The Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), which bills itself as the “world’s largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign,” closes its annual drive on Tuesday. Its workplace is the federal government, and Uncle Sam’s employees can be a generous lot.
But the CFC is not as successful as it used to be. Contributions have been dropping steadily in recent years, with last year’s $193.2 million nearly a third lower than 2009’s take. Per capita contributions have fallen by a similar percentage, and the participation rate among federal workers is down to 14.1 percent.
The $7 billion donated through the campaign since it began in 1961 demonstrate a workforce that is concerned and engaged in charitable work. Yet, an informal survey points to the financial pressure and workplace alienation many feds have felt in recent years. The CFC is a victim of that. It has been punished with declining contributions.
“I have always donated for 27+ years, but after the recent shutdown, I reduced my benefit substantially to send a message that I was unhappy,” said Kathleen Ferte, of Crofton, Md. “However, I have since reinstated my usual amount since I realized that Congress doesn’t care and only the charity was hurt by my action.”
For Alex Mercer,“it’s not the CFC that’s the problem.” Instead, Mercer sees a more vexing issue: “It’s the culture of hatred directed at federal employees and Congressional Republicans’ desire to ‘punish’ feds for earning a living and making us feel we can’t afford to donate in this political climate.”
Yet, charitable leaders, who seem to be a genetically hopeful bunch, are not deterred.
“The CFC is the most important workplace giving campaign in the country and for us the most important workplace giving campaign by far,” said Mark Bergel, the founder and executive director of A Wider Circle, a Silver Spring organization that helps individuals and families with basic needs.
“The people who work for the federal government not only help us with financial donations, they help us as volunteers. They bring their schools and churches. I find that federal employees are extremely interested in helping beyond the financial donation.”
That’s not an isolated experience. Federal employee volunteers also have benefited SOME (So Others Might Eat). “They have helped us expand to a comprehensive care organization, helping to provide food, clothing, healthcare, counseling, addiction treatment and affordable housing for homeless and very poor District residents,” said Linda Parisi, SOME’s chief development officer. “In addition to financial support, many CFC workers also volunteer at SOME and donate clothing and food throughout the year.”
That’s true for Xander Harcourt, a District Heights resident.
“I used to give more money, now I contribute time and less money, because every dollar counts,” Harcourt said. “People think that Federal workers are making all this money, that isn’t true. We pay for health care, we pay taxes, we pay to commute, those things add up. Now, faced with the threat of pending government shutdowns as the new normal, I know personally, I am saving every penny! I learned my lesson the last go around, and I will never be caught like that again. When they threaten our jobs, and ability to pay bills, guess what bill gets cut first? Charitable giving. Sorry, but that is the new reality.”
Earlier in the campaign drive, John O. Brennan, CIA director and CFC’s honorary national chairman, told us he would try to boost participation and donations by raising CFC’s visibility. “I think part of this is an issue of awareness,” he said. “I don’t think federal employees are less interested in contributing to charities. We want them to know that within their workplace they now have the ability to contribute as they can to whatever charities they might want in a very easy manner, to include with regular payroll deductions.”
But given all the campaign efforts in federal agencies, it’s hard to see how employees would be unaware of it.
Fortunately for some organizations, a general decline in donations does not mean each charity is hurt equally.
Bergel said A Wider Circle has received increasing contributions even as the national total drops.
“My whole team knows that CFC is top priority,” he said. “We’ll do our best. We hustle…. We’ll do everything we can to make the CFC work effectively for us.”
Ryan Kellett contributed to this column.