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Well-Intentioned Charity May Be Overboard

Fellow E-hellions, I feel a bit bad about calling out this faux pas (if it is one), because I know it’s essentially a well-intentioned effort by well-meaning people to garner support for a friend in tragic difficulties.  But the whole phenomenon seems to me to be just so hideously tacky on so many levels—and this is the second or third time this year that I’ve encountered it at my workplace—that I think it belongs in Ehell as a warning to other well-meaning people who may be tempted to follow the trend. If I’m wrong about that, feel free to go ahead and rip me a new one (with your customary politeness, of course).

Here’s the story.  Today I received the following (heavily censored) mass email sent to all employees at my workplace:

“Dear [Workplace] Community: “[Colleague Name,] dear friend to many of us at [Workplace], has recently been diagnosed with [Name of Serious Illness]. She is in the process of receiving treatments, which has been very difficult on both her and her husband… [Details of family connections, diagnosis and treatment suppressed]. “In the meantime, we would like to show our support. Prescriptions, medical expenses and travel costs are just a few of the expenses they are facing, and we would like to help. “Please help us in sending [Colleague and Spouse] our best wishes for a speedy recovery by signing a giant get well card. The card is located at [Workplace Location]. “In addition, please consider helping financially.  Join our very own [Other Colleague] and his band [Band Name] at [Local Music and Dining Establishment] at [Date and Time].  There will be a collection box, a 50/50 raffle and a raffle of donated items, which will be available for viewing during dinner hours.  All of the proceeds will go straight to [Colleague and Spouse] to help offset some of the medical expenses they are facing. “And if you or anyone you know would like to donate a service or merchandise to raffle, please contact [Name of Contact Person]. “So come out and have some fun.  Let’s raise the roof and raise some money to help support [Colleague and Spouse] during this difficult time in their lives. “Sincerely, [Names of Well-Meaning Co-workers]”

First of all, am I just crazy, or is there something horribly incongruous in the message “Hey everybody, [Beloved Colleague] has cancer!  Come out and have some fun!”?  I don’t happen to know this particular co-worker  personally, but if I did, finding out about her serious illness would NOT inspire me to go out to a local bar and “raise the roof”.  Heck, even without knowing her personally, I’m pretty depressed to read about her predicament.  Who on earth would enjoy the idea of using somebody else’s life-threatening health crisis as an excuse to party or as an opportunity to win a raffle item?

Secondly, while I deeply sympathize with families who are feeling the strain of a serious illness financially as well as in other aspects of their lives, aren’t colleagues and employers supposed to address this issue by means of official employee benefits rather than by randomly passing the hat?  We’re lucky enough at our workplace to have a pretty good health insurance policy for employees, and many of us have made compromises on salary levels and other employment perks in order to have a high-quality benefits package that is available to all of us.  If our employee medical coverage is massively inadequate for employees with serious illnesses (and I know that hardly any insurance policy will cover all expenses of a serious illness, which is deplorable), then by all means let’s take action to remedy that.  But the idea of trying to fill the coverage gaps for individual colleagues by soliciting cash handouts from co-workers who may never even have met them just seems really undignified. And it also seems rather unfair to other co-workers who may also be facing major expenses associated with serious illness in their families but prefer to keep it a private matter.  Should we really consider it acceptable to have our well-meaning co-workers blabbing the details of our private medical and family issues to all and sundry in our workplace, and arranging public entertainment events to spotlight our problems and our need for monetary help?  Is somebody who finds that appallingly distasteful just being a mean old unsympathetic grinch?

