“If you believe in our mission, you’ll make a gift that is meaningful to you.”
This is something many nonprofit employees have heard at some point from a supervisor. But is it appropriate to ask, even require, employees to give back to their organization? There are some who strongly believe that we must give where we ask others to give, and others who feel that as nonprofit employees who already typically work long hours for little pay, it’s asking too much.
What if we were to turn the typical internal giving model on its head? As Lisa Sargent asked Twitter recently in advance of Ephraim Gopin’s research on this topic, “What if, instead of requiring staff and board to give, they were asked simply to find any cause they love, and support it?”
The Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA developed a similar strategy for the Staff Division of our Annual Support Campaign, which provides scholarship support to families in need of our critical programs. Our goal is simply to do as much good as possible every day. We encourage giving to the Y’s programs but also try to foster a culture where our staff and volunteers are making the world a better place, period.
However, for years our staff campaigns were an afterthought. Full-time staff were all but required to give to the Y’s unrestricted Annual Fund and were handed a pledge form, sent a few reminder emails and thanked with a simple acknowledgment letter. Part-time staff were asked in a blanket appeal, typically with phrasing like “It’s time to get your commitments in for the 2015 Annual Support Campaign!” It worked just fine, but it was far from inspiring. Since 2014 however, our staff have nearly doubled their giving, now committing over $20,000 consistently to the Annual Support Campaign.
So how did we get here? First, let me acknowledge that it’s not perfect. We have had some big misses along the way, from putting too little to too much pressure on staff to give. Still today, there’s a lot of potential to grow. But we saw some success with several incremental changes that didn’t take much additional time.
1. We started treating our staff donors like actual donors.
We made personal solicitations. We encouraged them to contribute to programs they care about rather than just the unrestricted Annual Fund. Leadership thanked them with handwritten notes and personalized videos. Anything we did to engage and steward external donors, we did internally as well.
2. We encouraged staff to be philanthropic, inside and outside the Y.
We had been so focused on raising money for our cause that we weren’t encouraging our staff to make a positive impact in our community at-large. Refocusing on the importance of hiring capable people with servant hearts, we started to encourage staff at all levels to volunteer with other nonprofits and service organizations. Leadership staff were expected to join and regularly volunteer for a cause outside the Y like Meals on Wheels, Rotary, Kiwanis, or the Special Olympics. We educated part-time staff about our wider impact through programming outside the Annual Fund. We began including more questions about community service and volunteer experience in the interview process. From interviews to onboarding, we intentionally discussed our Annual Support Campaign and the impact of the work we do.
3. We took the pressure off.
Supervisors would no longer solicit their own employees for gifts. A peer-to-peer system was set up so nobody feels as though their gift will impact their perceived performance at work.
In making these small changes, we realized that many staff simply hadn’t considered how giving back is a unique opportunity to change lives. Giving feels good, and our staff deserve the same opportunity to change a life as our other donors do. It’s our job to foster that culture.
Admittedly, when we decided to encourage giving and volunteering at a high level in the community with no “requirement” to give to the Y, there was some fear that our campaign would suffer. In fact, we found the opposite to be true. In 2014 we raised $12,317 from staff, with an average annual gift size of $106. In 2019, staff generously committed $23,454 and the average annual gift size has risen to $167. By taking some of the pressure off and focusing on stewardship, we’ve seen that staff choose to give to the Y when given the opportunity.
So, what about those staff who still choose not to support the Y?
That’s okay… really. We’re more interested in learning why they prefer not to give back. Is it an issue they have with their job or a program? Financial restrictions? Do they understand what their gift could do? When a staff member does not give to the Y’s Annual Support Campaign, I typically reach out to make sure they had the chance to give and ask if I can drop by to learn about how we’re missing the mark. Here, it’s important not to pressure them into giving, but rather open up the dialogue about what we can do better. Maybe the Y is doing something that aligns with their interests that they don’t know about yet. If not, we need to respect that. At the end of the day, the vast majority of our staff are still making a difference in the community through their work in and outside the Y, which is our priority.
The bottom line is; we believe in our staff’s commitment to our mission.
It is our job, as a top employer of teens and young adults, to invest in our staff the way we invest in the families in our programs. We’re trying to do our part to build the next generation of philanthropic leaders. Whether they determine that the Y is their calling or not, we hope to inspire staff at all levels to support those less fortunate in their community. Of course we strive to be one of the organizations they support, but if we aren’t on their list, might that speak to how we could change to better serve the changing needs of our community?
So we’ve cultivated a strong employee giving campaign. What’s next?
There’s always room for improvement. As new staff are hired, we must remain consistent in our communication and goal setting. We need to focus on hiring the right people who aren’t just a “cultural fit,” but might challenge us all to be better people.
Meanwhile, we’re trying to determine the best way to understand the impact our staff are making in the community at-large. How much are they giving and volunteering, to what types of causes, and why? We haven’t found an accurate, ethical way to capture that information, but we are looking at the opportunity to put together a voluntary, anonymous survey to staff as a first step. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to illustrate how our staff are transforming lives inside and outside our own organizations?
We know the majority of people feel it’s important to work for an employer whose mission and values align with theirs. Is there also a correlation between staff giving and staff retention? I have a hunch that employees who regularly give to their own organizations are more committed to the mission and therefore will remain on staff longer, perhaps, than those who do not give regularly or do not give at all. We hope to closely study this topic at our YMCA in the coming years.
Guest Author: Sarah McLellan
Sarah McLellan is the Director of Development and Community Engagement for the six-branch Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA in Rowan and Cabarrus Counties, North Carolina. She started working in development as a student caller at the University of Connecticut and instantly developed a passion for aligning donors with the causes they care about most.
Sarah worked as an Assistant Director of Development at the University of Connecticut Foundation from 2013-2016, with a focus on Annual Giving, Health Sciences, and the School of Business. Today, Sarah is pursuing her MBA in Marketing and Management at Northeastern University. She is working to strengthen the development program at the Rowan-Cabarrus YMCA, focusing primarily on internal giving and major gift prospect cultivation.