This is the latest installment of our “Dear Ms. Etiquette” series, where our columnist untangles the issues that happen when people and money get together.
Dear Ms. Etiquette:
I love good works, helping people and, of course, technology (until the computers start trying to kill us). But it feels like I get asked to contribute to a charity walk or a GoFundMe by a coworker three times a day. Can I say no to my colleague's third cat surgery fundraise without seeming like a terrible person?
I Already Gave (And Gave, and Gave) at the Office
Dear Gave (may I call you Gave?),
This is a contemporary dilemma! And it makes Ms. Etiquette long for a bygone era when inter-cubicle solicitations were largely limited to Girl Scout cookie drives that could be dodged with a simple “Gosh, I’d love to, but I’m not eating refined sugar this month.”
Ms. Etiquette believes that cookie sales, like Red Cross blood drives, had their place at the office because they were straightforward transactions that happened at regular intervals, usually under official sanction. But things are different now. And Ms. Etiquette has come to believe in the separation between office and charity. I do actually believe in the proverb that “a joy shared is a joy doubled, and a burden shared is a burden halved,” but the explosion of crowdfunding culture has made for an oppressive number of burdens to halve.
And they come with a face. GoFundMe requests are, by their very nature, incredibly personal. And that means we have to either validate or reject the same people we negotiate daily, sometimes fraught, professional relationships with. All of that is why the Ms. Etiquette blanket policy is: choose the charities you believe in, budget as much as you can afford to give to them, and say no to everything else.
More on that policy later. Now let’s get to what I think you’re really wondering: how do I say no?
Or better yet: how do I say no without feeling terrible and being branded a self-centered, cold-hearted cheapskate who doesn’t care if cute cats die of preventable diseases?
The difficult truth is that there are many, many worthy charities in the world, and you cannot give to all of them.
Ms. Etiquette regrets to inform you that the answer begins with the acceptance that saying no will always be harder than forking over the minimum amount you think you can get away with. “We need to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in this sort of situation,” says Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in executive leadership and business etiquette training (i.e. part of her job is teaching important people what's ethical and how to stick to it without pissing people off). “It goes against our gut instincts to say no to a worthy cause,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t do so.”
In fact, the best way to deliver your no is to zero in on that worthiness — and then use it as a conversational pivot point. Ms. Etiquette was impressed by the honesty of this approach. Gottsman even has a kind of script to follow: “Wow, I love that you are so fired up about wetlands conservation/breast cancer awareness/exposing underprivileged children to the art of underwater basket weaving! That’s exactly how I feel about voter registration and Doctors Without Borders! Alas, I have a set annual budget for charity donations that currently goes toward my two causes, so I won’t also be able to also chip in toward yours.”
Ms. Etiquette loves the elegant, air-tight nature of this response: first, your coworker can hardly parry with a demand that you alter either your budget or your allegiances; and second, your generosity of spirit is not up for dispute. This works for people of all income levels — your budget can be $5 or $5 million.
Of course, the latter only applies if you actually do have regular contributions to the organizations you name-dropped set up to autopay by credit card. If you’re a liar as well as a cheapskate, you risk ruining this template for the rest of us. So don’t be a jerk. Either open your wallet for things you believe in, or come clean as a total nihilist with a black heart who is bent on burning through this earth with as much indulgence as possible before departing for the meaningless hereafter.
The difficult truth is that there are many, many worthy charities in the world, and you cannot give to all of them. So make your choices, feel good about them, and then stick to your guns. Don't leave yourself open to judgment calls even though it’s tempting to pony up when it’s your 11 a.m. coffee run partner doing the asking, or the NGO just happens to protect a species you find adorable (hello sand kittens, which are an actual thing). And don’t play philanthropy cop. Ms. Etiquette almost admires the chutzpah of the individual bold enough to ask colleagues to subsidize the plane ticket she needs to go build an orphanage in Central America, (almost), but this probably isn’t the time or place to helpfully inform someone that charity tourism has been proven to be far more demeaning than helpful.
Having a blanket policy about all this doesn’t mean you’re not going to come up against some extremely difficult moments. Two pretty sticky ones of entirely different moral and practical varieties spring to mind immediately.
One is when someone you work with is sick or has otherwise fallen on calamitous times. There's an argument to be made that contributing to a charity that is the most efficient at helping people is a better use of any money than helping people you know. But there's also an argument that communities are formed by groups of people who live together helping each other out, and that the world would be scary without communities.
A less noble situation is when it's your boss who's asking. The person who determines your annual compensation should know better than to put you on the spot…unless they're just a ruthless, Machiavellian boss. Ms. Etiquette is kind of a wimp when it comes to bosses, so she would probably knuckle under and make a moderately generous donation — not proud, just honest.
But Gottsman, being a woman of principle, thinks it's more ethical to stand up for yourself and your fellow wage slaves. Especially since it's not a position someone you report you should be putting you in.
As Gottman puts it, “We’re in a moment right now when people are updating their definition of what a safe work environment consists of — and in my opinion, that should include not being solicited by your peers or your boss.”
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