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.