Donation push, Gideon sermon at city United Way presentation raise questions

Donation push, Gideon sermon at city United Way presentation raise questions-attachment0

A city staff member has questioned what he says was a mandatory meeting at which United Way representatives made a funding pitch, followed by a Gideons member distributing Bibles, giving a sermon and leading staff in prayer. City representatives say the United Way presentation was not mandatory and Police Chief Bill Hogan says he’s apologized for the Gideons’ presentation.

Last Friday, Oct. 1, Mike Smith, a dispatcher at the Asheville Police Department, says that he attended a meeting that didn’t just present information about United Way activities but also actively solicited donations from employees. Smith’s supervisor, Capt. Sarah Benson had told him the meeting was mandatory.

“When I was told we had to attend one of these, I questioned it,” Smith tells Xpress. “I said that I didn’t want to go, and my supervisor said, ‘Well you have to, every city employee has to go.’ I didn’t want to go because I contribute to other nonprofits of my choice. I shouldn’t have to listen to their spiel. To say it was necessary to become aware of the programs [that United Way runs in conjunction with the city] is false, we’re already aware of them.”

When he arrived, he says, Benson handed him a donation form with his name already written on it.

“I had to mark in $0. There was an option for deducting one hour of your salary a month,” labelled “your fair share contribution” he recalls. “I found the wording offensive. It was awkward, when you’re sitting there and your name’s already on the form. I even had other employees ask what I’m donating. I already donate to other groups.”

On Sept. 14, APD employees received an e-mail from Benson about the United Way presentations.

“I am serving as the 2010 United Way Campaign coordinator for APD and in the coming weeks we will have several rallies,” she wrote. “In our line of work we cross paths with people from all walks of life in our community that are struggling just to survive and have no where to turn to for help. We also see first hand the work of several agencies ( 2-1-1, Red Cross, MANNA food bank, Helpmate, Our Voice, Hospice, etc.) that are supported by United Way stepping up to help people on a daily basis.”

She emphasized that “giving to United Way is NOT MANDATORY,” but added that “I ask everyone in APD to consider giving to United Way if all all possible. No gift is too small.”

“Everyone will need to attend a rally,” the e-mail concludes, before listing dates and times for different APD shifts.

“They kept saying you don’t have to donate,” Smith notes. “They stressed that, but if you have to go and you know you’re not going to donate, why are we wasting taxpayer dollars on this? I’m not taking away from United Way, I know the officers do work with them a lot and they do some good things, but it seemed like they were getting preferential treatment.”

The roll-call meetings were mandatory, Hogan says, because they also involved department business — in this case voting on a new schedule — but the United Way portion was not mandatory, according to both Hogan and city spokesperson Dawa Hitch.

“I take responsibility for this, there was a breakdown in communication” Hogan tells Xpress. “One way we communicate face to face with our employees is roll-call meetings. We meet with everybody. There’s never any pressure about donating to the United Way. We pass out the forms, but if they don’t donate, that’s fine. It’s never pressing people to do that, it’s just offering them the opportunity to participate if they want.”

He adds that some miscommunication may have occurred: “Generally, if an employee tells their supervisor ‘I have no intention of giving to United Way and I’d like to not to attend,’ we’d be ok.”

Also, at the meeting, Smith says a representative of the Gideons handed out Bibles, launched into a sermon and lead the room in prayer.

“He’s got these stacks of Bibles and he opens to Romans and starts reading a verse,” he recalls. “I’m being paid to be there. Then he tells a story about getting Bibles into Eastern Europe in 1989. He mentioned missionary work and the ‘word of God’ a lot.

“After he told his story,” Smith continues. “I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then he asked us to pray with him, which was uncomfortable. I’m at work, I shouldn’t be asked to pray. I question why we have to sit through this on city time. It’s completely unnecessary.”

Hogan says he has apologized to department employees for the Gideon presentation, adding that it was not what the APD expected.