That said, I do think the idea of a giant get-well card that all interested co-workers can sign is nice.  Saying “Hey everybody, [Beloved Colleague] is going through tough times and needs your money!” may be tacky, but saying “Hey everybody, [Beloved Colleague] is going through tough times and needs your good wishes!” seems thoughtful and sweet.  If [Well-Meaning Co-workers] had left it at that, I wouldn’t have written this letter.    0719-11


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • shostet August 26, 2011, 2:50 pm

    This doesn’t bother me at all. If I was as in need as the person for whom the benefit is being held, really a giant card wouldn’t do much for me. I am assuming he/she knows about the sharing of the information, so I don’t see that as a problem. Benefits of this kind are done all the time in my area. I’m not saying that makes it by-the-book correct in terms of etiquette, but I have never heard anyone complain that it was rude or inappropriate. I certainly would never assume that someone was inviting me to “celebrate” that another person was ill–it’s simply a means to an end to help them out.

  • Ginger 630 August 26, 2011, 4:03 pm

    It depends…if this is a huge company and many people are strangers, then this would be wierd, esp for the sick coworker. But if most of them are close, I see nothing wrong with it. It’s a good thing to do and makes you feel good.

    Many insurance companies these days are denying a lot claims and some expenses aren’t just medical…food, bills, gas/travel to the doctors/hospital, etc…

    We did this a few times for coworkers who were sick or who had family members who were sick. Some people gave without being at the workplace that long. But it was a community type place and we were all close. It made us feel good to do something for someone else who needed our help.

  • Ginger 630 August 26, 2011, 4:05 pm

    And doing this at a bar/concert isn’t about partying…I think it’s more giving back to those who are giving…you give some money to help a sick coworker and you get to hear some great music.

  • WildIrishRose August 26, 2011, 4:39 pm

    Something similar happened here with a co-worker who had brain cancer. The benefit was conducted with her knowledge and approval, and proved to be a godsend for her family. Insurance doesn’t cover travel expenses, child care, pet care, meals, all the things that victims of catastrophic illnesses are still faced with. When my co-worker passed away, those who attended the benefit were able to share memories of one last good time they had with a friend, and her family had a lot less pressure on them where bills were concerned. It was the right thing to do and didn’t hurt a soul.

    Of course you’re not obligated to attend the benefit. If you don’t know this person, it would be nothing more than awkward for you, and clearly you’re not interested in it anyway, so don’t insult the beneficiary and his/her family by attending. Feel free to make a modest donation if you can, and/or sign the card, but do not feel obligated to attend a benefit for someone you don’t know!

    In my opinion, this doesn’t really rise to the level of an etiquette breach. This is just friends, acquaintances, and co-workers who wish to help in some way; you just never know what your own situation may be sometime. When my stepson passed away, his mother’s co-workers donated sick and vacation pay to help defray funeral expenses because he had no life insurance. Personally, I think any time people genuinely want to help someone, it’s a good thing and if you don’t want to participate, don’t, but don’t shame yourself by complaining about it. And if I were the one who was sick, I would WANT a benefit to be uplifting and fun. God knows the bad parts of it aren’t going anywhere.

  • Gracie C. August 26, 2011, 4:48 pm

    I think it’s wonderful what they did. You have the option not to participate. Sometimes, in the face of all that bad, all someone has left is community. When the majority of time is spent at work for most of us, why shouldn’t they be part of our community? Obviously no one should feel pressured or be shunned for not participating, but I think it’s wonderful. Hot meals are wonderful, but no matter how good your lasagna is, it’s not paying $50,000 in medical bills or keeping someone from losing their home. And as someone else pointed out, patients are often severely restricted in what they can eat.

  • Yuki August 26, 2011, 6:46 pm

    I would have to say that I really do not find this inappropriate. Here’s why: At my high school, we have a charity drive each year during the month of February. It all goes to a charity organization and we usually raise in the HUNDREDS of thousands of dollars. How does this relate? Because the whole school takes it really seriously and they go to extremes far “tackier” than what the OP described above. People solicit, get in your face, and even ostracize you if you don’t participate (one event even allows people who donate to force classmates into an eat-a-thon). They don’t care if you’re flat broke or you oppose the charity, you’re practically obligated (by the other students, not staff) to at least donate in some way. But in the end everyone feels good, they had lots of fun at the fund-raising events, and they feel so good about what they did. After experiencing this, I can safely say that the fund-raiser above is A-OK. And about the medical information above, I would assume the afflicted would have OK’ed the inclusion if there was a fundraiser being held for them.

