May 12, 2009

Charitable Giving

I got mail today from our local United Way, letting me know I was now a ‘Diamond Donor’. Apparently, I’ve been donating to the United Way for over 25 years. I had no idea.

I’ll never forget my first United Way
campaign. I was a kid, home from college with my tail between my legs, living at home and grossing $140 a week working as a microfilmer at the headquarters of a local industrial laundry. The owner of the company, a self-made man, had a heart of gold from a charitable perspective, but lacked virtually all humanity as an employer. My favorite example was when he issued a memo to staff advising us that there were 168 hours in week (who knew?!) and frankly, if it took all of them for us to do our job, so be it – but we shouldn’t expect anything more in our paychecks. He once asked one of the VPs to fire an accountant because the accountant failed to deliver a necktie to the boss at his summer home in Massachusetts, causing the boss to have to wear for the second time a tie he’d already worn once to a charity event.

At the time, UW used to provide companies with a short movie that showed how our donations were used in the local community. As this was my first job, I didn’t know what to expect, but one of the accountants caught me beforehand and let me know that there was no talking during the movie, or there would be hell to pay. Well, sure enough – there was talking, and there was hell to pay. We had made it about half-way through, and someone in the back started talking, or snickering at something on the screen. A glare came from the front of the room, but the talking did not stop.

What did stop was the movie. So there we were -- us from the ‘upstairs office’, people from the plant office, and factory workers and truck drivers – standing in the dark, no one saying a word, afraid to move. We looked like a bunch of kids, waiting to get yelled at, staring at our toes. When it was completely quiet, somehow the old man gave the signal without saying a word, and the projector sprang to life. We were back at the beginning of the movie, and watched the entire thing through to the end without a peep.

The lights were turned on, the pledge cards distributed, and once we had marked our cards with our donation, we were allowed to go back to work. When it came to the United Way at that company, there was really no option other than giving. I know we had a choice – everyone has a choice – but at the time the choice wasn’t give or not, it was how much to give. I remember one woman did not want to donate (for valid personal reasons) and she had to meet with her boss, then his boss, then his boss and finally the executive vice president to explain herself. She didn’t stick with the company very long.

Donating has been significantly less memorable since way back in 1978 when I gave the first time. I’ve missed a few years in between – job changes and whatnot – but I’m still surprised that when it’s all added up, it’s over 25 years. Like gray hairs, I guess -- after the first memorable few, you just don’t pay as much attention to them anymore.

Speaking of which, it’s time for me to make a hair appointment!