Office Shakedown – Charity At Work

IMG_3994One of my favorite weekly columns in the New York Times is The Ethicist. Basically it’s a weekly column where readers write in with their ethical quandaries, and The Ethicist (currently Chuck Klosterman, though there have been several Ethicists since I started reading the column), responds to their queries from an ethical perspective.

A recent question presented an interesting quandary that hit home to me. The reader asks:

“Is it ethical for a department head to walk around the department she oversees and ask for donations to a charity she supports? … I didn’t feel as if not giving would have negative impact on my career. Still, when your boss asks you to donate to something, there’s unspoken pressure to do so, and I certainly felt that pressure.” – Anonymous


Been There, Done That, Bought The T-Shirt

As soon as I read Anonymous’ letter, I felt instant empathy with the situation. When I first started my career (and was making SIGNIFICANTLY LESS than I currently do), my employer decided to hold a competition for which department could raise the most money for the charity of our employer’s choosing.

But this wasn’t about raising money by having a car wash or anything like that. I would have happily volunteered my time for that kind of endeavor. Team-building would have been a great side effect from actively raising money for the cause especially for one of the newbies (me) in the department.

Rather, my employer wanted to make it super easy for us to donate (from our own pockets), so my employer “kindly” gave us the option to do payroll deductions (after tax), to automate our giving to this charity that wasn’t of our choosing.

The charity wasn’t a bad one. They seem to do good work, are highly rated on transparency, although only 80% or so of their donations actually make it through to cover program costs. FWIW, the charity I started donating to at this time was about 90% effective when you looked at programming costs. (These are the current estimates from, but I presume they haven’t changed drastically since the mid 2000’s.)


What To Do?

The donation campaign at work bothered me A LOT. After going back and forth over it for a couple weeks (with daily emails encouraging us to give as much as possible from both colleagues on my level and higher ups), I ended up not donating. It was less about “the charity” or “the money” than it was a statement to myself about not letting myself be pressured to do something financially that I wouldn’t have chosen to do on my own. (I was single-girl-in-the-city not-yet-Mrs-Anything in her first job out of college. I was taking a stand! Not letting “The Man” tell me what to do!)

I didn’t experience any fall-out from my decision not to donate, at least not that I ever noticed. But for what it’s worth I didn’t stay with that employer all that long. Within my first year working there, I had interviewed and gotten an offer for a job in a field that seemed more challenging and had the added benefit of a starting salary 48% higher than I was making at the employer who wanted me to sign my paychecks over to their favorite charity. I took that job and haven’t really looked back.



Was it inappropriate for my employer and Anonymous’ employer to promote their favorite charity in a way in which our giving could be tracked and noted? According to The Ethicist, absolutely.

“The mere existence of this letter suggests that your boss is doing something ethically untoward: at least for one employee, she’s creating a culture of anxiety for reasons that have no relationship to the job itself.”

Amen, Brotha. Anxiety was definitely what I experienced. And it stunk.


Our Situation Today

Luckily, today we don’t have much pressure these days from our bosses to donate to any specific charities. Occasionally my boss emails out information on causes he’s passionate about, along with links for more information. But it doesn’t feel like pressure to join in the cause or donate.

Colleagues (but not bosses) also present their kids’ charitable fundraising opportunities, and we give pretty regularly in that manner. So what if I wouldn’t normally buy a coupon book? The band needs some new tubas, so we fork over $20 pretty happily on a regular basis for stuff like that.

We recognize that for many people it’s hard to separate their “work selves” from the things they support outside of work, so to us, this feels like an okay compromise in terms of charity in the workplace.  And I’m mostly just glad I don’t have the same kind of dilemma I did in my first job.


What’s your take on charity in the workplace? Does it matter if the pressure is coming from your boss or your colleagues? What would you have done if you were in Anonymous’ shoes? Or mine in my first job?

84 comments to Office Shakedown – Charity At Work

  • The only time I think charity is acceptable in the workplace is if your employer is matching donations from company profits. If the company aren’t willing to put their money where their mouth is, why should I? That said, I’m a sucker for charity chocolate sales (technically not a donation)- if any coworkers bring in a box of chocolates being sold for their child’s school I will always grab a couple. At least the money stays local, even if 100% of it isn’t going to the cause.
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    • Matching funds definitely changes the calculus, but if it still omitted the choice of the charity or made it feel like it wasn’t an option not to participate, I’d still be wary.

