United Extortion

It's United Way time again at my office. Once again, it's time to harass the employees into giving up money to a non-profit organization the company selects. After all, when you bully people into contributing money, that's exemplifying the spirit of charity, isn't it? By now, you've probably figured out I have a problem with the United Way campaign.

First off, I don't think United Way is all that wonderful an organization. I realize they supposedly cleaned up their act after the somewhat notorious issues the national organization went through in the late 80s and early 90s. I don't think it's true. The president gets paid $429,555 a year. That's 20% of the organization's administrative expenses right there, going to one guy. Yeah, that reform worked out real well, I can tell. United Way also does a lot of bait and switch on people. You can designate an organization to receive your contribution, right? Well, actually, United Way decides how much money the organization will get from them. If your designated contribution would exceed that amount, the organization doesn't get it. So really, your money can go to anyone United Way chooses. If they show up at your office, look at the list and make sure nothing objectionable to you is on there, because your money can go to any charity on the list. Similarly, United Way quit giving to the Boy Scouts a few years back. However, the United Way forms here still showed the Boy Scouts as a designation option. Nice, huh? I think United Way has gone the way of all entrenched bureaucracies and become arrogant and somewhat divorced from the actual mission.

I have to give them credit for one act of brilliance. The people at United Way conned corporate America into doing the fundraising for them. That was an inspired act of genius. United Way has fundraising expenses any non-profit would envy, because they push the hard work onto the suckers that want to donate. All United Way does is send out mail. However, it leads to people wandering around when they should be working and harassing me about giving money to an organization I don't care about. Corporate America gets a tax write-off, United Way gets money, and the employees get to feel good about themselves and/or harassed. A win all the way around, right?

I have worked for two major (Fortune 500) companies that participated in this shit. I had to put with 10 years of begging from the Combined Federal Campaign, (the government's version of United Way), and Army Emergency Relief. I am really tired of the organizations I work for hitting me up for money so they can have good PR. If I want to give money to charity, I can find charities I think are worthwhile all by myself. (Charity Navigator is a great website to help you in your quest for a worthwhile organization, by the way.) I also resent the strong arm tactics used. My current company will have a giant group hug at the end of this nonsense. Those of us that did not give will sit in a different section than the cheerful donators. Nope, no peer pressure there.

I don't want to give the impression that I am against charity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Given that I feel the government should not be in the charity business, private charities are my preferred service provider. However, I don't think coerced charity is any kind of a moral good. If you decide that Bob is hungry and needs a sandwich, go buy him a sandwich. Don't come to me and coerce me into giving you money so you can buy him a sandwich. Once you start trying to dictate people's choices to them, you have lost the moral argument for charity. (Anybody that thinks there no coercion involved in United Way has obviously never told the happy trolls that come around that you're not donating. You will receive follow-on visits.) Charity has to be voluntary to mean anything on a moral level.

I can also give a practical argument for not donating through your workplace, and I don't even know where you work. The people wandering around begging for money are not engaged in productive activity. This causes the firm's costs to rise. If the firm wants to maintain the same level of income, it will raise the price of product. So what happens? The customer pays more! Remember where I work? That's right, the oil industry. So United Way is directly, albeit in a very small way, responsible for higher gas prices.* If you can't raise the price of the product, that means profits fall and people might get laid off. So higher prices or layoff threats. That's what workplace charity brings. Niiice...

Fuck United Way. I'll send a check to Reading Is Fundamental or a worthwhile local charity first.

*Incidentally, this is the same argument implied when people say "Corporations don't pay taxes, individuals do." You can substitute regulation and lots of other things in the analysis and the net effect is the same. A major effect when you ask the government to impose these costs on organizations is lowering efficiency and increasing transaction costs. The cost is ultimately borne by the consumer. We pay, one way or another.


Blogger Ontario Emperor said...

Just ran across your post, and it parallels (much more forcefully) some comments that I made - and some comments that I should have made - in my own blog. Luckily my employer doesn't hold exclusionary group hugs as part of its campaign.

2:52 PM  

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