“It got twisted, I feel really bad about that and take full responsibility,” he says. “That was simply a request for Gideons International to come, put Bibles at the back and say, ‘If you want a Bible, take one.’ It didn’t go down as I expected. I’ve communicated to the personnel of this organization that I apologize that it happened. To anyone that was offended: That’s not what we’re about and I feel very bad about that.”

He adds, “Police officers are under a lot of stress,” and while the APD has a chaplain’s program and makes information on programs available, “obviously we’re not here to preach to anybody, we’re just here to help our employees and this one [the Gideons’ presentation] went where it shouldn’t have gone, quite frankly. It had unintended consequences and it won’t happen again.”

Full disclosure: Smith is the partner of Xpress staff reporter Michael Muller

— David Forbes, senior news reporter

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30 thoughts on “Donation push, Gideon sermon at city United Way presentation raise questions

  1. LOKEL

    Two years ago, I had almost the same experience at my employer. We were told the meetings were mandatory (and we were paid).

    There were forms passed out which we were told had to be filled out regardless of whether we were donating or not: if we were not donating, we were told to put $0 in the space.

    I objected. My statement was “why are we required to fill out a form if we are not donating?”: I ended up getting called to the HR office and the “Director of HR” tore up “my form” in my presence (rather snarkily), and asked “are you happy now?”

    I then went online to our “ethics” department and reported the incident.

    Since then all such programs have been on a volunteer basis only (as it/they should be).

    This is another example of the upper echelon within the City overstepping the boundaries of what is both right and, in this case, again, legal.

    It will be interesting to see if this City employee is retaliated against in the future because of this, and likely more, press coverage.

  2. Jeff

    It seems like a whole story is made out of one mis-communication (mandatory meeting or not) and one bad decision (bibles at a city employee meeting). Not big news, but certainly not the same issue. Of course United Way is asking for money. They do it every year. That is just one small way the community gives back and keeps all of us connected. The fact that Mr. Smith is put out by it isn’t relevant. It is important work and he needs to accept that the fund raising helps our community. As for the bibles… the staffer who arranged that was in the wrong.

  3. Dionysis

    Organizations have a long history of employing heavy-handed tactics for the United Way (and this is not to disparage the organization). It’s not new; I ‘served’ as United Way Campaign Coordinator (nifty title, huh?) for a couple of different employers in the past, and corporate expectations to give were entrenched. This even goes back to the days of their former corrupt head Aramony (who, I believe, went to jail). I became so perturbed over this that I refused to accept that job anymore.

    As for the second feature, ‘Attack of the Bible Thumpers’, that was pretty shabby. Perhaps the Police Chief was duped, and did expect a table with bibles and that’s all. But come to think of it, why was that needed? Haven’t any of these city employees stayed at a motel before?

  4. Ashevillegal

    I actually have had different experiences with United Way’s workplace campaign. I was working for an agency that expected 100% participation in giving to United Way, but, we did NOT have a meeting for us to learn what it was about. Sure, I had heard of United Way but I wasn’t really sure where the money I would give was going or why in the world I should take the time to give at all. I WANTED to know why I was being asked for money. I was not willing to give blindly to an agency I had only heard of but knew nothing about.

    I would much rather have a clear and educated understanding about an agency that is soliciting me for money, than be asked to give but not be sure where the money truly goes. Perhaps United Way was simply trying to provide education about why employees may be interested in giving so that employees could make a clear and educated choice.

  5. Betty Cloer Wallace

    I do not know if these same tactics still hold sway in the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction, but when I worked there in my past life, we were pressured in a similar manner to contribute a percentage of our salary to United Way, as were other state government department employees.

    I always wondered what was in it for the state.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Nearly every corporation I’ve worked for has had some charity or other that the employees were required to either give to or collect for. In the case of one newspaper (not, I hasten to add, the Xpress), a mandatory meeting was involved. True you got to clock in for the time you were there, but you were not compensated for planning your day around it or for driving to and from the place, no matter what the distance was. I knew one person who traveled a 48 mile round trip for what — before taxes — worked out to about three bucks.

    And, Betty, it definitely was a case “what was in it for” one of the CEOs at the last place I worked.