  • Harley Granny August 26, 2011, 7:47 pm

    I read these responses with great interest…Early this year my husband and I were the beneficiary’s of one of these fund raisers.
    The only difference was, it was our friends that initiated it not co-workers. The co-workers were included and invited.
    While at the beginning we were very uncomfortable about it we agreed to it for two reasons….one was being the fact that we really did need the money between hubby being out of work for his cancer treatments (still is out) and an outrageous total out of pocket we would have had to take a 2nd mortgage out just to pay for everything.
    But surprisingly that wasn’t the main reason…our friends wanted to be useful during this extremely stressful time and didn’t know how.
    As you can tell by my user name we ride motorcycles and have participated in many a fundraiser in the form of poker runs for much the same reason.
    So a poker run was organized. Everyone had a blast, our friend found a way to help us and we got some major medical bills paid off and a bit in our savings to get us thru until he goes back to work.

    I am so glad to see that the majority of the comments don’t see anything wrong with this. Like I said, I’ve participated in many of these Poker Runs and never dreamed that one day it would be my husband and my photo on the poster.

  • Amy August 26, 2011, 10:28 pm

    I think that it is a wonderful opportunity for the people who know the person in need. As long as there isn’t a stigma attached to not contributing, so that people who can’t afford it or don’t know the needy person are not penalized, it’s no big deal. Personally, I prefer it when contributions are anonymous.

    However, I do think it is kind of tacky when it is an all-call on Facebook, just like the everyone-is-invited baby shower mentioned recently in another post. I got a contribution request yesterday through Facebook from a person I have never met to help pay for his great aunt’s surgery.

  • Amanda Kate August 27, 2011, 12:21 am

    I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s not like they’re having fun for the heck of it. They’re doing it to help out. Those bills need to be paid, and it doesn’t matter how the money is raised, it’s enough that they care to help out. If I were very sick and someone held a party to raise money for me, I would be incredibly touched.

  • Gilraen August 27, 2011, 4:35 am

    I agree that this is highly inappropriate. I really dislike begging letters like this. Whereas I am more than willing to help in a situation where I can, but this is feeling like entrapment. It makes those that cannot give, or are not willing to give feeling guilty. It is a co-worker that I do not know, with good health benefits.
    I a more than willing to send a card, but to have a party to raise money no sorry I don’t like mixing private and work to that extend.

    If somebody would do that for me, with me being on good health benefits, I would send the money to people that really are in dire need.

  • Michelle P August 27, 2011, 12:33 pm

    Kind of torn on this one. I don’t see anything wrong with the letter, except for the possibility of TMI, and it depends on the size/closeness of the company. My father was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, and had to go through chemo and several surgeries. He’s worked hard all of his life, and still works after going into remission. He had to give up his business he owned and worked for over twenty years. No one had a fundraiser for him; my sister and I offered to help him financially, he refused. His mother’s church offered to help have a fundraiser, he refused. He pays off his medical debt a little more each month, is careful with his money and still works as hard as he can to do that. His words were that he will not accept others’ money for his actions and problems.

    I don’t see anything wrong with others’ helping anyone with a need, as long as it’s tastefully done. Many people terminally ill may not have the options my father has.

    I take slight offense at the belittling of people cooking and giving cards, however. Particularly @GracieC, the “your lasagna might be great, but it won’t help 50,000 debt” or something similar, for example. There’s nothing wrong with contributing hot meals or cards or anything else to people in need. I would love to give money to every cause for every illness for every person I know, but I can’t financially. I am a good cook and wish to contribute to others that way, and it should be appreciated.

  • The Other Amber August 27, 2011, 1:55 pm

    The people who are commenting about excellent health benefits, have obviously never had to use those health benefits for a major illness.

