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Why nonprofit staff should not be asked to donate to the organizations they work for

Donations Jar with words NO beside it

This week’s topic may be polarizing and possibly rile you up, so please stare at the nearest houseplant for a few minutes (apparently, they are scientifically proven to reduce stress). Once in a while our community gets into a discussion about whether nonprofits should ask their nonprofit staff to donate some amount of money to the organization. There are passionate arguments from both the “absolutely” side and the “hell no!” side. (It is very similar to the Oxford Comma debate, although it really isn’t, because obviously the Oxford Comma is beautiful, practical, and magical, and there is clearly no point debating this because #OxfordCommaForever.)

I cast my vote with the side of No, we should not ask our staff to donate to our own organizations. Here are several reasons why, as articulated by many colleagues in the field, combined with some of my own thoughts and experiences:

It is inequitable. 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. I remember what it was like as an AmeriCorps member struggling to pay the bills. 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.

And it’s more than just a monetary burden that’s inequitable. There is the stress involved too, the stress of having one more thing to worry about—“How much can I afford to give? Will people consider me a cheapskate if I can only give $5? Will giving only a small amount make it awkward with my coworkers? Should I tell them I’m struggling this month? What if they start looking at me with pity? Am I a bad person for resenting them because they don’t have to think about these things?”

It is insulting. Many nonprofit staff are underpaid. In addition, many of us save our organizations money by not seeking reimbursement for meals, parking, overtime, etc. Yes, this is not a good practice. We should be getting reimbursed for all work-related expenses, but that’s not always feasible for whatever reasons. Many of us are donating tens of thousands of dollars every year just by working at our nonprofit. Last week at a forum, a colleague lamented about how a recent college grad she knew was making twice in the corporate world what she was making as an experienced ED. 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.

It is 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? Why the charade? Who are we playing this charade for? For funders and donors? In my 15 years doing this work, I have never once had a donor or funder ask for the percentage of staff who gives. Percentage of board members, sure, but percentage of staff, never. I am sure there are the rare donors and funders who ask for the rate of staff giving, but why would we just defer to their request instead of helping them to understand how bizarre or possibly harmful their request is?

It does not take power dynamics into consideration. You may be thinking “But our nonprofit staff giving campaign is completely optional! No one has to donate if they don’t want to!” In an ideal world, that might be true. In the actual world, there are power dynamics and implicit biases at play, so nothing is ever really “optional.” There is always tremendous pressure built into these campaigns, whether you intend for it or not.

In the sixth grade, I was the only kid who opted out of the Jump Rope for Heart campaign, mainly because my English was not developed and I had no idea what it was. Even though participation was completely “optional,” I got dirty looks not just from the other students but also from the adults, and was forced to sit in class alone with a resentful teacher, writing an essay on the human heart. Can you imagine being the one person who prevented the organization from being able to claim “100% of our staff volunteered to give a personally significant donation”? Nonprofit staff who do not donate for whatever reason risk being perceived and treated negatively, a lot of it unconscious.

It perpetuates the 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 nonprofit staff giving campaign aligns with the default philosophy that our own mission is the only one that matters.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all gave to other nonprofits? It would help to strengthen relationships with our colleagues from other orgs. This is why I don’t give to my own organization. I love it and believe in it, of course, and I contribute to it in various other ways, but being a donor to other organizations has allowed me to get to know their important work, build relationships with their staff and board, and be conscientious of the entire nonprofit community and not just of my own organization’s work. We should encourage our team members to donate outside our organizations; it will make our sector more effective in the long run.

It reinforces the overvaluing of money. The push for nonprofit 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”?

The “even one dollar” philosophy is a symptom of the high value we place on money, at the expense of everything else. It allows people with wealth to call the shots from every possible platform. On boards, the people with the most money have the most influence. The same goes with the donors and funders who give the most money in our sector in general. This has led to a lot of problems, such as people making bad decisions because they do not have first-hand experience but have the most money. As my co-authors write in Unicorns Unite, we need to stop reinforcing money as the highest form of input.

For these and other reasons, I am strongly against nonprofits asking their staff to donate (or pay membership dues, or pay for gala tickets if they are working at the gala, etc.). Because of power dynamics, I don’t even recommend it being brought up. If staff want to donate, or if a team member is not comfortable asking others to donate unless they also donate, that’s their choice and it should be appreciated, though perhaps not publicly, as that’s yet another form of conscious and unconscious pressure.

Instead of asking our colleagues to donate money when they are already giving so much and people from marginalized communities are even more underpaid than everyone else, we should acknowledge their contributions in various forms, recognize the inequity that is built into this and other practices that we take for granted, and strive to provide fair compensation. We should also support one another’s missions by encouraging our team members to be engaged with other organizations. And we should do what we can to end the excessive influence of money on our work.

I know some of you will disagree. It’s good for us as a sector to have these discussions. Let me stare at my peace lily for a few minutes, and then I’ll be ready for the counter-arguments in the comment section.

Originally reprinted from Nonprofit AF.

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  • W.Lynne says:

    February 28, 2021 1:39 pm

    We obviously believe in what we are doing, as we show up every day and actually are doing the work to the best of our ability. It is the donors, development staff and board's job to fund the skilled people who often work long hours at below average salaries to further the mission. We offer literally everything else, get your nominal dollar elsewhere.

  • Kevin L. says:

    August 29, 2020 2:00 pm

    Disagree with your disagree. With nonprofit salaries trailing behind those in the for-profit industries, your employees already make a sacrifice by choosing to work for you instead another sector. As far as I'm concerned, our staff implicitly donate all the foregone wages they could've made working somewhere. And make no mistake, as a nonprofit law firm, many definitely working easily received double working in biglaw.

    Far from asking staff donate, in many ways, our sector is still far from compensating its staff who already give so much for so little in return.

  • Michael Pader says:

    July 22, 2020 11:16 pm

    You are absolutely incorrect about that, Mr. O ªLoughlin. Granting organizations will often ask for proof of BOARD donations in response to grant applications, but I have NEVER come across a granting organization asking for staff donations. I also downloaded a Kresge Grant Guideline document that made no mention of staff donations, but did ask for proof of board donations.

    You don ªt have to give any money to prove that you believe in the mission. Your ethic and work product will do that fine. Staff non profit workers are among the worst paid people in any industry for the level of fine work that they put in. It is silly to think that the poorest among our supporters need to be proving it with money. They are effectively donating thousands of dollars annually in the form of the salary cut that they take when considering how much they could make in the private sector. Add on to that the fact that they often work over 40 hours a week... and during an event/gala/auction/etc. they will easily work 60-80 hours without any further compensation.

    One could make such an easy case that the staff of most non profits are among the biggest donors of that non profit, choosing to lose tens of thousands of dollars from their annual salary because they choose to work at a non profit, and not in the private sector.

  • Luis E. says:

    May 6, 2020 10:40 am

    Disagree, even if it's a dollar a year, it's important that people that work for a non-profit believe in what they're doing. Otherwise it's just another job and you could work anywhere.

  • Michel O'LOUGHLIN says:

    March 6, 2020 5:44 am

    Simply put, many foundations will specifically ask what percentage of staff financially support your mission. If not at 100%, your request is not even reviewed, e.g., Kreske Foundation, and your organization could lose out on much needed funds.

    As a separate point, no organization is expecting its employees to withhold expenses, i.e., travel, food, material purchases. Today, nonprofits must compensate its employees fairly. If not, its employees will take their talents and passion elsewhere. The old adage, “ Just because I work for a nonprofit, does not mean I am a nonprofit “ rings true. Just look at the organizations 990s and examine the top executives salaries.