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What Red Nose Day tells us about the need for comic relief in the modern workplace

Red Nose Day – organised by Comic relief – is one of the only times of year when it’s OK to go to work in a brightly coloured wig and throw gunge at your boss.

Founded by the comedy scriptwriter Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry in response to famine in Ethiopia, the telethon has raised more than £1 billion since it began in 1985. And much of the money included in this “grand total” is raised by staff in shops, supermarkets, banks, restaurants and other high street locations up and down the country.

Employee fundraising is the most common way UK-based companies support charities, and similar activity can be found across the world. The phrase “corporate philanthropy” suggests donations that are approved in the boardroom and made from company profits, but when it comes to raising funds from customers and colleagues, shop floor employees do most of the legwork. They organise the fundraising activities, explain the charitable cause to customers, ask for contributions and thank the donors.

Yet despite their essential role, little is known about why employees get involved with good causes. So our new research looked to gain a better understanding of the “shop floor” perspective on corporate philanthropy, to discover the motivations and expectations of this army of fundraisers on the shop floor.

We wanted to to find out how staff members decide which causes to support (Comic Relief being only one of many beneficiaries) as well as what fundraising activities to develop. We also looked at what motivates them to become involved, and how their decision making and charitable behaviour might differ from that of business owners and managers.

Giving to good causes

Charity fundraising relies on askers as much as givers. And research demonstrates that most donations are prompted, proving the adage that “if you don’t ask you don’t get”.

But our results highlight distinct differences between the goals and motivations of business leaders and their employees. While the bosses seek “brand alignment” with appropriate charities that can deliver proven business benefits, their employees prefer causes that are personally meaningful and related to their own life events.

Many of the staff members we spoke with expressed their disquiet about the types of causes prioritised by their corporate leaders – which are often perceived as less worthy than charities they would choose. One of the people we spoke with explained how their company had recently made a major investment in an arts organisation: “Theatre is like a luxury, you can live without a theatre.”

In all the workplaces we studied, the causes most likely to inspire enthusiastic employee fundraising efforts were cancer charities, children’s charities and hospices. Personal connections and experiences trigger these preferences – as someone working in a bank explained: “One of our colleagues unfortunately died in one of the hospices, so there is a personal feel for the hospice that we’re trying to raise funds for.” And a supermarket employee noted: “Lots of colleagues do tend to think of cancer charities –- and yes, that’s number one in my book. And children’s charities for the obvious reasons.”

Fun in fundraising

Once a “seriously worthwhile” charity is chosen by employees, employees then expect workplace fundraising to be “seriously fun”. An opportunity for light relief from their day job, while breaking down barriers between staff, customers and managers.

Reflecting on her motivation for voluntarily leading the staff charity committee, one woman explained: “You go down the chilled meat aisle and there’s some guy standing there in a blue wig and some Elton John blue sunglasses. It’s just a bit of fun and the customers love it as well.”

Raising money for charity can take lots of different forms. Shutterstock

The fun also involves shop floor staff organising activities that can be painful, embarrassing and even humiliating for their managers. In another supermarket we were told that: “Last year we had all of our section leaders and half our managers having their legs waxed and chests waxed.” Customer-service staff in a different company gleefully announced: “We’re having some stocks made. I’ve actually just been offered a gunge tank as well, and the managers will go in those.”

Turn the tables

Our study also highlights a previously overlooked aspect of corporate philanthropy, and that is the creation of what anthropologists call “liminal spaces” – where the normal ways of behaving and organising social life are temporarily overturned. Workplace fundraising can satisfy shop floor staff’s desire for some –- albeit shortlived –- power and enjoyment at the expense of their corporate superiors.

Of course, it is not only during fundraising activities that “liminality” occurs in the workplace. It also happens at other culturally sanctioned times in the calendar, such as the annual office Christmas party when normal standards of deferential behaviour are lifted. And at away days or outward bound-type trips when conventional ranks are disregarded in pursuit of team building objectives.

Ultimately though, this new research reinforces the point that philanthropy typically dovetails with personal concerns. Specifically, it shows that prioritising the philanthropic preferences of people on the shop floor over those in the boardroom enables companies to respect the moral claims of their staff and helps to humanise the workplace with employees’ personal experiences. All of which increases their likelihood of being enthusiastic participants in fundraising activities.

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