when I was in charge of grants, was to TELL people we needed 90% participation (or whatever), and then we usually actually GOT it. Because, no, they really DON'T care if people give $1. (And *I* really don't care if people give $1; internally we have an equation for converting dollars to time or time to dollars so members can meet membership requirements in whatever way suits them, but grant-giving organizations don't do that. Lots of our members have kids under 5, massive student loans, or work in the non-profit sectors. They may donate 20 hours a month but have no money to spare. I don't care! Give a symbolic dollar so the grant committee gets the numbers that make it happy!)

The leadership objection to this, by the way, is that if you tell people they can give just $1, they WILL give just $1. I don't buy that when it's your membership; obviously they're there because they believe in the cause du jour and if they can afford $100 or $1000, they're going to do that. (And I suspect this is supported evidentiarily by the fact that members of the grant and fundraising committees, as well as the board, who KNOW what the minimum dollar amount is, typically donate tens of times the minimum of their own free will.)

It helps the grant-giving organizations decide if there's adequate organizational buy-in to push the project forward, or if it's just something the leadership has decided on with no organizational input that will quickly fizzle out.

All of that said, if United Way isn't directly supporting the university or its students or employees, I think it's inappropriate to go seeking minimum donor percentages in the workplace. (My CC runs ONE donation campaign a year, and it's for the foundation that supports low-income students or students with personal financial crises. That at least makes SENSE as a workplace fundraiser, although I still don't donate to it.)
DBM/GBA wrote:

Okay, wait a minute. The University (also known as the EMPLOYER) is asking professors (also known as EMPLOYEES) to contribute to the University Foundation in order to
encourage outsiders to donate?

Actually, this is exactly what happens with State and Federal employees. They are employees, and yet are required to give to their employer (taxes) so that they can get paid.

This one has always seemed almost silly, if only because of the cost of processing paperwork, to pay, tax, then pay...
Aggregious examples? A former employer had a UW option called "Pledge-A-Matic", in which the percentage of your salary donated to UW increased as your pay grade increased. The rumor mill claimed that being pledge-a-matic played a role in annual rankings, which influenced pay. (This was industry, not academia.)

My present employer has a low-key campaign. Throwing out the mail and donating directly seems to have no negative consequences.
I question the legality of the UW shakedown at my University. It seems unseemly, if not illegal for a supervisor to coerce a donation from employees just to meet a percentage participation. I donate directly to charities of my choice, and I receive many requests for donations to even more. I don't have a problem with the University distributing a request for UW donations per se, but responding to a mail request and responding to a "request for participation" from your supervisor are 2 different things. If universities are considered the harbor of free speech, they should be prepared to open up their mailing list to other charities if they're going to press this hard on only one. I'd rather not see this, so I wish they'd just lighten up.
I am a government employee. We get hammered every year for a donation. We are told the top government official wants 100% participation as a "goal". I cannot give to the United Way because some of the money goes to planned parenthood. I was told by co-workers that I would never get anything I wanted or promoted if I didnt give. A year later and I put in for better position. After the interview process I was number 1 on the list but was nixed by top admin. Why? Rumor came back that #2had given to United Way and I refused to do so. Therefore, I'm out and he's in but I don't care. At least I can sleep at night. Local The head guy is elected therefore Politics and a Shakedown in action. You guys are not alone in this.
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