The Annual United Way Campaign: So Why Again is HR Stuck With This?

From the HR blog at TLNT.
From the HR blog at TLNT. Photo illustration by

Editor’s Note: This week, TLNT is counting down the most popular posts of 2010. This is No. 24 in our Top 25. We’ll continue to do this through New Year’s Eve. Our regular content will return on Monday January 3, 2011.

By Laurie Ruettimann

The fourth quarter is an exhausting time of year for most Human Resources professionals. Companies finalize their budgets. Open enrollment kicks into high gear. Employees work on year-end assessments and write new goals. Managers conduct crucial conversations with underperforming employees.

On top of this critical work, Human Resources departments are tasked with managing the annual United Way fund raising campaign.

What’s United Way?

United Way of America is a non-profit organization that collects money for local charities, they coordinate relief services, and they offer guidance and counseling to those in need. There are nearly 1,300 local branches throughout the country, and in many communities, the United Way is the single point of contact for local residents who need assistance and support.

United Way relies upon corporate leaders to collect donations from their employees. Successful CEOs who raise millions of dollars are lauded by an organization called The National Corporate Leadership Program.

It’s a status thing. It’s always a status thing. If you know anything about human nature, you know that it looks good to get a plaque from your buddies. When your fellow CEOs recognize you as an exemplary leader because your employees donated cash to The United Way, you feel great.

And according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that’s what life is all about.

What does HR have to do with any of this?

Unfortunately, HR is the heavy when it comes to collecting United Way donations from employees.

In the best of times, beleaguered Human Resources departments are compelled by executive leaders to stop what they are doing and create a series of employee events — such as company picnics and pep rallies — to drum up employee donations. It’s as if HR has nothing better to do than cook some hot dogs and talk about how important it is to donate to The United Way.

In the worst of times, HR departments are asked to get aggressive and strongly encourage employees to donate. This pressure can be both subtle and not so subtle — from hyper-competitive contests to publishing the fundraising numbers based on departments. I have seen HR professionals walk the cubicle farm and physically collect United Way donation forms from employees.

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In my experience, I’ve had employees tell me that the pressure to donate disturbs them. Although they might not agree with The United Way’s fundraising tactics, or they may disapprove of the way United Way distributes the funds within their community, the final decision to donate was made because they wanted to go with the flow and make their bosses happy.

I understand this. Employees bow to pressure and donate to United Way in an attempt to secure their jobs and secure their status within the organization. Maslow wins again.

It’s bad to mix human resources and charity

It’s tough to argue that The United Way doesn’t meet important goals in certain communities; however, I believe in the free market when it comes to charitable donations.

I ask:

  • If the United Way is so great, why don’t employees voluntarily donate?
  • Why isn’t HR walking the hall for other charities?
  • And why do we need HR to be the bad guys in order to make these campaigns successful?

Human Resources operates best when it sticks to core and critical HR deliverables: hiring new employees, paying them, and training the workforce on policies and procedures. When it makes sense, and where expertise is available, your HR department can wade into the waters of employment branding, strategic workforce planning, and talent development.

In our economic climate, with layoffs and reduced health insurance and pension benefits for employees, planning a kick-off party for The United Way fundraising season should be the last thing on HR’s mind.

And it’s a disgrace to ask HR to get involved in the first place.


Laurie Ruettimann (LFR) is a former Human Resources leader turned influential speaker, writer and strategist. She owns a human resources consultancy that offers a wide array of HR services to human resources leaders and executives. Check out her LinkedIn profile here. You may know Ruettimann as the creator of The Cynical Girl and Punk Rock HR (retired), which Forbes named as a top 100 website for women. You may have also read her book, I AM HR: 5 Strategic Ways to Break Stereotypes and Reclaim HR. (RepCap Press, 2014.) 


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