  • Oh man. I’ve experienced this exact scenario myself. Its was an annual fundraiser so I had the added pleasure of feeling the pressure over and over. I did always manage to say no as I have a charity budget and most of that money was always allocated before the festivities began.
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    • In hindsight, I think the one at my first job was an annual event as well, I just only participated the once since I moved on after a year.

  • If its one of those companies where everyone in the company is bringing something to work to collect then I don’t find it as pressure. If I want to and can I will donate if not then oh well. If the company is matching the donations then I am more than ok with giving and still saying no. Its wrong however if the boss hangs that over your head as to say okay you didnt donate no promotion for you. What I don’t like is when they say you cant bring charities to the work place but then HR or the higher ups do it.
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    • “What I don’t like is when they say you cant bring charities to the work place but then HR or the higher ups do it.” Agreed. That seems like the worst way to go about it.

  • Wow, payroll deductions for charity? How about the company match it with a “donation” to your 401k. In that case, sign me up! Otherwise…

    I do enjoy giving and doing so generously to the right cause. However, I also don’t like being pressured into doing it.
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  • I think it’s completely unethical for a boss to try to coerce employees into giving to a charity. I would be totally uncomfortable with that!
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  • We actually have a bunch of opportunities to donate our time at work. Every few months they ask for volunteers to help with an affiliated charity on the weekend. Im happy to do it, but I’d run away if they ever asked me to give money. It just sounds so inappropriate when salary are so different between coworkers.

    • That’s really cool. I know some companies do things like sponsor a Habitat house or volunteer at events together on the weekends and I think that’s a great way to hang out as a team outside of work – something different than a Friday happy hour!

    • SLCCOM

      Every few months? Really? Once a year, maybe twice a year. That is it. Free time is precious!

      • My interpretation was that they weren’t mandatory. More could just mean more ways to avoid possible scheduling conflicts and find a time that works in with your own personal life. =)

  • Our school has a big united way donation at the beginning of each year. Several years ago an unprofessional secretary who used to harass me made a huge deal about it and spent umpteen hours making it so our department would be one of the top donors. Maybe that’s why she harassed me later…

    Anyway, the program and the two emails (one to start, one reminder near the end) and the forms in our mailbox aren’t that bad. Constant barraging and constant fundraising activities… not so good.
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    • Was there any incentive for the secretary or do you think she had any pressure from above to be tops? Competing over this kind of stuff feels so weird.

    • I really used to hate that at the Great Desert University. Some sort of stupid competition was going on there, and yes, they used to harass. HR and the dean’s office would send out “reminders”…over and over…to relcalcitrants like myself. And they would not accept “thank you, but I give at my church” for an answer.
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  • Meghan

    My Director did this twice last week, soliciting food donations so we could win a contest. On Friday, she resorted to asking for money in an email saying that she and two other employees were going to the grocery store at lunch. Don’t get me wrong, food donations are great, but don’t make me feel like I have to donate to ANYONE at work.

    • Yeah, that’s kindof weird because when stuff like that happens it’s often the really cheap, low quality food that gets purchased since you get “more items for the money”. Top ramen is cheap, but not particularly nutritious, and I’d rather someone receiving a food donation get more nutritious food even if it means losing a contest.

  • I definitely think it’s different coming from a colleague than a boss, but I’m not a huge fan of it at all. To me, I’d like to donate to causes of my choosing, not to causes I feel pressured to give to because a friend or boss asks me to. It always bothers me when I’m checking out at a store and they ask if I want to give $1 to such-and-such a cause. I always say no, mostly for the same reason you said no above. Sometimes I feel like a jerk, but when I really think about it I’m no more of a jerk for that than for not giving to any of the thousands of other causes I wasn’t asked about. I give where I want, not where I’m pressured.
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  • Honestly I think it would depend on the context of the relationship for me. My old boss was awesome and we were close, so I wouldn’t have minded, and I would have felt comfortable saying why I wasn’t donating if that was my choice. Do I think it’s wrong for bosses’ to ask? Not sure. I guess it’s how they ask meaning putting an emphasis on no pressure.
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    • I can see that, and I think that’s part of why I’m okay with what my boss does currently. When he gets behind a cause, he’ll sometimes send an email out to his direct reports about it – why he thinks we might be interested and if you want more info go here. But then there’s not really a follow-up, so no pressure to conform with his causes.

  • W used to work for UPS, and there was always some sort of charity going around. They even took money directly out of their paychecks for the charities that they wanted, that’s how crazy it was!

    It was hard for him to say no, because they would say “Oh we can do just $5 a week and it will just come directly out of your paycheck.”

