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

A nonprofit organization won't provide a Christmas party for employees.
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A reader wonders why her nonprofit organization will not provide a Christmas party for employees. She wanted the thoughts and experience of a Human Resources staff person to see if this is normal for a nonprofit. Everyone knows 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 in nonprofits are awful. Done on minimal, if any budget, it is hard for nonprofit employees not to become resentful. This is especially true when management has the money to make trips across the country regularly and at short notice, but they can't find $25 a head for 40 workers to sponsor a Christmas party for employees?

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

Response From the HR Point of View to the Question of Why a Nonprofit Won't Provide a Christmas Party

Unfortunately, you're asking an HR person who hates fancy work parties and loves a good office potluck. But, your question about why a nonprofit won't hold a decent Christmas party for employees is a good question because it seeks to understand the motivation.

Is the lack of a real, company provided holiday party mean-spirited? The answer to your question, as is the answer to many questions in HR is: It depends.

As you've stated, the nonprofit 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 expectations can make life difficult for a staff who already are making less money than they would in the for-profit sector. Throw in a lousy holiday party and the employees get angry.

But, what happens when you have an awesome party? Almost everybody loves a good party. A good meal, excellent 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 parties? The donors or the taxpayers (if you're funded by government grants). It's the type of event that lands your nonprofit in the news—and not in a good way: “The Foundation for X, Y, and Z had a lavish party, that made donors question whether the foundation was putting their money to good use.”

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

What Affects Whether Your Nonprofit Throws a Christmas Party?

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 factor.

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 they 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, you might not like or enjoy this type of 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 is nice and reasonable about everything else, trust that this isn't mean-spirited, but done out of practicality.

What Can You Do to Encourage a Christmas Party in Your Nonprofit?

What can you do? If it's reasonable in your sector to have a party, have you brought the idea up to the bosses? (They can't read your mind, you know, and employees often forget this.)

And how have they reacted? Have you priced how much the Christmas party might cost your nonprofit? 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 ever volunteered to do the work.

You may also want to reframe your request for a Christmas party for employees as a holiday party or end of the year party. Your bosses may consider a Christmas party as not inclusive of the beliefs and needs of all employees.

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