    I live in Canada. Much of our health care is covered by the government. I had a friend who worked for government and had excellent health benefits as well. She was diagnosed with a disease that eventually took her life. Many days she’d be too weak to be able to go to work. There were limits to how many sick days her health benefits would cover so often her paycheque was reduced because she was unable to work. Because she hadn’t lost a limb or anything like that so her health benefits didn’t see a reason to be paying the mortgage. They also didn’t agree with her doctors that all of her medications were “necessary” and as such didn’t cover some of them, leaving her to pay about $1000 a month in prescriptions. Just because health benefits look “excellent” on paper doesn’t mean that they’re going to cover everything, or will even cover the things you think they will.

    I don’t see anything wrong with the email that was sent. The only thing that was actually requested is that people sign the card. They asked that people think about contributing financially. They advised about the fundraiser. We don’t even know what the “personal details” that were given out – it could have been as simple as cancer and chemotherapy. I think taking offense at it is a massive over-reaction.

  • Gabriele August 28, 2011, 3:49 am

    Anyone see today’s Dear Abby?

    DEAR ABBY: I was recently diagnosed with cancer. The support I have received from friends and family has been wonderful. However, I have a challenge.
    A friend from work who is a cancer survivor has solicited money from other co-workers on my behalf. I didn’t know she had done it, but if I had, I certainly would not have condoned it. My husband and I are well-off, and my company’s health insurance is adequate for my medical expenses.

    My friend keeps trying to find ways to spend the collected money on me. Unfortunately, she buys things I neither want nor need. I’m so uncomfortable with this entire situation that I don’t know what to do. How would you handle this? — EMBARRASSED BY THE ATTENTION

    DEAR EMBARRASSED: I’d ask the friend for a list of the names of the people who contributed so I could thank them for their thoughtfulness and generosity. And when I got it, I would nicely tell her that, while I appreciate her collecting the money, I do not need it and I want it returned to the donors. Then I would write each of the donors a short, personal note explaining the situation and expressing my gratitude.

  • Typo Tat August 28, 2011, 6:34 am

    I think that if you read Yuki’s comment, you’ll realize exactly why such solicitations do not belong at the workplace.

    Some people just don’t know where to stop, and someone being harassed and ostracized for not participating in donations (for whatever reason they might have) in very very wrong, unprofessional, and creates unneeded office drama. This kind of aggressive solicitation is wrong in high-school and has absolutely no place in a work environment.

  • Gracie C. August 28, 2011, 10:56 am

    @Michelle – no offense was intended. I think bringing hot meals is fabulous in so many circumstances. That comment was in response to those who were saying that the fundraiser was inappropriate and implying that bringing a hot meal was the ONLY thing that was appropriate. When my dad died, many people brought food, and it was so ridiculously appreciated. And I’m sure the family in question would appreciate it as well. But whether or not people can/should bring food doesn’t really have anything to do with whether or not a fundraiser is appropriate or not. One is not a comparable substitute for the other. I guess I should have worded it differently.

  • AS August 28, 2011, 1:26 pm

    @Typo Tat, you hit the nail on the head. I was about to reply something in those lines to Yuki’s comment.
    @Yuki, people who are okay with the charity comes off feeling good about it. But have you ever asked specifically the people who don’t want to contribute; whether they felt good or not? And even if you did, are you sure that they answered honestly to you? If you are in high school, and people who don’t participate in a charity can be ostracized, I am not sure people would even honestly tell you that they did not feel good about it.

    I have had fund raisers for charities when I was in school and college. But no one forced you to pay anything, anyone who does not pay is by no means ostracized, and it is for charity and not an individual. I have nothing against having “fun” to raise money for charities or for someone who really needs it. But just to go about raising money because a person is ill can be extremely embarrassing for the recipient.

    Gabrielle’s anecdote is a good reminder why general fund-raisers for an individual should be avoided, unless you are absolutely sure that the person needs it.

