Saturday, March 03, 2007

United Way "tax"

I've never been into the whole charity giving thing. In my world view, all of these "social" needs should be taken care of by our government, federal, state, county, local. Not that it works out that way in practice given our "divided" government, but that is my preference. Now that I am a full-time employee of "The Evil Empire", I have to deal with something the company calls "the annual 'Giving Campaign'" which is held in the early fall each year. It is completely voluntary and nobody twists your arm or anything and it is not relevant to your performance rating, raises, promotions, or bonuses, but there is still some amount of "pressure" to participate.

I had heard about it long before I joined the company back in May 2006, and knew that eventually I would have to deal with it, and half-expected that I could simply ignore it. I was actually a bit surprised that it didn't come up as a topic at the initial "NEO" (New Employee Orientation) or any of the other initial bureaucratic processes of becoming a new employee. I even went three and a half months before I heard about it sometime late in August. Again, initially I considered ignoring it since it is strictly voluntary, and besides, I was still struggling to cope with the aftermath of bankruptcy six months earlier.

But then I reconsidered, not because I have any interest in giving money (or time) to any of these "charities", but simply because one of my top goals is to simply be a "good corporate citizen." Sure, I'm willing to rock the boat when it's needed, but it gives you a little more credibility when you are a hard-core, solid corporate citizen most of the time.

Although nominally not targeted at any particular charity and not even restricted to a specific list of "approved" charities, the primary focus of the "Giving Campaign" is the local United Way for Kings County. So, I refer to this "giving" as "The United Way Tax."

You can designate your contributions to a variety of charities, including the United Way itself, with any dollar or percentage allocation you want between multiple charities.

The convenient thing is that you can elect to simply have your contribution deducted from your twice-monthly pay check, so even if you make a fairly hefty contribution for the entire year, you hardly even notice it from your paycheck. On a semi-monthly basis, the amount of my contribution corresponds roughly the amount I might spend eating at a fairly decent restaurant. My payroll deductions started  with the first pay period in January.

They have a concept of "Leadership" which is simply a dollar threshold ($1,000 per year) designed to acknowledge and recognize those making significantly higher than average contributions.

Initially, I considered making only a nominal contribution, barely enough to say that I am a good corporate citizen with a straight face, but I eventually decided to do the "Leadership" thing so that it was crystal clear that I was being a rock-solid good citizen, even if I wasn't morally 100% behind the concept of the charities. I even decided to contribute well above the "Leadership" level just to avoid the appearance of trying to barely meet the threshold bar.

Then I had to decide which charity to give to or to just punt and designate the local United Way and let them distribute the money (after spending a chunk of it on "overhead".)

I sifted through the list of suggested charities and ran across something called the "Gates Challenge", which is a relatively small fund set up by the big Bill & Melinda Gates fund, which matches contributions and targets them to an endowment fund for the local United Way which pays for a big chunk of their "overhead" expenses from the income of the endowment. If addition to the company match for my contribution, the Gates Challenge provides an additional match, so that the United Way endowment gets $3 for every $1 I contribute. This seemed like an ideal "contribution" vehicle for me.

My focusing 100% of my contribution to the Gates Challenge is a multi-win for just about everybody:

  1. More of the money of all non-endowment contributors to the United Way goes to their desired charities since less of the money goes to overhead since the income from my endowment contribution pays more of the overhead.
  2. Charities get more of the contributors' money from United Way.
  3. Charities are able to assist more people with that additional money.
  4. Better funding for "overhead" helps United Way provide more efficient and more effective support for the individual charities and their fund-raising efforts.
  5. Not one penny of my own contribution goes towards any of the charities which I may not be supportive of.
  6. Not one penny of my contribution even goes towards United Way overhead which may not be very efficiently or effectively managed since only the income from my endowment contribution gets spent.
  7. My contribution lives on and is not spent to zero within the year. My contribution sits in the endowment, earning interest and investment income year after year.

So, although I have reservations about the whole charity thing, at least I found an approach that works for me, is not a financial burden for me, is satisfying for me, and delivers value to the charities and the people they serve.

If only all "taxes" had this degree of flexibility.

-- Jack Krupansky

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