How Federal Workers Lead the Nation in Charitable Giving

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You know the routine: Someone at work volunteers to head up a fundraising drive, recruits people in every department to help, has information meetings -- pep rallies, really -- and tries to engage everyone in giving. In some office settings there is a lot of competition, and in others there is serious pressure to participate. For some people, it's a convenient way to give to someone trustworthy, and for others it's a time to lower the chair in their cube and avoid the break room.

There are many ways to make charitable gifts at your workplace, such as participating in a sport to raise money for a nonprofit, having a donation matched by your company, or simply collecting donations to benefit victims of a local disaster. But "workplace giving" refers to a giving program that usually happens once per year, includes a payroll-deduction option, and allows you to make some choices of which nonprofits your gifts benefit. These are often managed by an outside organization.

The oldest and perhaps best-known nonprofit that runs a robust workplace giving program is the United Way. Others include America's Charities, Community Health Charities, and EarthShare. There are also a number of online giving tools that businesses use to manage these programs, including Benevity, VolunteerMatch, and Truist. If your employer doesn't have a workplace giving program, you might do some research to see whether the company is a good fit for one.

The largest workplace giving program -- and in fact the largest fundraising drive in the world -- is the U.S. Combined Federal Campaign, or CFC. It's going on now, as it does every fall. Even if you are not near Washington, D.C., you might see information about it in your community, because it happens wherever federal civilian, postal, and military personnel are employed -- that is, everywhere. About 800,000 federal employees -- roughly a quarter of the federal workforce that's invited -- contribute close to $209 million per year through the CFC.

U.S. military service members at a CFC celebration. Source: Flickr user USAG- Humphreys.

This year, about 24,000 nonprofit organizations will be on the list of options, which is delivered in a 100-page book or online database. The charitable options in the CFC program have recently expanded, so there are now opportunities for giving to nonprofits that are international, national, regional, and local to your workplace.

Whether you are a federal worker or not, if you are participating in workplace giving, the advantages for you as a donor are that:

  • You can choose from the list of nonprofits for where your money goes.
  • You can give a one-time gift or set up a payroll deduction.
  • In most programs you can remain completely anonymous, which means the nonprofit cannot contact you directly.
  • All of the nonprofits have met a set of requirements and been screened to get onto the list.
  • This yearly cycle makes charitable giving convenient, allowing you to focus on choosing a nonprofit and maximizing your contribution.

Giving through a workplace program also has some distinct benefits for the nonprofits involved, which might be motivating to you as their supporter:

  • Payroll deductions provide a steady and reliable stream of income. This allows the nonprofit to make better financial projections and provides more consistent resources to use toward their mission.
  • It's an efficient and inexpensive way to gain donations.
  • Being on a workplace giving list, particularly the CFC list, is a form of public endorsement.

However, as a donor, workplace giving might not fit your needs. For instance:

  • It might not allow a sufficiently direct connection to the nonprofits you care about.
  • You might want to give to a nonprofit that is not on the list.
  • You might want to make donations in forms that workplace giving programs do not support, such as gifts of appreciated stock.
  • These programs also limit your ability to give on the spur of the moment, as in the case of an emergency, such as the current Ebola outbreak.
  • Workplace giving might not be a good vehicle for a large gift, which is more skillfully given after there is some communication with the nonprofit to negotiate the form, purpose, and timing of the contribution.
  • In workplace giving programs, donors have the option of being completely anonymous. In CFC, up to 60% of participants choose that option. This is a distinct drawback for the nonprofits, which want to thank and engage their donors. If you choose this option, you will not receive direct acknowledgement and thanks from the organization; you won't receive reports on where your donation went or what it made possible; and you won't get invitations to events or opportunities to volunteer for the organization, which means you are cut off from directly seeing your donations make a difference.

As you can see, the list of advantages and disadvantages -- to both you and the nonprofit -- is lengthy. You will have to determine whether workplace giving is a fit for some or all of your charitable giving. The decision should account for these pluses and minuses and be based on a clear purpose, strategy, and plan for philanthropy. Workplace giving, like the CFC program, is a convenient tool that encourages giving, particularly for new or modest givers. Make your own decisions, because if you work for the U.S. government or a corporation, sooner or later you will be asked to attend one of those pep rallies.

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