  • Chris August 28, 2011, 5:14 pm

    Hi, just adding my two cents. Sometimes rules are meant to be broken, even etiquette rules! Helping a person in this situation is definitely one of these times and I don’t see anything wrong with the email. If the recipient of the email chooses, he/she can delete the email and not respond, or, conversely, respond and help out. However, I don’t think anyone would want to add more stress to a sick person in this situation, so, one should ask permission of that person first.

  • Natalie August 29, 2011, 1:08 pm

    I find the idea that the co-workers should advocate for better benefits perplexing. Companies don’t get to just dictate what their insurance will cover – except for very large companies they generally choose from a few specific plans and leave it at that. And many insurance companies (possibly all, I’m not sure) have lifetime benefits limits – it doesn’t matter how good the coverage is if you hit that limit. Serious illnesses are very expensive and hitting the lifetime limit is not a far-fetched possibility.

    The only change I might have made, assuming non-financial help was needed, would be to include ways people could help if they couldn’t afford to donate – setting up and tearing down the benefit, assisting with the raffle, organizing some help with cleaning, cooking, child/pet/lawn care, and so forth. If I was the OP I would personally want to assist in some way, but I’m not in a position to give money at this moment in my life. But I can walk a dog or scrub some floors.

  • Yuki August 29, 2011, 7:26 pm


    I honestly do not know of a whole lot of people who wouldn’t contribute. In fact, I was somebody who opposed a charity last year (they had recently received a lot of money from our sister school) and I was cash strapped, so I was the one who wouldn’t be donating. I realize I was very unclear, my point was that I didn’t go around telling people that they should stop soliciting because it was impolite. I did end up donating when possible, because maybe I wanted to buy a cupcake that was offered to me, even though my money would be going to the charity I didn’t like. My OPINION on this matter is that it is acceptable, because it appears to be a (much more tactful than I’m used to) notification of a fundraising event rather than straight up “please pay my medical expenses”. And I also realize that what is okay at a school is not necessarily okay at the workplace. One more thing, I write this in the assumption that the recipient is completely alright with the event, which is most likely if something so big as this is being planned. If this was done without their permission, then my above statement does not apply. Thank you.

  • Roslyn August 29, 2011, 8:26 pm

    I don’t have a problem with the whole benefit party part of the situation. My only concerns would be if 100% of money raised is going to the ill person. If they are taking money people are giving to pay for venue, food etc then I would have a problem.

    Also, is this something that is done for every person in medical need, or only those who know the party planners? So if you aren’t in the “club” then your medical issues don’t receive the same attention. That would bug me as well.

  • Mabel September 1, 2011, 2:19 pm

    We had a coworker who had massive surgery due to a genetic condition that predisposed him to certain death by colon cancer. Our company is very small and we all know this person pretty well. People sent around a get well card and someone else privately collected donations (they weren’t mandatory) so his kids would be sure to have a Christmas. Because of the extensive nature of this surgery, they had to go to a large city to take care of it, and travel/other expenses ate into their budget pretty hard. We were all glad to chip in. It helped out someone we cared about. Granted, we didn’t pay all his expenses, but they were pretty grateful. And he’s back at work now, as feisty as ever. 🙂

  • Annie September 3, 2011, 6:52 am

    I would donate money. I donated vacation time to co-workers who needed time off due to illness or a family member’s illness. In today’s world, cancer is no longer a hush-hush subject. There is nothing wrong with asking for and receiving help. We had a co-worker whose house was destroyed by a tornado. Although she has insurance, the family needed certain things right away including gift cards for meals because they no longer had a kitchen, utensils, cookware etc. We did a fudraiser and we donated items to help them get started. I lost everything I owned in a fire when my husband moved into my apartment building. I did not have renters insurance, lost everything I owned. My co-workers collected money and our friends and family helped us get on our feet. Someone bought me 5 pairs of dress slacks, 5 coordinated tops and a bathrobe. To this day I don’t know who the generous soul was.

