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.