How Not to Take a Gift From One of the Largest Companies on the Planet

Encourage donors to think just a little more about how to engage meaningfully with the nonprofits they choose to support -  so that the support is real and fundraisers aren't chasing phantoms.

By Esther Landau

Last year, in the "before times," my org was contacted by a company who excitedly told us that we could be the lucky recipients of 16 new wheelchairs, a gift from a company - I'll call them "XYZ." All we had to do was show up at the Ritz in downtown San Francisco to pick them up and maybe say a few words of appreciation. 

We didn't really need these chairs but decided it might open some doors for future support from XYZ company. I agreed to come, along with a facilities staff person, and we parked in the loading dock at the Ritz, ready to receive the chairs.

When I made my way to the room where the XYZ event was happening, I quickly realized a few things. 1) This was a team-building event for nationwide employees of XYZ. 2) There would not be the opportunity to connect to anyone with influence at XYZ - or really anyone at XYZ company at all. 3) Employees were divided into small teams and were racing to finish building a wheelchair, to which they would attach a personal note for the client who was being sent home after finishing rehabilitation.

Now, I recognize that team-building events are valuable and can do a lot for employees' job satisfaction and their feeling of community within the company. I also appreciate that when people work together to make a positive difference in the community, it can have powerful ripple effects.

That said, the experience of such events from the nonprofit side can be excruciating. Every nonprofit in the Bay Area drools over the prospect of getting support - even just a crumb - from the numerous wealthy companies that surround us. Our board members repeatedly suggest that we "go to Google" or "ask Bill Gates" for grants to support our work in the community. (Such support is a phantom, people!)

So, when we think a company like XYZ has noticed us, we feel compelled to do anything we can to please them, with the faint hope that we can somehow build that elusive "partnership" everyone is always talking about. The offer of multiple wheelchairs seemed odd, given what we do and who we serve, but who were we to say "no" to a giant like XYZ?

At the Pomeroy Center, we serve people with a range of developmental disabilities - sometimes over their entire lifetimes. "Rehabilitation" is in our name, but if anyone took the time to learn about our programs and our clients, they would know that we don't provide rehab services and then send people home in a wheelchair to finish their recovery. Our wheelchair users are wheelchair users for life. Many use power chairs. We do use a handful of manual chairs on-site for when folks get tired or in an emergency.

The company tasked with creating the team-building day for XYZ didn't really care who received these wheelchairs. We were just the first people who said yes.

I do believe that everyone involved with this event had the very best intentions, but the more I think about that day, the more I want to cry. I was there to represent Pomeroy, to represent people with disabilities. I was also there to fill a role for XYZ - to be the deeply grateful recipient of this supposedly thoughtful gift, wheelchairs hand-crafted by XYZ employees for the imaginary clients of the Pomeroy Center.

If event organizers - and their corporate clients - really want to help organizations like ours, they can simply ask us what we need.

If asked, we could have come up with a hand-building project that would have been actually useful to our participants. Beyond that, XYZ could have contributed its product to Pomeroy - access to software and tools that we don't have the funds to buy. We could have used a $2,000 grant (the amount probably spent on the chairs) to provide $10 coffee cards for each of our hard-working, underpaid staff.

And then I could have proudly stood in front of the XYZ employees and truthfully told them they made a difference that day, instead of tactfully dancing around the facts. And it wouldn't have mattered that nobody with influence at XYZ was there. And it would have been worth taking time out of my day to come. And it would have been worth having another Pomeroy staffer take time out of his day to bring a Pomeroy van to pick up this "gift" at rush hour downtown.

If you are someone who organizes team-building events for corporations - or if you are part of the CSR team at your company, I hope my story gives you pause. The next time you are about to use a nonprofit to add value to your corporate event, remember, we are not here to make your employees feel good - we are here to serve our clients. Ask us how you can help.

Esther Landau is the President-Elect of AFP Golden Gate chapter's board of directors and the Co-chair of the Programs Committee.