I work at a very small company and the CEO and Founder is big on organizing volunteer events and charity fundraising within the company.

He is a great man who came from extremely difficult beginnings in a very rough neighborhood who managed to avoid getting caught up in gangs and went to school against all odds. He has formed several succesful businesses over the years but has never forgotten his roots and where he came from. He is always looking for ways to donate money and volunteer for those less fortunate, especially for children.

Last year for Thanksgiving he asked everybody in the company to "volunteer" at a community center to help cook and serve turkey dinner for underprivileged kids in a tough neighborhood. Most of these children grew up and never had a warm three course meal with dessert in their lives, many of which from broken families or their parents spend all of their money on drugs leaving them to go hungry.

I happily volunteered and felt good about helping. This year however I have circumstances that prevent me from volunteering, but am unsure of the proper way to communicate this. I get the feeling that I will be looked down on because I can't attend this year.

Is offering to donate money an acceptable alternative for not being able to attend or would this be considered inappropriate?

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    Could you clarify the level to which this is actual volunteering versus volun-told-ing? You used quotation marks around "volunteer", and I completely understand why, but what really is the level to which this is a volunteering situation versus a clear I-can't-make-you-do-this-but-you-really-better-show-up situation? Either way, just being perfectly honest ("I would like to, but personal circumstances make it impossible") is the way to go, but I think what you want to add to that message depends on the true expectations...can you clarify?
    – jcmeloni
    Nov 19, 2012 at 19:24
  • @jcmeloni I wouldn't go so far as to say it is volun-told-ing but there is quite a bit of pressure and guilt the way he communicates it. He is (like most CEO's) extremely Type A personality so I sometimes feel intimidated to tell him news he may not want to hear. He of course says we don't have to go but he wants us to approach him and tell him directly that we will not be able to come. Nov 19, 2012 at 19:35
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    If this is an ongoing concern that serves meals often, they would probably love it if you came at some time other than a holiday. I'm sure they get plenty of people volunteering to help or to provide supplies, it's the rest of year that they're scrambling to find people and supplies. You might bring that up with the boss.
    – mkennedy
    Nov 19, 2012 at 21:27
  • If you know, or could inquire discretely, how your boss typically does his holiday meals probably feeds into his expectations of what other people can do. Volunteering somewhere for a few hours is much easier if you just go out to a nice restaurant for the meal than if you put in a full days work cooking the entire meal from scratch. Nov 19, 2012 at 22:09

4 Answers 4


Especially if you enjoyed it last year, why not ask him for the contact info you'd need to do it another time? Just say you had a great time last year, were looking forward to it this year but can't, and want to know how to arrange it for yourself at a time when you don't have an unbreakable committment to do something else.

Advantages: it lets you tell him why you can't do it without getting in the "you don't need to tell me why, I assure you it's completely voluntary" rabbit hole, it gives you a way to let him know you think it's a good idea and you like it, and you might actually enjoy doing it some other time anyway.

As to whether you use the contact info to volunteer later, that truly is voluntary. But since you enjoyed it, approve of it, and know you would be approved of by your boss if you did, I recommend that you do.


Volunteering is voluntary. I would make sure the CEO really does mean volunteering and then let them know you won't be there this year. Volunteering and donating are often played out to make you feel guilty if you don't participate but you can't let someone else guilt you into it. I think this case falls under any sort of office social practices that you wouldn't normally hesitate to decline participation in, such as buying coworkers presents for birthdays or having lunch at the same restaurant every Friday.

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    this is the real answer Nov 19, 2012 at 21:45
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    It is not always voluntary. It is often an expected extra commitment. I was once honest and expressed my opinion about the United Way social programs(in a polite way) and found myself jobless in a week. On the way out the HR rep said I should probably keep my opinions on charitable work to myself in the future. Nov 19, 2012 at 23:23
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    @Chad sounds like a company you wouldn't want to work for anyway Nov 20, 2012 at 12:51
  • @PaulBrown - It was a great company with great benefits and good people to work with... So yes it was a company I wanted to work for. Nov 20, 2012 at 14:01

Per your comment:

he wants us to approach him and tell him directly that we will not be able to come

I would just go to him and say "I already made plans for Thanksgiving this year and I won't be able to attend the volunteer event." (Or you could state whatever your actual reason is, if you want to.)

If your boss has a problem with that, then you have several options.

  • As you said, you can offer to donate money in lieu of volunteering. Depending on his level of involvement with the charity, he may know whether or not they need money, or whether they primarily need people.
  • As Kate points out, you can offer to volunteer at a different time. It tells him that you're not against the idea of volunteering or the charity itself, just that the timing is bad. (Then again, the fact that you volunteered last year should already tell him this.)
  • You could offer to break your plans. This should be totally up to you; depending on what you were planning, this may be easy or hard to do, but you should only offer to do this if you feel like it's a viable option. I don't know how your boss might feel about you breaking your plans; on the one hand, you're going to be volunteering again; on the other hand, perhaps he'll think "he didn't really have big plans if he was willing to drop them so easily". You may have a better idea how he'll react.
  • If none of the above will work, just apologize again for already having plans, but tell him that they're already firm.

In any case, if your boss reacts badly to you not attending his event, you may want to consider searching for a different job. ("React badly" could be anything from "he's more abrupt with me at work now" to "I didn't get a bonus/raise we had been discussing" to "he switched me to a totally different project than I'd been working on", or something different.)

I know "you don't want to work at a place that makes you do X" is sort of cliche, but I personally would be offended if my boss had problems with the way I spend my time outside of work.

Perhaps your reason for being busy is that you're volunteering at a different charity. Perhaps you're driving several hours away to visit family. Perhaps work has been so hectic that you really just need time to take the phone off the hook and recuperate. Regardless of your reason, if your boss is requiring you to spend your holiday in a way that's causing you "pressure and guilt", then I would probably begin a job search so this doesn't happen again next Thanksgiving.

However, it sounds like (in general) you like working for him and don't have a problem most of the year. I would add this to the list of "things to deal with if you work at this company" and as long as the list isn't terribly long, I would completely understand just dealing with it when the holidays roll around each year.

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    Your pretty much spot on, I love working for him and I think he is a great man who gives a lot back for the community. He is not exceedingly wealthy and is generous and grateful to his employees. He does however like to bring a "show of force" and have the entire company involved with events however. It can be unnerving to be the odd guy out but I guess you must take the good with the bad. Nov 20, 2012 at 3:26

The fact that he apparently sprung this on you at the last moment should argue against any voluntolding situation. A few days notice is far too short an amount of time to expect anyone to change any plans not relating to free time before/after your planned meal, such as 'watch football after lunch' or 'sleep in prior to starting dinner prep'.

If he really wanted to recruit the entire office; the time to do so would've been early spring, or late last year, before most people had made any plans for this years holiday.

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    He does this every year so we all expect it and we knew a month in advance. Unfortunately I had something extremely important also scheduled for that day. Nov 20, 2012 at 3:28

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