This is a story that I have never shared with anybody. Up until now. But it’s a lesson that all supervisors should take heed of and be forewarned about.
My saga extends back decades. However, the incident is as vivid to me today as if it occurred yesterday. And it is still relevant. The anguish I felt then has abated with time, although it caused me much angst. I was mortified by this matter, which is why I never discussed it with anyone.
The work I did then for a nonprofit included all four pillars of fundraising, which are annual giving, capital campaigning, endowment fund donations and planned gifts. I had a team that was instrumental in helping us achieve financial success, and during that period we were initiating a legacy program for planned gifts.
It is a well-known truism that when you establish a planned giving program, it’s like planting seeds in your garden. To grow the program, the clients need to be carefully nurtured with special attention to their personal needs, as well as a plethora of tax advantages with their donations. It also might take years to effectuate the first gift.
At the time, we were promoting charitable gift annuities with very competitive interest rates. A charitable gift annuity is a contract between a donor and a charity. As a patron, you make a significant contribution to the nonprofit organization with cash, securities or other assets. In exchange, you become eligible to take a partial tax deduction for your donation. Moreover, you receive a fixed stream of tax-free income from the charity for the rest of your life. It’s a good deal, especially since the interest rate is much higher the older the annuitant.
An interesting sidebar of charitable gift annuities is that studies show that annuitants live longer than those in the same age cohort who don’t acquire one. A story in The Pentera Blog, a digital planned giving magazine stated, “The purported long life of annuitants is more than a cause for wonder among planned giving officers. It’s an absolute fact with far-reaching implications.” The article asserts, “It is, indeed, a literal fact that annuitants live considerably longer … That is still true: Depending on one’s age at the time of the annuity, annuitants on the average live two to five years years longer than the general population, according to actuarial tables from the Social Security Administration and the Society of Actuaries.” There are several reasons for this claim. but that is an epic for another time.
Back to my story.
I had recruited a young lady who was, shall we say, “wet behind the ears” with planned gifts but had proficiency with charitable gift annuities. She also showed promise, which was acceptable for a fledgling startup. The program was designed to provide her with the experience she needed to grow professionally.
My style of management was to greet staff with a cheery smile in the morning when they arrived. I also gave them a cheerful farewell at the end of the workday. My approach was always sincere and from the heart. This is how I relate to people.
On leaving for the weekend, I wished the staffers a “good Shabbos.” However, our planned giving staffer wanted me to know that while she was Jewish, she wasn’t observant. So, my wish for her every Friday afternoon was to have a “great weekend.” I should have remembered Proverbs 13:3: “Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life…” (20:20 hindsight: I should have asked what she would prefer to hear). Little did I suspect.
Her performance, sorry to say, was mediocre and she was not up to the task. It was obvious over time that she was the wrong person for the job. But we kept at it and invested our resources to help her succeed, to no avail. It became clear that she wasn’t “getting it,” and while we had regular learning sessions, they were a fruitless endeavor.
The week before she was going to be let go, I received a summons from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). “What’s this?” I wondered as I scrutinized the legal language of the document. The essence of the subpoena was that I had discriminated against this employee because I wished her a “great weekend” but bade the other staff a “good Shabbos.” The irony of ironies was that there would be an EEOC hearing the following Friday afternoon.
After I huddled with the director of human resources, he reassured me there was no substance to the charge and it would likely be dismissed. Sure enough, the ensuing week after each party was called in to appear before the commissioners, the grievance was dropped by the EEOC officials.
All good intentions aside, it was a valuable lesson learned about sensitivity. Watch what you say to your employees and be consistent in your approach. And always remember this adage, “Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.”
Norman B. Gildin is the author of the recently released book on nonprofit fundraising “Learn From My Experiences.” He is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits to raise critical funds for their organization. His website is www.normangildin.com.