Taking the plunge: Employee giving campaigns in your nonprofit organization

About this article

Text Size: A A

While many of us spent New Year’s Day relaxing, Michael Messenger, executive vice-president of World Vision Canada, donned an orange tutu and ran into Lake Ontario for World Vision’s annual Courage Polar Bear Dip that raises money for Rwandan water projects. When Messenger was asked to be World Vision’s spokesman at the dip, he agreed but “wanting to speak with integrity to something I was asking others to be involved with, I realized I had to be part of the experience.” He took the plunge and this year his team raised $22,000.

While some employees may feel they already give to an organization simply by means of their employment, many nonprofit staff play a key role above and beyond their jobs, and many nonprofit organizations and charities are inviting their staff to participate in employee giving campaigns. We talked with a number of people across the charitable sector who have run successful employee fundraising campaigns to find out why and how they did it.

First things first

Let's set the record straight right away: Employees should be under no obligation to give. As Rachel Smith-Spencer, director of advancement for the Stratford Festival says, “No one owes you philanthropic support. These truly are gifts. It’s as simple as that.” She adds that donations have nothing to do with performance. Messenger agrees: “No one says your commitment to your nonprofit employer is measured by your giving.”

Cynthia Armour of Elderstone Resource Development, a leadership and management company working with the nonprofit sector, says, “Never let anyone feel that it is a stroke against them if they don’t make a donation. Maybe they just paid $1,000 to the mechanics the day you ask. We shouldn’t judge anyone.”

At the same time, Dr. Lucy Miller, president and CEO of the United Way of Calgary and Area, notes that “Smart CEOs organize campaigns where everyone can give in some way. Employees might not give money. Giving comes in all forms. It’s about participation, not about how much you give.”

Why ask staff?

Armour likens fundraising to dropping a stone in a pond and watching the ripple effect. She suggests that fundraisers always start at the centre of the circle: “Charities should always start with their ‘family’ first.” Fred Martin, director of development for Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo agrees, even using the same terminology: “If we are a charity asking others to give, why wouldn’t we ask our family to give first?”

“There is a difference between being paid for the work you do – your job – and your personal commitment," says Miller. "How can I go out and say to people in the community that they should support our work – if they ask me, ‘do you support it?’, it’s not enough to say I work there.”

Many staff are passionate about the work they do - in fact, according to Messenger, “Donating time or money is a way to deepen my connection with something I believe in, in a meaningful and personal way.” Shane Bauman agrees, saying he gave to his former employer Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship “because I strongly believed in their mission. Also, I wanted to help out colleagues who were struggling to raise funds.”

As Miller points out, employee donations can effectively say, “We believe in this enough to actually invest in it, to give of our time and personal resources.” This “putting our money where our collective mouth is,” as Messenger calls it, speaks volumes to other potential funders, demonstrating that those who know the organization best support it.

While the importance of board members financially supporting their organization is well known, nonprofit fundraising consultants Custom Development Solutions suggest that staff support is at least equally important. “In fact, staff participation can sometimes make an even stronger impression on foundations, corporations, and individual donor prospects.”

Finally and perhaps most easily forgotten, staff fundraising campaigns are important because, like any other donor, staff often do not give unless they are asked. A 2011 whitepaper issued by Blackbaud, a software/service provider for nonprofits, notes, “Too often, a nonprofit organization fails to even ask its employees for contributions, or the organization might ask its employees to give in a very soft, indirect manner. Employees give when there is a trigger to give, such as an employee giving campaign that has been carefully crafted for this important audience.”

How to ask

While Armour says that there is no one-size-fits-all letter or template for how to ask, there are some key elements to keep in mind when asking staff to contribute to a fundraising campaign:

  • Walk in their shoes. Be sensitive in the request, acknowledging and recognizing employees’ existing commitment to the organization.
  • Segment your ask. Just as you would with any group of potential donors, consider years of service, department and other factors to tailor your request.
  • Ask senior management first. Blackbaud calls this the “silent phase” of your employee giving campaign and suggests all senior management should make a donation before asking staff.
  • Offer the same treatment as you would any other donor, in terms of respect, privacy, recognition and energy invested in the request.
  • Show how an individual’s participation is important to the success of the organization, says Miller, and encourage participation rather than dollar amounts.
  • Make it absolutely clear that performance reviews or advancement within the organization are in no way tied to giving.
  • A direct supervisor should not make a fundraising request of their staff, if at all possible, says Smith-Spencer.
  • Size doesn’t matter. Miller has seen employee giving campaigns in organizations with even two staff where employees consider how they can personally contribute to the organization’s mission.

