Donate – or else

Fundraising enthusiasm taken too far

As in previous economic downturns, donations to charity in the US have decreased in recent years. Now more than ever, you may be called upon as a CEO to solicit others for funds in a variety of ways. You have a chance to achieve great things by doing it well, or to leave a trail of bruised feelings among peers and employees. Or both.

Spearheading fundraising efforts can be good for your reputation. It’s a great way to network with valuable colleagues, and there is ample evidence that giving to others will make you feel better about yourself and actually become more of the person you wish to be. However, much depends on how you approach the role.

To give or to win?

You may view fundraising as a variation of sales and go at it in a similar fashion. Your own natural competitiveness and ambitiousness may kick in and make you want to do the best job ever at raising funds for the cause. That’s admirable, and charities really need dedicated and accomplished volunteers, provided you don’t overstep some lines. As fundraising consultant Amy Eisenstein says: “fundraising is about relationships, not arm twisting or begging. Invite others to join you in investing in your community.” Ideally, you will make the case for a charity, inspire others, ask for donations – and stop there.

Some don’t stop there. Employees complain about being coerced into contributing to a specific charity. Others feel pressured to donate to umbrella organizations, some of which have bloated overhead costs compared to the employee’s preferred, targeted charities, and some that support causes they find morally objectionable. Familiar lines heard by employees include “for the past twenty years, 100% of our department has given their fair share to Allied Fund’ or “I sure hope none of you will let Smith’s department beat us at contributing to the Confederated Fund”. The charity gets lost in the manager’s need to win.

The charity turn-offs

There are other well-meaning, misguided ways that CEOs can cause resentment among peers and employees in the wake of their fundraising efforts :

Putting people on the spot – no fellow CEO wants to elaborate on how bad a year he or she had just to justify not supporting your charity this year. In your zeal, you can make a potential donor feel he has failed the needy by not being successful in his own business this year. By contrast, your employees can’t claim they had a bad year, because you know their salaries. If you pressure them, they will have to explain why their expenses are up this year – and is that really your right to know?

Short-sightedness – unlike a professional fundraiser, if you are this year’s fund chairman or event chair, you may be willing to go for the short-term maximal contribution even at the expense of losing that person as a long-term donor. If so, ask yourself – are you doing this for the charity or at the expense of the charity?

You may try holding up a donor’s previous gift to her as if it’s a perennial standard of future indebtedness. It isn’t. There is a reason that some are drawn to supporting literacy versus homelessness versus adoption. People have a right to find new causes and adopt new favorite charities.

Whining about how tough the role of collecting has become – if you accepted the job, then act like you are honored to help, not that you are carrying around a burden. This includes being dismissive of small gifts (“I can’t be wasting my time for $50 donations”).

Don’t make it personal. You may view raising funds like any other challenge – you’re going to win!!! You are going to make and exceed your targets; you are going to break records. That may be your goal, but it’s probably not shared by your peers and employees. They may even prefer supporting the same charity through a different fund other than your golf event. If you keep reiterating your need to be the all-time leader, people will see through you and think that you view charity as just another chance for self-promotion.

Keep focused on the goal

You are trying to do good for the needy and share your idealism with others – we need people like you. But the cause you choose is your priority, not that of others. As Eisenstein says” “It’s not about you, it’s about the kids (environment, animals, people, or whatever cause you’re supporting)and you shouldn’t make it about you. To be truly successful, you want to create a culture of giving or philanthropy in your organization and encourage people to be charitable to whatever charity they choose. Many will naturally choose to give to yours as well, but don’t pressure them”.

You’ve already chosen to do good, and even better, to encourage others to do good. Try to keep it noble from start to finish.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and This article appeared in the February 2012 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.