  7. cwaster

    I do think United Way does a good service. That being said, the line of separation of church and state has been crossed here. Forcing people to go to meetings with bibles and Christian prayer should be a choice, not a mandate.

  8. Paul

    I have a hard time finding why this is even a story. It sounds like a whiny employee and a little miscommunication. Must be a slow news day!

  9. Formercityemployee

    The Police Chief in not telling the truth. I am a former city employee and the United Way meetings were all mandatory. Ask any city employee and they will tell you the same thing. They even made us sign sheets to show we had gone. They pressured us to donate funds. This entire process is sick and should be stopped.

    For those of you like Paul who make comments about this being a whiny city employee think again. This is a big problem that most city employees resent but because Asheville manages their employees through fear, most are afraid to speak up for fear they will loose their jobs.

  10. Lady L

    “I do not know if these same tactics still hold sway in the North Carolina State Department of Public Instruction, but when I worked there in my past life, we were pressured in a similar manner to contribute a percentage of our salary to United Way, as were other state government department employees”

    The tactics have definitly not changed. I work for a public school and every year we are forced to sit through a United Way presentation where we are also given forms to fill out as though it were already a foregone conclusion that we will donate money. I don’t have a problem with United Way, but I do object to being made to feel like if I choose not to give my money to this particular charity then I’m being negligent of my charitable duties. The whole mandatory tone of the meetings and the pressure that comes down from the administration to donate is off-putting in the extreme.

  11. Dionysis

    “The tactics have definitly not changed…The whole mandatory tone of the meetings and the pressure that comes down from the administration to donate is off-putting in the extreme.”

    No, the tactics have not changed at all. United Way does good things, but their heavy-handed style is off-putting. It has been my experience that in many organizations, the top brass really covets the recognition bestowed by United Way at the end of the campaign with their annual ‘thank you’ dinners. I think that is a key reason why many companies pressure employees…good PR for the organization (although to be fair, many of these top execs honestly do support the United Way).

    The fact that United Way continues to presume to tell others, whose personal financial circumstances they know nothing about, what’s a “fair share” is sufficient to irritate many, as it always does.

  12. I worked at a major supermarket chain in the 1980s (not Ingles) when I was a teenager, and we had an annual mandatory meeting where pressure was exerted to give to United Way. I didn’t give then, and I always had a negative view of United Way, and companies that brag of a United Way connection, because of the heavy handed tactics that were employed on their behalf.

  13. Media Watcher

    ” . . .Full disclosure: Smith is the partner of Xpress staff reporter Michael Muller . . . ”

    If a staff member’s partner is the sole source of the story, should it be used? Did the reporter talk with any other city employees who attended the meeting? Did he find out if any other city agencies are doing anything similar? Sounds like a reporter and staffer using the paper to push the grievance of a friend/associate. Is this appropriate for a news organization? Should the “full disclosure” have been disclosed within the body of the article?

  14. UnaffiliatedVoter

    WHY would anyone donate to the corrupt United Way?
    They have TOO MANY ‘executives’ earning OUTRAGEOUS salaries and wasting lots of donations.

    Google Gloria Pace King of Charlotte, and see just how heinous these people can be! Dont EVER give money to the UNITED WAY, because you never know WHERE it’s going…

  15. ashevillain7

    You think that’s bad? How about being forced into a one on one mandatory meeting (like I was this year)!? At least when it’s a group meeting you can just sit there and mostly ignore the guilt trip. It becomes exponentially more painful to listen to when the guilt trip is a one on one confrontation.

    I have no problem with the concept of a charitable contribution. However, when the salary I’m making is barely enough for a paycheck to paycheck lifestyle I don’t need somebody telling me how important it is to them to have 100% enrollment.

  16. Margaret Williams

    For the record, the United Way of Asheville posts a Web page outlining the local organizations, projects and nonprofits it funds each year:
    http://www.unitedwayabc.org/your_dollars/2010-2011 InvestmentsA.pdf

    Mr. Smith — and others interviewed for this article to corroborate the complaint — made clear that they’re not attacking the United Way and believe the organization, overall, does good work. What’s at issue was the impression the meeting was mandatory and that it included a religious component.