  • Leah September 5, 2011, 6:39 pm

    If all contributions were anonymous that’s one thing, but it sounds like these most certainly are not.
    I would not donate, nor would I want anyone donating to us. Nor would I want to have to explain to the people at work WHY we would not be donating.

    We have 1 daughter with no health benefits, a child, and only a part-time job since her company went into bankruptcy; 4 parents in their late 80s (one with Alzheimer’s) who need help paying for things; I need some surgery; my husband has a heart condition… none of which I wish to be common knowledge amongst my colleagues.
    May be selfish of us, but we take care of our own thankyouverymuch, and have little left over for taking care of others.

  • Katie September 8, 2011, 1:23 am

    While I agree that the thought is there, I’d be absolutely horrified to learn that my private health issues were being shared with my entire company, and embarrassed to hear that people were being asked to give money for my bills. I’d be very curious to know just how much the sick colleague knew about this event and how much her colleagues were being told. When I was sick, I told my supervisor the details (because he was also a trusted friend) and asked him to let people know that I had an illness and would be off work for a while, and that I didn’t want to discuss it in further detail. People were great – sent flowers and cards and let me know they were thinking of me, and no one tried to grill me about details (though I’m sure that a few of them must have found out, as they work in different hospitals and I wouldn’t be surprised if they saw my name and which ward I was in). Everyone is different and this lady may have wanted something very different to what I did – perhaps her colleagues knowing just what was happening helped her to cope and made her feel more supported. And the extra cash may certainly have taken away part of one big worry. But for me the sacrifice of my privacy would not have been worth it. The situation it was all very scary and painful, and the last thing I wanted was everyone knowing just what was happening and putting their two cents worth in – I might add that I work in the medical industry. Once I was better I told work people, if they were friends. I didn’t want a huge conspiracy – I just didn’t want my illness to be gossiped about at the coffee machine as if it was the latest episode of Survivor! I’d had a colleague become seriously ill a few years before and people talked about each new development as the lastest episode in a soap opera, it was very tacky.

    Please don’t get me wrong – caring and support are extremely helpful, and like I said everyone is different in terms of how they want issues like this to be handled. But cards and flowers are always a lovely idea, and those things did cheer me up.

  • Heather September 9, 2011, 10:30 am

    I find nothing wrong with this – for those saying it is begging or entrapment; that is why they are offering an event for people to attend – so that it is not like asking strangers for money for nothing in return. Rather like a benefit concert.

  • Nicole September 22, 2011, 6:58 pm

    I live in a small town in a rural area and announcements like these are common place when someone gets sick or injured. Flyers are put up all over town and collection cans are at the registers in every gas station. Some events are full-out parties, others are just a simple meal and auction. Recently, there was a fundraiser for my half-brother’s dad and it was incredible to see how many people turned out to help the family. (Sadly, he passed away the day before the benefit.)

  • Alla September 28, 2011, 3:04 pm

    I’ll admit, I didn’t read through all of this, and the formatting of the italicised letter was a bit rough on the eyes, but…

    In 1998 I was diagnosed with “fatal” breast cancer. (Obviously, it wasn’t.) However, during the horrendous experiences of chemo, surgery, chemo, radiation, chemo, surgery, surgery, and so on, the last thing I wanted at any time was the “poor me” or the “omg you poor thing” scnearios. The more positive emotions of a “whee! party!” were much more helpful and in my opinion both as a healthcare professional, and a patient, much healthier.

    There’s no reason to focus on the horrendous negativity. Acknowledge it, move on, and bring forth something POSITIVE to focus on! That was my attitude then, and now.

  • Katje May 31, 2012, 3:46 pm

    A belated colleague of mine had cancer, which he unfortunately lost the battle to. When we met, his cancer was in remission but after we were transferred to different departments (ours was outsourced) I found out that the cancer came back with a vengeance. So to help with the costs of treatment they had a music benefit to raise money.