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

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.

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.

Article Continues Below

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.) 


12 Comments on “The Annual United Way Campaign: So Why Again is HR Stuck With This?

  1. You would bring Maslow into this eh?

    One perspective – at a company I worked at in 1986 we had the marketing department responsible for the United Way and took volunteers. It wasn't an HR thing – it was the VP of Marketing's gig. I volunteered – eager to kiss some VP butt…

    My approach was pretty much along the lines you outlined… we communicated that United Way did great stuff but it was an individual thing and each person had to decide what was right for themselves. Past programs gave awards based on department contribution – we changed that and eliminated them. The result – highest level of giving than ever. We told stories and talked about the work United Way did but we never pushed the giving – simply saying – you decide. Eliminating the rewards for giving also elevated the value of giving so that those that gave – gave from the heart not because the department manager wanted to be sure they were at the top of the giving list.

    Worked fine and everyone was happy.

    I agree – it's a volunteer gig and it should be based on each individual's desire to give. Hey – worked for me and you know one data point makes for a great case history… 🙂

  2. I am lucky enough to head up our UW Campaign this year…..aside from all of the great reasons you list above, can we just talk about the fact that instead of handling employee issues, making crucial hiring/firing decisions and auditing the integrity of our data, I AM NOW RUNNING AROUND TO BUY ORANGE JUICE FOR A BISCUIT SALE. Weekly. It's ridiculous….between the ice cream socials, bake sales, chili cook-offs and what not, I have no time for my actual HR job. And although I support United Way myself, I find it extremely disconcerting when people from other departments constantly tell me what we should be doing, or what kind of ice cream we should of ordered, or what kind of danish THEY like for the breakfast….I just want to scream that this is a FUNDRAISER, and not a freaking drive thru. It kind of misses the point of the whole thing, you know?

  3. Laurie, you forgot organizing the blood drive too. And, agree with Paul, when it works nobody is giving because they get a plaque.

  4. Laurie,
    At a time when money is so tight for everyone, should employees be pressured in any way to give to a charity? Who is to say an employee isn't already using a limited budget to give to other charities? Most employees I know dislike these campaigns as much as HR dislikes being in charge of them. Maybe it's time for a discussion about finding a better way to handle this issue so that charitable giving is a choice, not a source of stress.

  5. Why is it a “disgrace” to ask HR but it's not a “disgrace” to ask someone from another division? I do NOT get why HR is “above” the charity fund-raising. This applies to ANYONE who is in charge of the fund-raising for a company. I have done it for YEARS and YEARS. No one else wants it. It's NOT a “disgrace.” Yes, it is very time-consuming. But even in these bad times, THOSE OF US WITH JOBS should be looking out for those less fortunate.

  6. I have been strong-armed to give to United Way through various employers for years. Although I don't like the technique of raising money for charity this way, I understand and appreciate the reasons why.

    Where I went south with United Way was two-fold:

    * When I moved from Hawaii back to the Mainland about two week after making a pledge to Aloha United Way, I was harassed for two years for the money even though I instead gave to United Way through my new Mainland employer.

    * When United Way of Orange County stopped allowing me to designate where I wanted my donations to go. When they said essentially, “we know best, and you have no say in this,” I stopped giving to my local United Way chapter and instead gave to the LA County chapter. They still allowed me to designate my donation for the Salvation Army, so my money went there.

    But this raises a question — why all the game playing on the part of these local United Way chapters? It has made me want to avoid the process altogether and just give on my own to the charity of my choice, free from workplace pressure and coercion.

  7. Each of us who are well-employed have obligations. First, we should have a heart full of gratitude for having a job and for not living a life of grinding poverty. Second, we should take a hard look around at the many who are much less fortunate. Third, do SOMETHING. The United Way gives you and other employees a way to participate in making a lot of lives much better in your own community. It does this by adding your contribution to those of others and applying it to the most pressing needs in your area. I know. I serve on the board of my local United Way.

    1. Oh bully for you. Other charities do just as much good with less overhead.

      The way some people talk, you’d think the United Way was the only charity on the planet. This is VERY far from being true.

      NO ONE should be coerced into contributing to a particular charity. The United Way is fine for people who don’t know of another charity they’d rather give to. But, if you already have a list of preferred charities, then you should be totally free to donate to THOSE charities — and cut out the middleman. Why on earth does it ALWAYS have to go through United Way?

      Pressure and coercion should play no part in charitable giving. As St. Paul wrote, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Emphasis on “cheerful.”

      Many, many empoyees resent the pressure and the strong-arm tactics. Trust me.

    2. I have seen the United Way of Northern Shenandoah Valley offer a couple who had just had their second child, so the Mom couldn’t return to work yet and the Father was laid off from his construction job, $10 on their electric bill that was about to be cut off in the month of December. They also said that this was the only help they could give them for a six month period. What the hell! I ended up taking care of their electric bill and helping this family that no one at the united way gave a crap about, until they got back on their feet. I really couldn’t afford it, but I utilized a credit card because I was not about to let this young family go with out electricity, food, etc., especially during the Holiday period. And yes, when they got back on their feet; they paid back everything because they are good people and I saw how having to ask for help bothered them. This was also a time that I gave to the UW out of my paycheck because we were given the spiel about all of the things the UW did for families. After I found out first hand what the UW actually did; I stopped giving to them and now I give to St. Jude, local crisis pregnancy center, local humane society, and the church.

  8. If the funds are taken directly out of employees’ paychecks (which makes it easier and more plausible for high donations to worthwhile causes), wouldn’t it make sense to have HR involved? Of course it does.

    I have been involved in my company’s United Way campaign for years. When the UW rep comes to our office, they basically say, “If you feel that you and your family are in a position to give monetarily to local charity, then great, our community really needs the help, but if you feel you can’t even give a dollar a paycheck, that’s understandable, too, especially in these tough times. Maybe instead consider giving some time to our local Volunteer Center.” Definately no pressure there, and if there is, I’m missing it. Also, I’ve given my donation to a national charity in Wisconsin for a few years, even though I live in the SouthWest and go through my local United Way to give the gift (so, not sure about some of the comments posted about not being able to give to “x” charity. It IS possible that a charity did not obtain their proper 501(C)(3) status on time, which would make donating to them outside the scope of what United Way does. Also, I think United Ways need proof that the donation is going to a 501(C)(3), as is outlined in the congressionally authored Patriot Act law, which focuses a lot on making sure funds aren’t going to terrorists).

  9. I work as a package handler for UPS. Currently making $12.00/hour- something seems odd about managers, and district supervisors pushing six figure salaries heavily pressuring employees for donations whom they know are just scraping by. I was offered ice cream cake… for $2.00 weekly donations. When I refused I was given a “what are you kidding?” look. “you can’t live without $2.00/week?”. I was then told I had to sign a form saying “I wish not to donate at this time”.

  10. My wife and I give to other charities throughout the year. We stopped giving to United Way when we found they support Planned Parenthood. Charity and finances should be private period. Companies have no business pushing them. We actually have to opt out, so they know who isn’t giving so they can target them individually.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *