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

[Image description: A gray-striped cat, their head peeking from unde ra shaggy carpet that is brown, tan, and white. They look shocked, with big turquoise-emerald eyes. This cat has nothing to do with this post. I was going to add a picture of a houseplant, but plants unfortunately cannot compete with adorable kittens. Image from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone. Before we launch into today’s topic, a quick announcement: My organization, Rainier Valley Corps, is expanding our team and are looking to add two critical positions: Operations Support Program Director, and Capacity Building Lead. If you love capacity building and operations and want meaningful work, an amazing team, and an inspiring array of office snacks, these positions may be for you. We also have a nap room, if that tips the scale.

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 a while our community gets into a discussion about whether nonprofits should ask their 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 I be considered 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 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; and 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”? 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 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 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; 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.

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