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  • Awful abuse of power situation. I doubt the boss looked at it this way, but it was clearly an instance of leveraging a position of authority for personal gain.
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  • I agree it’s an “ick” factor when a company does that. I have no problem donating to coworkers’ kids’ fundraisers or when someone’s raising for a cause, but if it’s a mainstream charity cause I’d rather just do it on my own and for one I believe in.
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  • I find that it’s very easy for me to turn down donation “opportunities” that pop up randomly now that we have an ongoing plan for our giving. I agree that it’s highly inappropriate for an employer to make a campaign out of donating to a specific cause.
    Emily @ evolvingPF recently posted..Financially Surviving Your First Month as a PhD StudentMy Profile

  • I used to work at a cafe and one of the bosses took money out of everyone’s tips to pay for baby car seat for one of the girls who had a baby. I was angry but I didn’t say anything at the time. I just thought it was kind of rude to do that without asking first
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    • Yeah. That’s a nice gesture, but I’m pretty sure what your boss did was illegal. Didn’t Starbucks baristas just win a class action lawsuit against their managers and supervisors taking part of their tips?

  • CincyCat

    I remember the days when companies who supported the UW used to be allowed to pressure people with “fair share” donation cards. You actually had a closed-door meeting with the boss to discuss “how much” you would give (not “whether”). Eventually (I think), the feds had to crack down & say this type of high-pressure workplace solicitation was not OK.

  • CincyCat

    That said, I am chair of the board for a non-profit, and I do expect our trustees to give a donation in support of the organization. I really don’t care how much, but the general philosophy is that our board should not ask our donors to write a check if we are not willing to do so ourselves.

    • Is your board paid? Sometimes I wonder why NPR employees feel the pressure to give – they are likely earning less working where they are, so aren’t they giving their time as a large donation to begin with?

      • CincyCat

        Our board (independent school), is all volunteer. We have an annual fund campaign that helps to offset the operating costs for the school. (Tuition at private schools is almost always set below cost.) The “setting a good example” of supporting the school is a large part of why I expect board members to give, but the other (more strategic) reason is that grantors, etc. want to know the percent “participation” of the organization’s constituents when it comes to fiscal support. It is a very big deal if we can truthfully say that 100% of our board is making some sort of contribution to help support the school’s operations. :)

        • That makes sense. Though on an only vaguely related note, it’s strange that %-participation is a measure for evaluating charities (and university giving). I’ve heard about schools gaming the stat by gifting each graduate $1 with the tradition that they give it back as a donation immediately upon graduation.

        • I used to belong to a couple of nonprofit boards, back when I was married to the corporate lawyer. And yes, we were expected to donate…generously. Our son was in an expensive private school and we couldn’t afford what was expected, and so I had to drop off.

          That, I imagine, is why so many nonprofit boards are populated solely by the very wealthy.

          Wouldn’t a little diversity bring in a breath of fresh air?
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          • CincyCat

            We haven’t gotten to the point where any specific dollar amount is “expected” (and, I hope we never do, as I’ve seen it really yuck up the board’s culture at other places…). As of now, I’m the only one who is aware of what individual board members give, besides the business manager who actually records the checks. By following this model, the amount of anyone’s particular gift in no way influences decision-making by the team as a whole. This is our third year with an annual fund idea, and we have found that giving folks an opportunity to voluntarily help offset costs (with a fully tax-deductible gift), it has actually helped to keep overall tuition low for everyone. Right now, our tuition is about 15% lower than the other non-sectarian private schools in our city, and we’re pretty happy about that. :)

  • Thankfully I have never been in a situation like this. Just thinking about it makes me anxious.
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  • trudy

    Totally inappropriate.

    I get uncomfortable when I get emails from friends asking a list of their friends to donate or support them for walking for a charity. I don’t want to disappoint my friends and harm our friendship, but they support stuff I am not interested in.

    I might post on my Facebook wall occasionally about a charity I’m interested in, but that seems much more arm’s length. Also I have no way of knowing who donated, unlike those charity walkathons.

  • I’m a fan of programs like the United Way and similar where you can give to lots of different charities pre-tax. While the UW does take a small percentage of the money, it’s a great incentive for folks to pre-give their money.

    Also, I’m not fan of pushing a favorite charity that isn’t very efficient with funds. I work in non-profit fundraising but I can’t stand organizations that give such a high percentage away in overhead and salaries, especially if they’re receiving publicly funded grants.
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    • I don’t recall the payroll deductions on ours being pre-tax, but I could be mistaken. Question – why would it be pre-tax if you don’t itemize your taxes?

