“I work for a charity. Can I be forced to contribute to it?”

Question: Hello, Alan. My question is rather unique. I am a senior social worker for a not-for-profit agency that is an official “501(c)(3)” charitable organization. We depend on government grants, foundation grants and charitable contributions for our budget.

We have a new Executive Director who is very dictatorial and pushy. More and more of the staff resent her ways. We are all hard workers, but she has a habit of being demanding when it isn’t really necessary, and “offensive” would be an understatement.

However, many of the organization’s Board Members support her. One of the things they really like about her is her emphasis on fundraising. Last year she started to organize fundraising dinners that cost $100 a ticket.

Now she is telling staff members that, in order to keep their jobs, “it would be smart” to buy two tickets for these dinners. Frankly, I don’t have the extra money. I feel she is demanding money from us, just to make herself look good.

Can this be legal? 

Reno, Nevada

Answer: Hello, Ellyse. I have noticed that more and more companies are having their employees come together to make charitable contributions that both (a) help the world, and (b) help build employee morale, and, I believe, (c) help the company’s public relations. It’s like free advertising, or more accurately, advertising paid for by the employees.

For many years employees were encouraged to give to such charities as The United Way or The Red Cross. Lately, I’ve noticed that employers are taking up specific causes, such as Hurricane Katrina refugees, Tsunami assistance, and Haitian earthquake victims, and issuing press releases about it. For example, Goldman Sachs recently announced its own charitable efforts, just in time to blunt criticism of its more “material” motives. This is what makes me believe that the underlying motive for so much of this is advertising and public relations.

I’ve done research, but I have not come upon any law anywhere that makes such “charity arm-twisting” illegal.

As to your agency’s Executive Director requiring that you contribute back to your employer part of your hard-earned monies, I do not know of any law that would make that illegal, either, BUT there is something about what your Executive Director is doing that “smells” like extortion, coercion, or a forced kickback. Technically, it may not be illegal, but it sure is close.

May I suggest the following “negotiation pointer”: remember, a few paragraphs above, I mentioned that employers care about their public relations? Well, what people care about is almost always the key to successfully “negotiating” with them.

Might I suggest you consider sending an anonymous letter to the Board of Directors sharing with them a “concern” about the agency, and the Executive Director’s insistence on what seems like kickbacks to make her look good. I suggest you share with each Board Member that this practice seems to you unethical, immoral and even extortionate, and it might even be illegal, and if it got out in public, it might turn off many contributors. It could be a nightmare that could ruin the agency’s reputation for many years. It may make the Executive Director look good in their eyes, but it might make the Board Members look bad in the public’s eyes.

I think this might make the Board Members reconsider the forced-contribution practice, and perhaps even reconsider their view of the Executive Director’s judgment in leading the agency.

Make sure any letter you send is truthful and respectful. If you are concerned that somehow it could be traced back to you, you might even ask a trusted friend – perhaps even a contributor to the agency – to send the letter in his or her own name, telling the Board Members this was shared confidentially, and he or she cannot reveal who told them. 

What the Executive Director is doing could hurt the agency, or the personal reputations of the Board Members. Sharing that thought with the agency’s Board of Directors will, I’m pretty sure, do the trick.

Hope that helps; really do. Thanks for writing in.  

                Best, Al Sklover

© 2010 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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