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Has anyone out there seen a really thoughtful and effective way to make major increases in employee giving?

In the nonprofit world, it’s a real issue. Grant applications often want to know the percentage of employees who contribute to the institution; they see it as an endorsement. A lowish giving rate suggests to some that employee buy-in isn’t strong.

That’s a misreading, in many ways, but it’s pervasive all the same. Employees give to different causes for different reasons, and some employees have obligations at home that put a low cap on what they can choose to give. I’ve also heard a fair number over the years -- both here and elsewhere -- say that they give by choosing to work for a lower salary than they could get elsewhere.

I’ve been on various sides of this question over the years. As a grad student, I was too broke to give much to anything. DeVry was a for-profit, so the question was moot. When I moved into the community college world, I confronted the question in a real way for the first time.

In leadership roles, giving is very much an expectation. That’s fair; the salaries are on the high end by internal standards, and leaders are supposed to lead by example. And I couldn’t really ask for donations with a straight face if I didn’t put my money where my mouth is. It’s simply understood as coming with the gig. (I always designate my donations as “unrestricted,” rather than picking a particular program or beneficiary, and I encourage others to do the same. Unrestricted dollars are the hardest to get and can do the most good.)

In other roles, though, the situation is different. Health insurance rates have gone up faster than raises for a while, and the cap on the SALT tax deduction combined with the increase in the standard deduction has eliminated the effective tax deductibility of contributions for many employees. And one way that people who are upset at perceived slights can strike back is to deny requests for giving.

The striking-back motive is unfortunate, especially because most of what gets raised is devoted to scholarships (and donors have the option of earmarking their gifts that way). I understand the impulse to stick it to the man, but when the man is a student trying to make it through college on part-time jobs, the impulse seems misplaced. If an employee doesn’t like me, so be it. But we should all like students, or we’re in the wrong line of work.

Still, the world in which we live is the world in which we live. High levels of employee giving make it easier to raise money externally, in a sort of multiplier effect. That’s true even when many of the internal contributions are small. Someone who gives $5 counts as giving. When you’re looking specifically at participation rates, $5 works.

So here’s the root of the question. Given that a bunch of small-dollar donations can clear the way for much larger gifts, by assuring larger donors that we’re all on board, how do we get folks who historically haven’t given (or at least, not for a while) to step up? Even if the actual dollars they contribute are modest, simply having the participation can make a significant difference.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or worked at) places that did an uncommonly good job of enlisting employee support? If so, how did they do it? I’d hate for us to miss out on donations that could help hundreds of students because we approached the question in an unhelpful way.

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