Once a year, for about two weeks, I dread going into work. It started at my first job out of college.
“Next week the United Way drive kicks off!” my boss chirped at me, as if I should be excited at the prospect.
Bake sales, daily emails, silent auctions and pointed comments, “I see we’re not at a one hundred percent participation rate, yet!” have been a staple of every corporate workplace since.
And I hate them.
At my first job, the team leader -- a friendly guy named Brian -- was given a list of everyone who hadn’t donated yet. Towards the end of the two weeks his comments grew more and more desperate.
“Dina, you can only donate once, even five dollars counts.”
It made me incredibly uncomfortable that he had been informed that I hadn’t donated. Plus, I was a broke kid just out of college, paying off student loans, living in a studio apartment in Boston with a roommate and making twenty-eight thousand dollars a year. Extra money? Yeah, right.
I finally snapped on the last day of the drive and told him, “I tithe ten percent of my income of the church; I don’t have anything else left to give.” Back then it was the truth, as I was still adhering to my religious upbringing, but this was not something I’d felt like telling him. At least he backed off.
My experiences since that first job haven’t been an improvement. I have to assume that some people enjoy these charity drives, as there are people willing to volunteer for them. They organize bake sales or build mini golf courses, proudly wear the corporate t-shirt, and post excited comments about the fundraiser on social media. I’m not one of them.
The argument for these fundraisers is often that they’re raising money for a worthy cause and that donations are tax deductible. Which is partially true. Donations from your paycheck are tax deductible.
But let’s talk about all the other ways that a company convinces people to donate their time, money, and resources for a tax benefit that the company receives.
One would be the ubiquitous bake sales. Women (it’s always been women where I’ve worked) spend their free time for three to four days baking cupcakes, cookies, and gluten free bread. They buy all the ingredients themselves, but receive no tax deductible receipt in return.
When I buy the cupcakes I don’t get a receipt with them, even though the proceeds are going to a charity. Time, money, and resources, none of which came from the corporation, but no receipt.
Another idea that’s cropped up more recently are “Jeans for United Way” stickers. At one employer the normally free ‘perk’ of wearing jeans on Fridays was only available if you purchased a $2 sticker and wore it visibly. When you estimate that at least five thousand people bought those stickers every Friday, and there are 52 Fridays in most years, that’s a whopping $520,000 that my employer collected from employees who simply didn’t want to have to wear business professional one day a week. That’s a lot of money.
Which all begs the question – who’s getting the tax deduction?
A lot of the time, it's your employer. It’s hard to get at the numbers because corporations file their charitable deductions on their income tax return, Form 1120. The form doesn’t require any breakout of the deductions, i.e., the amount that came from the company’s own charitable fund and the amount that came from $2 jeans for United Way stickers. It’s one lump sum on a single line, so I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty that an employer is taking that deduction.
But someone is, and since it’s not the employees, it’s a reasonable guess that the employer is claiming it. Convincing employees to donate their time and resources at bake sales and silent auctions, or to donate money to wear jeans, and then taking the tax deduction for yourself? Brilliant.
There are additional problems that I see with workplace charity drives. Money is always a touchy subject in the workplace, from companies who will fire you for discussing salary with your co-workers, to having to keep quiet about your bonus when your teammate complains about there being no bonuses that year. But sometimes company fundraising events seem designed to single out who’s making more money.
Case in point – during the annual fundraising drive, myself and another co-worker received an invitation to an event at a bowling alley downtown. We were the only members in our twenty-person team to get the invitation, which we didn’t know until we arrived and saw that no one else from our team was there. After serving us a paltry appetizer spread, the company sat us down for a video about the United Way and then promptly launched a fundraising auction. An auction they hadn’t told us they were going to have, so neither of us had brought our checkbooks. And the items; sports tickets, a week of free parking, were big-ticket items.
Neither my co-worker nor I felt comfortable spending that kind of money, even on tickets we might have wanted, without checking with our respective partners. Which we couldn’t do because we were stuck in a bowling alley with no cell service. The poorly planned and executed fundraiser was a disaster, evidenced by the sour looks on the faces of senior management when we all filed out afterwards.
But there were worse consequences when we got back to the office.
Our team members had figured out why we’d been invited and not them. Only employees above a certain grade, and thus in a higher salary bracket, had been invited. So now everyone in our team knew that we had to be making at least a certain amount of money. More than they made.
My co-worker, with whom I’d already been having interpersonal difficulties , now knew that even though we had the same title I made more money than her. The next few weeks were hell.
What I make, and how I spend my money, is no one’s business. And yet when businesses host charity drives, they are making how I spend my money their business. Perhaps tied into the difficulty many women have in saying ‘no’ without giving a reason -- or an excuse -- in that first job, I had felt pressured to share a personal detail about my finances (my tithing) with a co-worker.
Even now, as a much older and experienced professional, when a polite ‘no, thank you’ or smile and shake of the head is met with a pursed mouth or a passive aggressive dig about my new purse, I have to fight the urge to explain myself or give a reason.
It’s exhausting to deal with the daily requests for money, particularly when you’re a captive audience. It’s not like I can skip two weeks of work, and I can’t walk out of my cube when the office bake sale lady brings around her goodies. I’m tired of claiming to be on a diet when, really? I just don’t want a cupcake.
Throw in the social pressures upon most women to make nice, tie it up with a bow of social constructs about caregiving and baking that still leave women carrying most of the work for these events, and you’ve got one package I wish I could return.
Now, I probably sound like a penny-pinching scrooge. And I’ll admit to being cynical. But I do give to charities, several of them, in fact. I don’t know what it is – Murphy’s Law? – but these workplace drives always happen when I’m broke. Paying off a ten thousand dollar divorce bill, trying to save for Christmas presents, and an unexpected furnace repair? That’ll be the month of the charity drive. And I don't like having to explain all that as an excuse, when it's no one's business but my own.
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