One of the most common and effective means of inviting staff to contribute to an employee giving campaign is through a letter with a follow up ask. The Stratford Festival sends its employees customized case-driven letters about the importance of their work. The letters explain what staff make possible and offer a snapshot of the organization’s goals and needs, giving employees an opportunity to financially support one of four areas. Smith-Spencer says, “It’s not a complicated letter,” and notes that more than 200 staff members are donors to the festival.

Conrad Grebel University College sends an annual letter to staff asking them to contribute to the operations or scholarship funds, but staff also received the same letter as other college constituencies during the college’s current capital building campaign. Martin says, “We’ve had good participation in all areas.”

Other organizations invite staff to become involved in various fundraising activities. World Vision, for instance, often has staff competitions such as chili cook-offs, to raise money during their 30-Hour Famine campaigns. Team World Vision participates in sporting events such as marathons to raise funds for World Vision’s programs. Many staff also sponsor a child through the organization.

Make it easy to give

“Convenience is a major motivator for an employee to make the leap to becoming a donor,” notes Blackbaud. The simplest way organizations can expedite this process is by offering payroll deductions. “Almost everyone can give $1 per paycheque,” says Miller.

World Vision even offers a vacation buy-back program where staff can give up a week’s salary to the organization and take an extra week off.

A significant aspect to making it easier for staff to give is to fairly compensate them. “Organizations can get into trouble if they ask staff to work harder while paying them less and asking them to make a donation on top of that,” says Martin. Armour says she is not surprised if staff who feel underpaid don’t give but suggests it may depend on how they have been brought along in the fundraising process.

Make it meaningful

Some people may not contribute to an employee fundraising campaign because they don’t understand what the funds are being raised for. “A campaign should not just be about giving but also about building knowledge and capacity around what you are raising money for,” says Miller. Her staff are invited to pay to attend a lunch-hour poverty simulation that helps staff realize how big the issues are and the impact their donations can have.

According to Blackbaud, when employees see the impact of their donations and that the organization is a good steward of funds, they are far more likely to increase the frequency and lifespan of their giving.

It’s not all about money

Particularly when organizations are just beginning to invite staff to give, Armour recommends offering different ways to contribute. One easy way might be suggesting that staff document and claim overtime or mileage, and then donate the reimbursed funds back to the organization to receive a charitable receipt. The United Way offers staff opportunities such as organizing a potluck that will raise money, being involved in a game over a lunch hour, or paying for admission to a social event.

Make it fun

A 2012 survey found that more than 50% of employers have increased the number of events and activities associated with employee giving campaigns. Such events build staff morale and increase employee engagement while raising funds and educating about the work those funds support.

Such activities add fun and keep the program fresh, something that especially appeals to Millenial employees. Miller advises that activities should help staff look forward to coming to work.

Involve staff

Much of the staff fundraising activity at World Vision is initiated internally by the staff themselves.  “A number of our staff here are of Filipino background. After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, these staff from various parts of the organization came together and spent hours of their own time leading a volunteer effort to raise funds for relief and connecting with local Filipino people,” Messenger recalls.

Involving staff in an employee giving campaign means that everyone can see themselves as having a role in development and fundraising. Armour says the first step is to give staff advance notice of fundraising campaigns, and invite them to think about how they can see themselves helping. Martin finds that when staff receive fundraising letters, they can also offer information about their area of work that assists the development team. They also see a connection between fundraising and budget available for projects or operations.

At its best, an employee giving campaign helps staff realize the difference they can make when they contribute together to something that matters to them. Perhaps it’s time for your organization to take the plunge?

Note: Giving to other organizations

Many nonprofits offer their staff opportunities to get involved in campaigns on behalf of other charities. The Stratford Festival has two such campaigns: one for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, an organization that is prominent in their town and that sponsors six weeks of bowling for charity annually, and the other being an annual United Way fundraising luncheon. Smith-Spencer says, “We are careful about supporting organizations that are important in our community and to the employees who work here. We support initiatives to which the staff have assigned value.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Go To Top