Why Won't a Nonprofit Provide a Christmas Party for Employees?

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Try to Consider Your Nonprofit Environment. Mint Images - Tim Robbins/Mint Images RF/Getty Images

Reader Question:

I'm interested in your thoughts and experience with the not for profit sector and Christmas. We know that while the skills to do non-profit work are usually high, the wages are often low. People accept this as par for the course of doing good work.

But usually, the Christmas parties suck. Done on minimal, if any budget, it is hard not to be resentful. There is money for management to make trips across the country regularly and at short notice, but they can't find $25 a head for 40 workers?

Is this plain mean-spirited or just the way it goes?

Response:

Unfortunately, you're asking someone who hates fancy work parties and loves a good office potluck. (I also tend to judge my value as a human by how people react to my cooking, so I am definitely in the not normal group when it comes to holiday parties.) But, is the lack of a real, company provided holiday party mean spirited? The answer: It depends.

As you've stated, the non-profit sector is a little different than the for-profit world. It often starts with lower salaries and can often include requirements to donate some of your time to the cause, which is code for working for free. These things can be hard on a staff who already are making less money than they would in the for-profit sector. Throw in a lousy holiday party and everybody gets angry.

But, what happens when you have an awesome party? Everybody loves a good party. (Well, almost everybody.

See above.) A good meal, good drinks, perhaps some interesting entertainment. (Note: not speeches from the boss. Nobody wants to hear that, bosses, so stop it.)

But, you know who doesn't like such things? The donors or the taxpayers (if you're funded by government grants). It's the type of thing that lands you in the news: “The Foundation for X, Y, and Z had a lavish party, making donors question if their money was being put to good use.”

You can see why this is a bit problematic for management and the Board of Directors. The whole all publicity is good publicity is just false, especially in today's world of superfast social media. So, it's possible that a completely reasonable $25 per head party can get blown up in the news as evidence of the wasteful non-profit sector.

Now, of course, many non-profit organizations have great holiday parties where they spend more than $25 a head and everyone thinks it's fine. What makes the difference? Well, what your organization does, for one thing.

The other is the source of your funding, and how your donors feel about it. Some donors not only want you to have a party, but want to be invited to the party. (Which then makes it not a party for the employees, but rather another fundraiser, and that makes it work, so that might not be the solution to your problem.)

If your organization is such a place where donors wouldn't care about $1000 spent on a holiday party, then it can be that you have Scrooge for a boss. Maybe he's a horrible person who hoards extra cash so he can get a good bonus, or maybe he doesn't care for parties, or he just likes to see people suffer.

But, if that's the case, you'd see that behavior all year and not just stinginess at a year-end party.

So, if your boss tends to be nice and reasonable about everything else, trust that this isn't mean-spirited, but done out of practicality.

What can you do? If it's reasonable in your sector to have a party, have you brought it up to the bosses?

And how have they reacted? Have you priced how much it would really cost? Have you thought about proposing a compromise? A pizza party over lunch, or even a nicer lunch that wouldn't require the cost of decorations or facility rental? Have you volunteered to do the work? It's possible that it's just not that important to senior management, and no one has volunteered to do the work.

You may say, “I'll do it! Give me a budget!” and they'll jump all over it. No matter what, though, don't bring in the cost of travel as a reason for why party spending is justified.

Remember, the flying and rental cars are done for the benefit of the people the not-for-profit company represents. The party is for the staff. There's a distinct budgetary difference there.

Reading for the Holidays