Staff Giving to the Nonprofits for Which They Work

While it may seem appropriate, in fact critical, for the head of an organization to make a financial commitment, a fundamental question remains: What about the other employees?

by Adam Naftalin-Kelman

Anyone who has done any fundraising, or asked others to support a cause in which they believe, knows the “golden rule”: You gotta give before you ask. You can’t ask someone to support a cause unless you personally have already made a financial commitment; people want to know that you have some skin in the game. It makes complete sense, the basis of your request is that you believe in and support the organization yourself. Through your action, you inspire others to act.

All nonprofit organizations expect members of the board of directors to be financial supporters. Regardless of the type of board of directors, representative, community, constituent or funding based, the board members are required to make a financial commitment. While debates about giving details may rage on (i.e, should there be a minimum gift? what percentage of the budget should the board be expected to give? etc.) , the expectation that every board member makes a gift remains throughout. The community members who are most strongly committed to the organization give their time, passion and money to support its endeavors.

In most nonprofits this expectation extends to the Executive Director, CEO, President or professional head of the organization as well. Her or his financial commitment illustrates to community members and funders alike that she or he is invested in the mission and vision of the organization. After all, the head of an organization should be one of its strongest ambassadors, whose enthusiasm and passion helps foster the support of prospects and donors. It is akin to expecting the CEO of a public company to invest in the stock of the company. This inspires confidence in other investors. And on the flipside, the moment Wall Street sees a CEO begin to sell stock in large sums, the stock plummets. It is leading by example.

While it may seem appropriate, in fact critical, for the head of an organization to make a financial commitment, a fundamental question remains: What about the other employees?

Berkeley Hillel took this question seriously, and through the leadership of our Development Director, initiated a staff campaign this year, with the goal being 100% participation. In an open and transparent manner the staff talked about the merits of supporting Berkeley Hillel.

The honest and frank conversation that ensued was inspiring. The staff brought up a myriad of issues such as: “Isn’t it enough that we give so much of ourselves, work more hours than most of our peers for a fraction of the salary?” and “We ‘give back’ by simply working here” Others shared about times when they did not submit for reimbursement of business expenses because they knew that every dollar counts for Hillel’s budget and it was a small way to help. We surmised that the issues raised were not unique to Berkeley Hillel and agreed we could imagine they’d be similar at any nonprofit across the country.

The conversation forced me to reconsider if we should ask employees – who give so much of themselves to the Jewish world, who unfortunately are often underpaid, who rarely complain about the struggles the Jewish community hands them – to also make a financial gift toward Hillel. Isn’t what they do enough? Should we also be asking them to write a check to the organization as well? Is there inherent value in this type of giving? The resounding answer is yes.

Our Development Director met with each staff member to discuss supporting Berkeley Hillel. Talking to staff was different than any other “ask.” There was no need to explain our vision and mission or inspire them with stories of thousands of Jewish students’ lives we’ve changed; they live and breathe this holy work. This conversation demanded a different approach.

Our Development Director felt that the most meaningful conversations would be had by framing the discussion around each staff person’s individual Jewish journey as it related to their work at Hillel. She approached each staff member and framed the conversation through the lens of providing them an opportunity to continue their Jewish journey. Because, at Berkeley Hillel, and hopefully at all Jewish organizations, the act of working there should be part of their Jewish Journey. She hoped to connect this personal growth to the act of giving as being another important step on one’s Jewish Journey. Being a Jewish professional deepens one’s own experience as a Jew, as does giving tzedakah. Both can be seen acts of generosity which ultimately reward the giver.

But the question still remains; couldn’t each staff member merely make a commitment to give, either to Hillel or any other nonprofit? Why should it be important that it was Berkeley Hillel? To answer this question I turned to the first Jewish capital campaign in our history, the building of the Miskhan, in which God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel to bring their gold and silver to build the tabernacle. Parenthetically, it is in fact the most successful fundraising effort our Jewish community has ever seen, because what happens next has never happened again to our people. The Israelites were so moved they brought too much and Moses needed to tell them to stop giving. Everyone from the priests to the elders to the average Israelite was asked to contribute in the building of the Mishkan. This is the first example of a universal approach to giving. No matter what their job, title, and position they were asked to give to the building. It is no accident that the very next line in the text says that God will not dwell “in” the building they are about to build but rather “among” the people. When we give, when we all give, it creates an opportunity and opening for God to dwell among us.

