When is a Gift Not a Gift?

Hello, Kim:

I have an ethics question for you. A company is about to close down for good and on its last day of operation allows employees to buy all the office furnishings which would have been destined for the junkyard by paying a nominal fee and making the check out to our charity.  These checks then arrive at our office in an envelope (20 checks ranging from $5 to $50) with a cover letter stating that the employees paid for the items by writing checks to our charity.  The letter goes on to say they don’t want any thanks sent or coverage as the staff has moved on, and that everyone there wishes our organization every success.

My position is that we accept the money, but do not issue receipts or send thank you letters and do not add them to the donor base as they were not really donors.  I thought sending newsletters and campaign letters to recently unemployed people was tacky.  My superior felt that they “hadn’t really said they didn’t want to receive information from us” so from her point of view it was okay to add them to our data base.  I stuck to my guns and said no, it wasn’t right. She finally let me have my way but clearly didn’t agree with me.   I’m right.   Right?


When is a Gift Not a Gift?

Dear Gift Not Gift:

Unfortunately it appears that you and your supervisor got into such a little tug-of-war that both of you forgot to consider that there were more than two options here, and a middle way might have served everyone well.

I can’t tell from your letter if the company had contacted you ahead of time to tell you they were doing this.  At that point, you could have distributed a form to all the employees which allowed them to check a box if they wanted to stay on your mailing list.  I also can’t tell whether the employees were part of the decision to pick your organization.  If they were, some of them might have wanted to be on your mailing list, and in fact, if you had some checks for $25 and $50 for stuff that was going to be taken to a landfill (so presumably pretty junky), it seems to me some people gave more than the stuff was worth to support your group.  The cover letter may reflect a sincere effort to make your lives easier, but again, your supervisor is correct that you do not know what the employees thought.  Your sense that it is tacky to send campaign letters to recently unemployed people is very kind, and also correct.  But remember that hopefully most of these people will not remain unemployed and may even have already gotten new jobs.

So, to answer your question, what I would have done was written a nice thank you to all of them, enclosing a form that they would be instructed to return if they wanted to keep hearing from you.  Those that didn’t respond (which would probably have been the majority) would never hear again, but all would have felt appreciated and your organization would have had a few more donors.

The big lesson here is looking for alternative solutions to disagreements rather than “sticking to your guns.”

~Kim Klein