    And full disclosure for me as well: A close uncle of mine has worked for/with the United Way in Alabama (he’s now exec. dir. of the Homeless Coalition of the Gulf Coast).

  17. @Margaret Williams:

    Anti-Christian complaints from people in Asheville are de rigueur and yawn-worthy. Most of the comments in this thread seem to back it up as most just ignored it and went for the United Way component.

  18. Betty Cloer Wallace

    @ Thunder Pig: Anti-Christian complaints from people in Asheville are de rigueur and yawn-worthy.

    And vice versa.

  19. Margaret Williams

    to answer the anonymous MediaWatcher in brief:

    ” . . .Full disclosure: Smith is the partner of Xpress staff reporter Michael Muller . . . ” If a staff member’s partner is the sole source of the story, should it be used?
    Smith wasn’t the only source, but he was perhaps the only one willing to go on record.

    Did the reporter talk with any other city employees who attended the meeting?
    Forbes corroborated that the meeting did indeed happen and that other employees attended, etc. The story wouldn’t have gone forward otherwise.

    Did he find out if any other city agencies are doing anything similar?
    Still looking into the bigger picture.

    Sounds like a reporter and staffer using the paper to push the grievance of a friend/associate.
    Your opinion. Not the case. Anyone can walk in off the street, send an e-mail or call us with a tip, Tweet us, voice a complaint, etc. Many do so; few are willing or able to go on the record, and/or their stories can’t be corroborated. In this case, city staff were quick to respond to our query about the issue, acknowledging that it happened and was potentially a concern.

    Is this appropriate for a news organization?
    If we hadn’t followed up on a tip, just because the informant was associated with a staffer, we’d be ignoring our journalistic instincts.

    Should the “full disclosure” have been disclosed within the body of the article?
    The disclosure is pretty clear.

  20. Betty Cloer Wallace

    @ Margaret Williams: Did he (Muller) find out if any other city agencies are doing anything similar? /// Still looking into the bigger picture.

    This ain’t just Asheville city agencies, folks. The pressure is nationwide—in both governmental agencies and private enterprises.

  21. Margaret Williams

    Thanks, BettyCW — but “he” is Senior News Reporter David Forbes. Staffer Michael Muller did not contribute to this blog post article, other than being related to Mike Smith.

  22. People need to be vary careful when they give to charities. There are now sites that rate the various non-profits. Make sure you’re not giving to any that have outrageous salaries, expense accounts, etc.

    It’s irresponsible to give to any charity without first making sure the bulk of the money goes to the needy. Not in the pockets of fat cat executives.

  23. Dionysis

    “There are now sites that rate the various non-profits”

    And among them, one of the most consulted is this one:

    http://www.CharityNavigator.org

    Although they often do not have up-to-date information. Most data on charities currently are as of the end of 2008. They do provide such things as total operating costs, percentage of donations going to operations vs. administrative costs and fundraising, the percentage of revenue and amount of office holders’ salaries and most importantly an efficiency rating, which is reflected by a ‘star’, on a one to four scale.

  24. Dionysis

    “It’s irresponsible to give to any charity without first making sure the bulk of the money goes to the needy. Not in the pockets of fat cat executives.”

    To add some specifics to my previous post, Charity Navigator shows four United Way entities within NC (Trident of N. Charleston, Forsyth County covering Winston-Salem area, United Way of Greater Greensboro and United Way of Greater Triangle). The one with the highest rating of three stars is Trident; the one with the lowest rating of zero (that’s right, no stars) is Greater Triangle. As of the end of 2008, nearly 60% of their revenue was spent on admin. and executive salaries, with only 41% actually going to operations (i.e. the charitable recepients). As of the end of that year, their CEO was paid over a quarter of a million dollars.

  25. Thank you Dionysis.

    My understanding is salaries should amount to 30% of a charities expenses. That 60% might explain why the Greater Triangle gets no stars.

    Only after we became acutely aware of the lack of oversight in local non-profits, did I learn to use Guidestar or other rating sites to access the ratings of charities.

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