Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/25/2008 7:08:00 PM ET 2008-11-26T00:08:00

About a month ago, Lewana Dupree was on her lunch break when she drove past a building with a long line of people wrapped around the block.

It turned out to be a shelter called The Source that helps feed and provide clothing and temporary housing to people in need.

“I didn’t realize there were that many people out there that needed help,” says Dupree, a human resources employee at SpectorSoft, an Internet monitoring software firm in Vero Beach, Fla.

When Dupree returned to her office, she called The Source to find out if there was anything she could do to help. They provided her with a huge list, everything from food to towels.

Realizing the need was great, Dupree decided to enlist the help of her company and co-workers. After seeking permission from her boss, she distributed fliers to everyone in the building about a food drive to benefit The Source and also solicited volunteers to serve meals on Thanksgiving.

“I thought we had to do something,” she says. “SpectorSoft has not had a single layoff and is not looking to do layoffs. I thought, ‘We can help.’”

As charities struggle to keep up with demand, there’s a growing desire among workers thankful to still have jobs to help those who may not be as fortunate. Many are turning to their colleagues for help with their charitable efforts.

While it’s a noble idea to bring the spirit of giving to your workplace, employees walk a fine line when initiating such volunteer and fundraising efforts, experts say.

“You have to be careful, especially if you manage workers,” says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, associate professor of marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, who has researched charitable giving. “This kind of social pressure to give to a charity you choose creates a level of discomfort in the workplace.”

And, she adds, employees don’t always know the financial situation of their colleagues, who themselves could be struggling to make mortgage payments or pay college tuition for their kids.

The spirit of giving at work
Rick Gartmayer, product integrity manager for contracting firm Advanced Solutions for Tomorrow in Middletown, R.I., read a story in the local paper about how the Rhode Island Community Food Bank had a larger demand than normal from families in a financial pinch and felt moved to do something.

“Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the country,” he says. “Most of us know someone personally that is or could be in this situation.”

So he went to his manager and asked if the $25 gift cards employees typically received from the company CEO before Thanksgiving could be sent over to the food bank instead.

Both Dupree and Gartmayer say their efforts were met with positive responses from co-workers. But it can be difficult to gauge what colleagues are really thinking. If employees get overzealous about doing good, Strahilevitz says, they could create a resentful work environment.

Most firms already have charitable initiatives in place these days, according to a Battalia Winston Amrop survey.

“Despite the difficult economy, 74 percent of companies plan to participate in charity efforts this holiday season — donating money, food, clothing, gifts, volunteering,” says Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of the New York-based executive search firm. “Even many of the companies that have canceled their own parties and expect to see a drop in year-end bonuses still have scraped the resources together to make a difference in their communities and help those less fortunate.”

So that means you may get a receptive audience if you go to your bosses and ask for help raising money or enlisting volunteers for a cause that’s near and dear to your heart.

Before you start mass e-mailing everyone at the office, however, keep in mind the following tips to avoid alienating your office mates.

  • Talk to your HR department to find out the protocols for charitable giving at your company, says Sarah Hoddinott, fundraising product manager at nonprofit software management firm Advanced Solutions International.
  • Don’t spam the workplace. One e-mail is more than enough to tell people at work what you’re up to, says Hoddinott. And make sure your firm is cool with you using office e-mail to spread the word about a nonprofit.
  • Consider setting up a Facebook group, or some other social networking tool, to create a place where employees can go to find out about a particular charity, Hoddinott says. This keeps the charitable giving issue entirely out of the workplace and takes some of the pressure to participate off fellow workers and managers.
  • Be mindful of whom you ask to contribute and how much you ask for. If you know your department is comprised of people who earn six figures, it may be acceptable to ask for a $100 donation. However, making the same request to workers who earn far less is inappropriate. Above all, don’t put pressure on co-workers by saying “Joe, Jane and Judy gave money, but you didn’t,” says Strahilevitz.

The best tactic is asking people to volunteer their time and not donate money, Strahilevitz says. That way you get around the issue of who has enough money and who doesn’t.

That’s exactly what Dawn Edwards did.

Edwards, an associate financial representative with The McTigue Financial Group, which is part of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, had been volunteering for a group called Feed My Starving Children. She asked her managing director if employees could help pack meals for the charity that provides food to poor children around the globe.

The director, Corey McQuade, agreed, and about 36 people — nearly all of the staff — and their families joined in the effort in June.

“The response was so great that I had co-workers suggest we go back on a monthly basis,” says Edwards, who works out of the firm’s Oak Brook, Ill., office.

Her advice for getting everyone motivated: “It was basically word of mouth around the office and getting people excited. It just grew from there.”

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