Dear Nonprofiteer, Why don’t our employees contribute?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I’m the chair of the annual fundraising auction at a community music school.  It’s our one big chance each year to raise money from real people (as opposed to grantmakers), and it’s a huge amount of work, for me and all the other volunteers involved in making it happen.

You’d think the staff would be grateful for our efforts, but very few of them have even bought a ticket to the event this year.  Tickets for an evening of dinner and dancing plus both live and silent auctions are only $100, and it’s the only time all year we ask our employees to kick in.  Why won’t more of them do so? 

Signed, Hostess Lacking Mostess

Dear Hostess:

Your question impales the Nonprofiteer on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, she’s a great cheerleader for volunteers and the efforts they make and is forever criticizing nonprofit executives for devaluing volunteer labor.  On the other hand, she firmly believes that nonprofit employees already contribute to their employers far beyond anything for which they’re compensated, and she resents (on their behalf) any effort to bully or guilt-trip them into doing more.  But let’s see if these points of view can be reconciled.

If your auction is a success (and most likely it is, or you wouldn’t do it year after year), the Nonprofiteer is willing to bet that you receive staff support.  Rarely do volunteers take invitations to the printer, or put envelopes in zip-code order to secure the bulk postal rate, or type the silent auction bid sheets, or reconcile the books at the end of the night.  So the first thing to notice is, staff members DO contribute to the event, albeit as part of their jobs. 

Moreover, if your group is like most other nonprofits, you’ve employed people with advanced degrees and significant skills for half (or less) of what they’d make in the for-profit world.  Couldn’t your music director significantly increase his take-home pay if he quit and gave private lessons instead?  Doesn’t your executive director have an MBA with which she could be pulling down six figures?  Even your clerical staff is accepting lower pay than it could fetch elsewhere for the privilege of working at something with redeeming social importance.

The Nonprofiteer herself (as she never tires of complaining) took her law degree–worth in those days about $75,000 at the big law firm she’d left–and used it to run a small nonprofit for the princely sum of $25,000.  Needless to say, when members of the nonprofit’s Board reproached her for not contributing to the annual benefit event, her [swallowed] response was, "The very minute you’re giving $50,000 a year to this agency you’ll be entitled to upbraid me for stinginess."  Though it’s common in the nonprofit sector to dismiss the loss of imputed income with some cliche like, "No one goes into nonprofits to get rich!", it’s nonetheless true that the bulk of many groups’ funding comes in the form of labor donated not by volunteers but by overqualified staff.  So it seems a bit much to ask those staffers to pay more.

(N.B. that this issue disproportionately affects women, because we’re overrepresented in the nonprofit workforce and because we’re relatively easy to underpay in the first place and then manipulate through guilt.  I doubt you want your good efforts to be contributing to the feminization of poverty.)

Please also note that (a) $100 is probably a much smaller portion of your disposable income than of a staff member’s; that may be the difference between his making and missing his car payment that month, or it may be that month’s contribution to his children’s college fund; and (b) it’s not really $100 once a ticket for a spouse, suitable clothing, parking and babysitting are included.

In fact (and finally) it’s worth noting that any hourly employees who ARE expected to attend the benefit event are entitled to be paid overtime for that activity, and that mandatory overtime (or pressure to accept repayment in comp time) is a violation of the labor laws.  The fact that the music school is your leisure-time activity doesn’t make it leisure for the people already spending 40-plus hours there.

Of course as the leader of an event you want it to be successful, and the temptation is nearly irresistible to lean on those closest to you to participate.  And often those closest to you are the staff members with whom you’re working side by side.  A nearly irresistible temptation: nonetheless, resist.

And by the way, if this is really the only time all year you ask for money from actual non-grantmaking non-employee people, you’re not asking often enough.

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