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Approach colleagues for contributions with care

Whether it's cookies or chocolate bars, there are often sweet treats for sale at Harcourt Recruiting Specialists in Edmonton.

"It's not an uncommon thing," says Rick Harcourt, president of the staffing company.

"We have a lot of folks with young kids, and a lot of them are on hockey teams or soccer teams."

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It is the season for calling on colleagues for contributions.

At a time of year when the Girl Guides have been pitching their cookies, children's summer sports teams are revving up and warmer weather brings more runs for charity causes, businesses may be seeing more employees using their workplaces to support personal philanthropy.

In smaller businesses, with fewer employees working more intimately, there may be more of a feeling of closeness – and more of a feeling of pressure to give.

For all their good intentions, employees who fund-raise at work can create some discomfort, says workplace productivity expert Steve Prentice, president of consulting firm Bristall Morgan Inc. in Toronto.

"It's taking advantage of people's good will in a penned-in environment," he says.

Peer pressure can lead people to give, even when they can't afford it or would prefer not to, he says.

After all, saying no can be alienating.

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"You're there with your peers and, if you don't shell out with the rest, you look like a cheapskate," Mr. Prentice says.

That's why he and other experts say it may be wise to create some policies, understandings or take-the-pressure-off moves around raising money for causes at work.

"It's a matter of establishing a common community agreement," Mr. Prentice says. "I think people in a confined area – which is what a workplace is – operate better with clear policies."

Such policies could include asking employees to refrain from soliciting desk-to-desk, which can disrupt colleagues' workflow, or creating a communal pot of charitable cash, he suggests.

Nikki Van Dusen used to work for a company in Edmonton that limited all fund-raising efforts to the shared kitchen.

"At any given time, there were people doing a walk for cancer or a ride for diabetes or whatever. There were cookies and mints, chocolate-covered almonds – all the staples," recalls Ms. Van Dusen, who does not want to identify the former employer but now works as manager of digital media at Epcor Utilities Inc.

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So on a table in the kitchen, employees would place pledge forms and items for sale – like candy, pop and daffodils. Interested co-workers would pick up what they wanted and leave money in envelopes.

"It was very non-threatening that way. No one went around harping, or sent around a lot of e-mails," Ms. Van Dusen says.

Small businesses can also be a soft touch for external appeals, says small business strategist Leslie Roberts, president and founder of the GoForth Institute in Calgary. They're often the first stop for solicitations of all kinds, from school groups to sports teams to charities.

"Small business is very accessible. We're easy to find. Fifty-five per cent of businesses are operated by fewer than five employees, so chances are really good you'll get the founder – the decision maker – on the phone," she says.

Rivers Corbett, co-founder and president of Relish Gourmet Burgers based in Fredericton, responds to solicitations strategically. Earlier in his career, he worked for large organizations that donated with no explicit strategy. One organization gave thousands of dollars to a local sports team just because a vice-president was a fan, he recalls.

"You question, 'Why am I giving this stuff out?' " Mr. Corbett says.

So when it comes to his own company, he's fastidious about where money goes, and has policies to handle the average 20 solicitations he receives every week.

Each month, the three restaurants in his franchised chain give away four $25 gift cards to any fundraiser that asks, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

For larger requests, Mr. Corbett asks organizations to pitch an idea with an unusual angle and a clear return on investment for his company. The company once created a "Terry Fox burger" to raise funds for cancer research.

Mr. Corbett says he encourages the philanthropic efforts of his employees – as long as they're in Relish's best interests. Selling chocolates at work to raise money for a kid's sports team, for instance, isn't something he'd prefer. But the Terry Fox burger – an employee's idea – worked on both a charitable and promotional level.

When a local high school recently asked Carolyn Barter, owner of Baja Rosi's Consignment Cabana in Victoria, to support its alcohol-free graduation party, Ms. Barter wrote a $100 cheque without flinching.

"The truth of the matter is, if I tracked it, I might stop giving," she admits. "I don't want my decision to come from the bottom line – I want it to come from my heart."

But Ms. Roberts warns business owners to consider the costs. "When you get a good pitch on the phone, you think, 'Oh, gee, just $25.' But $25 given out 28 times a year adds up to thousands of dollars," she says.

Off-the-cuff donations are invisible to customers, too, and unlikely to help small companies grow their brand or expand their customer base, she says.

Instead, Ms. Roberts advises clients to come up with both a budget and policies to guide how, and to whom, the company gives. She'd like to see entrepreneurs choose acharity and support it in a way that customers can see.

It doesn't matter what charity it is, she says – customers want to do business with socially aware companies. "Companies are savvy now, especially the young people. Those under 26 would rather deal with someone with a cause than someone who doesn't" support one.

Mr. Harcourt, meanwhile, figures most employees are careful not to use up their "business equity" by asking colleagues too many times for too much money.

When he shows up at work with raffle tickets for his son's daycare, he'll be treading lightly.

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