Low morale of federal employees is putting a crimp in charitable giving

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 9

When federal employees are mired in the muck of low morale, the effect can be found in more places than office cubicles.

The impact of that and their thinner wallets hurts their charitable giving.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

It’s dropping — again.

And in a big way.

In recent years, contributions to the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) of the National Capital Area, which sends federal employee donations to area charities, have fallen. Things look even worse for the 2013-14 campaign, which ends Wednesday.

As of Thursday, the campaign pulled in about $40 million, said Kalman Stein, president and chief executive of EarthShare, a federation of environmental and conservation charities that currently administers the local CFC.

“That’s great, but last year the campaign did $62 million, and it looks like we will fall $10-$12 million short this year thanks to the low morale of the federal employees. That’s understandable, but the decline in donations will impact more than 2,000 local charities and another 2,500 national ones, as well as the people they serve.”

The $61.6 million raised during the 2012-13 campaign was a 4.5 percent drop from the previous year, which was down from the year before that. If Stein’s projections are correct, this year’s take will be off by up to 20 percent. Also telling is the lower number of employees who contributed during the 2012-13 campaign: Almost 20,000 fewer donated then than the year before.

The situation across the country is no better.

“It looks like the CFC will be down nationally to under $200 million from $258 million last year,” Stein said. “That is a huge loss for charities — no other way to put it.”

Directly tied to the morale factor is the three-year freeze on basic pay rates that is just now ending for most feds. And about 200,000 wage grade workers didn’t get the 1 percent hike others did. Many staffers also suffered a pay cut through unpaid furlough days last year.

“When I was deciding to make my CFC contribution this year, I had to take into account that I took a 5 percent pay cut last year,” said Bruce Andersen, a Labor Department policy analyst. “I still gave, but I did scale back a bit to reflect the fact that I lost pay this year. . . . Many people are upset that the federal government got treated so shabbily. The morale here at the department has cratered.”

That’s not good for the workplace, and it’s not good for the charities the workers support.

A significant cut in donations means that some “local children and adults . . . will continue to sleep on floors and live in apartments that are not fit for raising children,” said Mark Bergel, founder and executive director of A Wider Circle in Silver Spring, a group whose mission is to end poverty. “That is what I often see before our services are rendered.”

Father John Adams, president of SOME (So Others Might Eat) on O Street NW, said that CFC funding provides “more than 400,000 hot meals to poor and homeless families and single adults in our dining rooms and rehabilitative programs” as well as health care to “more than 1,000 ill, poor and homeless patients.”

Despite the lower participation rates, “federal employees are givers. Service is in their DNA,” said Stephen M. Delfin, president and chief executive of America’s Charities, a federation of local and national charitable organizations based in Chantilly.

“But until the CFC is integrated into broader federal employee engagement,” he added, “it will be a siloed activity, driven by compliance and regulations, and not realize its true potential as a way to positively engage employees, raise money for charities and — let’s not forget — lessen the burden of government.”

One way to enhance that engagement, he suggested, is to regularly provide givers information about the charities that are supported. Now, “the CFC is entirely focused on a fundraising sprint with little ability to communicate with employees about the impact of the gifts on a year-round basis,” he said. “Thus the ‘campaign’ becomes disconnected from broader federal agency employee and community engagement strategy.”

None of this should take away from the fact that hundreds of thousands of federal employees continue to contribute millions to CFC charities in the Washington region alone. Yet the CFC cannot afford to lose people like J. Michael McManus, an international economist at the Labor Department. He once was a CFC “key worker,” someone who encouraged colleagues to give. Now he’s among those who have dropped out, at least for now.

“We’re just not that inclined to give to charity when in fact we get locked out of work, we don’t get pay raises,” he said. “This should be a no-brainer.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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