  • I’m probably in the minority but I liked when my employer had options for us to donate via our paychecks, since it came out pre-tax (and as we don’t itemize, that’s really the only way we’d avoid taxation on the donation). However, the company had many charities we could choose from, and matched dollar for dollar up to $2k, regardless of which we chose. They even “gave” us some small amount of money, like $5, that we could all participate if we wanted.

    I’m the kind of person that isn’t going to give unless he’s asked though…so I need the nudge!
    Done by Forty recently posted..Breakthrough Charity Idea: Give Money to Poor PeopleMy Profile

    • How does that work for it to be pre-tax if you don’t itemize your deductions on your taxes? I’ve honestly never heard of that before.

      I like that your employer does matching funds and allows you to choose your charity, though. That would definitely be worth donating through to maximize contributions.

  • Anne

    I’m fine buying coupon books/cards/popcorn/cookies for colleague’s kids’ fundraisers, and I’m fine giving a little to support someone doing team in training or something like that where they are dedicating a lot of time and effort to the cause. But I’m not opening my wallet at work just because someone asks, and I think in a supervisor position it’s very inappropriate to do more than leave a girl scout cookie order sheet in the break room (or a similar no-pressure tactic).

    • I think even supervisors shouldn’t leave order forms out… then they have a list of employees that supported their kids’ and (by omission) a list that didn’t. I’m okay if non-supervisors do that, but it feels weird from bosses.

  • I think it’s horrible when a superior tries to get those who work under him or her to donate to a cause or even chip in for some sort of office gift for someone. I try really hard to never do that. I don’t even take my daughter’s fundraisers to the office for fear that someone would buy something they can’t afford to make me happy. I think giving should be someone’s own choice, and you should have time to evaluate the cause. You can put the info out there, but I would never ask or especially make it something that comes out of a paycheck for “my” cause. I don’t even like when the grocery store asks me to round up my purchase for the charity of the month!
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    • I think I’d like you as a boss. Though I’d probably still ask when your daughter was selling Girl Scout cookies if I didn’t have another source. =)

  • Ugh, I remember this feeling. My first “real” job had a similar campaign where different locations competed against each other and it left a sour taste in my mouth. The whole thing was less about helping the charity and more about giving the boss bragging rights. My position and I made it through unscathed without donating, but I definitely felt awkward and guilty at the time.
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  • I would have felt pressured in your situation, too, and it wouldn’t have left a very good feeling with me. I agree that donating time is much more effective. Our bosses recently signed us up for Habitat for Humanity, and we helped build a house for a family in need. We all had fun, bonded, and felt like we helped out a bit. It was one day taken out of our usual schedule but it can help boost morale. Unfortunately, myself and one coworker were singled out to go back to work after that, which kind of ruined the good feelings, but I would much prefer that than payroll deductions!
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  • I only think it’s unethical because it was the boss. If a coworker asked me to buy her granddaughter’s girl scout cookies, I’d still feel obligated, but not threatened if I didn’t. Same with if someone is doing a 5k. Your ex boss sounds like an idiot…automatic payroll deductions? What was the prize for them?
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    • It was a really big, bureaucratic place so I think it was mostly bragging rights at each layer in the hopes to be the favorite up top. Don’t think there was any cash incentive… at least not that they told the little peons like me.

  • I used to work at a place that implemented a giving program that came straight out of our pre-tax pay. I didn’t mind it because it was optional and there was no pressure to sign up (only payroll would know specifically if you signed up). They also had a wide range of charities that you could choose from, and they were ones that I would support anyway.

    I guess we were lucky that there was no pressure to sign on, but I could see how that would be really stressful if your boss was pressuring you to meet charity targets or something.
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  • We have a political action committee at work that is “voluntary” that you can deduct from your paycheck. They send us quarterly notice to sign up, and actually post the % of people who donate (although no names). It feels strange when they rank the generosity of our contributions to this PAC.
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  • I experienced a really tragic case of this when I first started my current job. An employee who had been with the company for 6 years was diagnosed with a terminal illness. I was actually hired in to train as her replacement over several months. Everyone else there had been with the company for years, and obviously wanted to do everything they could to help. There was participation in an annual walk, donations for research, direct donation drives to help the woman and her husband with expenses. I understand, but as someone new, it got a bit overwhelming. About the time the woman left on disability, another new person started with the company. I thought she handled the situation very well: She helped order T-Shirts for the walk, and organize other aspects of what the company was doing, but did not participate outside of work, since she didn’t know the person.