The end of our story is that 100% of the Berkeley Hillel staff was asked, and made the choice to give. Each person made his or her gift in honor of someone who had inspired them to pursue Jewish communal work. And what did it mean to have the entire Berkeley Hillel staff support the organization? It meant that we are not only financially supporting the organization we care so deeply about, but are creating a workplace in which God dwells.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is the Executive Director of Berkeley Hillel. Before coming to Berkeley Hillel he served as the Director of Hillel at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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  1. Curmudgeon says

    How shocking and meaningful that when asked by their employer–the institution that pays their salary and whom they must please if they want advancement, raises, or even just to continue working the job in a tough economy–employees “freely” chose to give. This policy is a shakedown, and nothing less than an abuse of power.

    You can’t just call it optional and have it be actually perceived that way; if the Boss (or the development director, it’s the Company all the same) asks you for a generous contribution, you give, or you fear for your job.

    100% participation in this kind of thing makes the case *less* credible, not more. It’s like a dictator getting 100% of the vote in an “election”. If you’d said 90% gave, then I’d be more likely to believe people felt it really optional, because it would show that at least some felt they could give without facing retaliation, or subtle shaming, or official displeasure. With 100% participation, it is all too clear that employees felt there was only one right answer to the ask. For shame.

  2. says

    Thank you for sharing this story of the Berkeley Hillel. As a professional developments officer in New York City, I also see the value and importance in giving back to the organization for which I work. I am converting to Judaism this year and am finding the concept of tzedakah to be most interesting. I actually had to give a d’var Toarh this week in my “Exploring Judaism” class, and similarly commented on Moses-as-fundraiser. You can read my blog post about it here:

  3. says

    In my experience, staff is often resentful of am ask, since it implicitly denies the value of the contributions they already make, and explicitly imprints the idea that dollars are the only true measure of commitment. To say nothing of how much time gets wasted by these staff campaigns, and the uncomfortable issues of power inequality and relationships between labor and management that it raises. Among staffs with non- Jewish employees the issue is even more fraught.

  4. Katz says

    Interesting take on why employees should give, but this links the gift to their personal Jewish growth. What if all employees of a Jewish non-profit are not Jewish? Many day schools ask their faculty to contribute to the annual campaign to show solidarity with and support of the school, yet many are not of the Jewish faith. There is also an argument that giving is a value we teach our students and we all must model what we teach.

  5. Alan says

    Inspiring…but problematic. Not only for all the reasons listed by curmudgeon above.

    We have a small staff of non-Jews who understand our mission, are dedicated to our community and exemplary in their work. Each is an active member of his or her own church. Their involvement in their own faith community informs and elevates their work for us. Are we to expect them to support a synagogue in addition? Doesn’t that act seem…well…odd?

    Berkeley Hillel employees responded that they more hours for lower wages, don’t request reimbursement for all expenses or “contribute” in other ways. After they’ve “freely” made their “contributions,” is it possible that they will view these sacrifices or dedication differently? Might they submit every receipt for reimbursement? Might they decide to leave on-time today and finish that last task in the morning? Might they equate the in-kind contributions with the cash donation and choose to swap one for the other? And in this case, isn’t it possible that Berkeley Hillel – or anyone following this example – might find itself behind and not ahead?

    It is too early to predict the unanticipated consequences of this solicitation.

    I know non-Jews can support synagogues or Jewish institutions. And I appreciate that Jews might support non-Jewish religious institutions whose work we admire or value, but 100% support by non-Jews of a Jewish institution for which they work just seems…suspicious.

    If a rabbi, a board member, a committee chair or I were to sit down with any of them and request a contribution, they could not help but perceive that request to be coercive, however kindly it was phrased. And a one-on-one conversation, meaning a conversation without witnesses, between any manager and an employee requesting a contribution, creates possibilities for all kinds of risky repercussions.

    I actually find it helpful in many ways that our support staff stands outside our community. At the end of the day, they return home to their families and friends who are not the members they serve. They can talk about their work and its challenges, rewards and frustrations with less fear of saying something inappropriate. If and when they leave Temple’s employ, they will not face the awkward transition of professional/personal relationships to personal only relationships.

    And when budgets are tight, and pay freezes or cuts are imposed, do we continue to expect a contribution? And how does the employee perceive the “request” in those moments?

    While it sounds initially wonderful to be able to state that 100% of employees have contributed to the organization, upon reflection, it is as if the government proclaimed delightedly that most citizens freely paid their taxes.