    I did finally have to say something to my boss when she wanted to ask people for donations at our annual employee meeting. I’m okay with having a fundraiser, but when you’re asking people to give over and over again in a short time, it becomes too much. There has to be a line.
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    • That definitely sounds awkward. You want to be supportive of everyone, but it’s hard when you barely knew the person they’re giving so much of themselves for.

  • I might be in a unique position here, I work for a very small company, and we do ask each other at work for donations, and have even bribed one co-worker with a box if they’d bring in their niece’s girl scout cookie sheet once. We have two charities that we always work with twice a year, and we solicit donations for them, but we all know they’re coming, and there’s no pressure to donate, or to donate any specific amount.

    At the end of the year, 10% of our company profits go to various charities. The owner solicits a list of charities we’d each like to give to, and spreads out the donation among those charities. Sometimes it means that one charity that gets money isn’t one I’d normally like to give money to, but it’s important to a co-worker for some reason, so that’s where the money goes, it also goes to the charity of my choice that year.
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    • That’s an interesting way to donate the profits. Our company has a good chunk of its profits go to various non-profit endeavors, but we don’t get any say in which ones.

  • I think the kind of pressure you experienced in that first job is totally inappropriate in the workplace. I love the kid fundraising stuff, etc., but when we are pressured at Rick’s work to donate to a cause we might not want to support, which honestly doesn’t happen very often, we just say “Thanks, but we’ve got some other charities we’re working with right now.” That way we can stick to only donating to the stuff we want to donate to, and we don’t look like total cheapwads. :-)
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    • I think that’s the best response. It stinks that the pressure is there, but it’s an easy (and probably honest!) way to turn them down.

  • That column caught my attention, too! The new guy they’ve got writing it is so much better than the last two, eh?

    In our business group, we have a guy who hits us up every year to buy his daughter’s Girl Scout cookies. Now, I like him personally, and I do think Girl Scouts are grand, but… I don’t eat many sweets, and when I do, you can be sure it ain’t Girl Scout cookies. I don’t even like them. But there’s no polite way to say “no,” so I end up buying the things and throwing them in the trash. When I was teaching face-to-face, I’d hand them out to my students. Now that my courses are online…what??? Donate them to Goodwill?
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  • I’ve been in this situation so many times at work, where we’ve been asked to donate to charities by team leaders or other work colleagues. One particular month, I ended up donating around £50 for a sponsored charity race and also donating to the gift fund for 3 co-workers birthdays. I couldn’t really afford it if I’m honest. I’m all for giving to charity but I prefer to donate to ones that are close to my heart and to give what I can afford.
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  • I give regularly (well buy regularly) basically anything that my staff or co-workers’ kids are selling. As for my boss dictating (or suggesting) charitable donations-no way! I have no qualms about saying no. If my job is riding on me donating to the preferred charity of my boss, I don’t want to work for that person anyway.
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  • I have a really bizarre woman at work who sells everything under the sun. She sells tupperware, jewellery, sporting tickets, even her daughters girl guide cookies. At first I feel some pressure to buy from her (especially the cookies, as she was quick to remind us “was for a good cause”) but now I don’t. I just make a joke out of it. It can certainly be an uncomfortable situation!
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  • Jacq

    I pick several Charities at the beginning of the year, all for a reason. Work matches donations over $50 for certain IRS qualified charities, so I plan around that amount. It makes it easier to turn down other requests. I told one coworker last year I would donate either spring or fall, but not both. I stay generally gluten-free, so girl scout cookies are an easy pass. The % going to the schools for things like wrapping paper sales is so minimal, and I need less ‘stuff’, I ask if I can just give $ without getting an item. I would also rather get the match, versus being nickled & dimes with smaller asks.

  • Sally

    I know this is an old post, but have just recently experienced this very thing. My company pressures us to donate to United Way every year, adding to the pressure they promise us an extra day off on Good Friday if they get 100% participation. I discovered the percentage UW takes off for their admin costs before they distribute to charities and decided my donation would be better effective if I just donated directly. So I decided not to participate. I received an email, as did 5 others, that said we were the only ones left in the office who hadn’t donated and everyone in the company would appreciate it if we would donate so they could get the extra day off. I am livid!

    • Ugh! I am appalled on your behalf! It’s a shame that they’re exerting that kind of pressure on you. Is there a way to make a nominal donation $5 or something just to make it go away? On some level I hate succumbing to that kind of pressure, but other times it’s not the hill you’re choosing to fight over. =/