    Not quite as persuasive.

  6. says

    At the beginning of the story I was quite inspired, but by the end of it, I was quite upset that they charity was not “satisfied” with the answers it received regarding additional giving to the charity. I left the sector to start my own business because the nonprofit sector is so eternally “ungrateful.” One can never do enough to help the nonprofit charity achieve and fulfill it’s mission.

    We forgo pay raises as budgets are tightened in order to serve the community, even as the cost of living goes up with no end in sight. We work late, don’t request over time, forgo vacations, sacrifice family events and activities for the sake of the mission, and all the charity can do is think of how it’s so wonderful that everyone gives to the charity in addition to being underemployed! How sad. I have worked in the corporate and nonprofit sectors………and I’d prefer corporate America any day. Why you ask…..

    1. You are appraised and paid based on your efforts. You are valued and compensated “accordingly” based on your contributions to the company, unlike nonprofits.
    2. You are able to see the fruits (profits) of your labor. When I inspected cloth for a major foreign automaker, I was able to see the cloth in the cars, view the sales, see revenues generated, and feel good that my eyes were used to make a superior product. With charity, I saw the same people coming in, needing help, and never really did anything to improve their lives. I was a band aid.

    3. Leadership valued and respected me in corporate America. I was able to be employee of the month or quarter for my contributions. I had lunch with the owners of the company at their national headquarters. My name was on a plaque where I was recognized to anyone coming to the headquarters for my individual contributions to company to make it successful. As demonstrated in the article, no matter the sacrifices made to the nonprofit mission and charity, it’s NEVER enough. You’re never valued, your are never appreciated, and they can always find a way for you to do more. We never did enough. The consumers greatly appreciated my efforts, but the leadership’s condescending attitude of my value and worth disgusted me.

    I left and I have never looked back. Although the services I provide are for nonprofit management professionals, I always remember how I felt working in both worlds. I love charity, but charity must learn to care and take care of those working to provide charity, or they will begin to resent it in their hearts and in their souls. I am not Jewish, but I support many causes including Jewish causes.

  7. David says

    This is reprehensible! Forget for a moment all of the reasons stated above about employees of non-profits already giving that extra “for the cause” (working extra long hours, not seeking expense reimbursement, etc.) That’s irrelevant. It’s wrong and unethical to do what Berkeley Hillel did.

    Whether working for a charity or for a private enterprise, it’s unfair (and uncomfortable) to place this expectation on an employee. Most employees feel they have no choice when asked by management to do such a thing. While they may smile and nod and contribute, do you know what they’re saying to one another when you’re not in the room? It goes something like this: “I am so angry. I [can’t afford, don’t want , resent being asked] to do this. They act like I actually had a choice and did this willingly.”

    Nonetheless, they may, in fact, have other charities to which they already contribute. And how right is it for an employer to direct them to which charities they contribute (and imposing this on an employee is exactly that)? You never know their financial situation and what other obligations they may have. That $18 that seems so insignificant to you can be the difference between paying their electric bill and falling behind. Do you really think they’d share any information on financial hardship with an employer??!! You have no idea what position that contribution may put them in.

    No matter how you slice it, people have the right to decide to which charities/causes they will contribute, or if they will not contribute at all. No one, especially an employer, has any right telling others how to spend their money.

    I worked in private enterprise for 24 years. In many of those companies, an annual giving campaign was conducted, usually for the United Fund. Well, my money already goes to causes not represented by the United Fund, yet often I was made to feel like a pariah for not contributing. The best situation I ever saw was at my last employer, IBM. As an executive, I was expected to secure 100% participation. But participation was defined as having all employees respond (anonymously) to the request rather than counting the number of employees who chose to contribute to the campaign. That’s what I call a responsible approach.

  8. Adam says

    I believe all the detractors who’ve expressed criticism of Berkeley Hillel’s approach have gotten it wrong.

    The Director and Development Director engaged the staff in an open discussion about the merits of asking staff to give and then had one on one discussions about it. If you have created a truly inclusive workplace (and I know Berkeley Hillel and believe they have achieved this) that honors the various contributions staff members make as individuals and a collective, you can engage in the process described without people feeling coerced.

    Rather than criticizing the process described, folks posting comments would do well to post questions to better understand how the process worked and how Berkeley Hillel staff felt about it beginning to end. I have a feeling that if we asked and were able to read their comments, we would learn that the process was meaningful and empowering.