Buying stuff for one's nonprofit employer without it getting weird?
May 12, 2017 3:48 PM   Subscribe

In the event that a nonprofit organization wants to buy a particular tool, but cannot (given their near-term budget restrictions) afford to, how (if at all) might an individual employee who wants to do so legitimately contribute toward the tool's acquisition?

To clarify - in this hypothetical situation, say Mary is a technical specialist working for a nonprofit widget-repair center. Mary identifies a gadget that would help tremendously with widget repairs, but it costs (for instance) around $5000 US. Her boss tells her that, unfortunately, they don't have $5k in the budget for the rest of the year to purchase the gadget.

My question is, basically - is there any way Mary could help cover the cost of the gadget, and not have it be awkward and/or potentially either illegal or likely to get someone in trouble? Or is this just totally not a big deal?

I'm envisioning things potentially getting confusing when, for instance, Mary does her taxes. Could she write off the cost of a tool she purchased for work use, or would this get weird due to her work's nonprofit status?
posted by aecorwin to Work & Money (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is it possible to just buy it and donate it to the nonprofit? Tax implications of donations are fairly straightforward. Awkward is I think a separate question.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:54 PM on May 12, 2017 [5 favorites]

As the treasurer of a US-based nonprofit, these would be my preferences. If Mary can afford it, she should buy the tool, donate it, and claim the value as a charitable donation (the nonprofit should issue a receipt acknowledging that they got a "new Gadget"). If she can't afford the entire cost, she should make a monetary donation to the nonprofit, allow the powers that be to make their own decisions about their increased budget, and then she can just claim the actual dollars she donated. Bringing the "purchased for work" thing into the equation sounds fraught with potential complications.
posted by teremala at 4:10 PM on May 12, 2017 [3 favorites]

1) get boss ok for the below
2) contact your national or international trade association for this type of technical specialist
3) find out if they have a professional development grant for members
4) go to your nonprofit's development office, get help with grant
5) write and send grant
6) Profit!
posted by Mistress at 5:10 PM on May 12, 2017

Best answer: Be careful that the purchase of the gadget does not create other complications for the organization's budget, such as maintenance or supplies, that are ALSO not in the budget...
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:58 PM on May 12, 2017 [11 favorites]

Mary would know best, but Mary should also be careful to be very sure "don't have it in the budget" is not a polite way of saying "do not want". Mary should also be sure she's not being more loyal to the company than it will ever be to her and be setting herself up for resentment later.

Can Mary use her own $5000 gadget at work, but take her gadget home whenever she wants or when she leaves the company? I think it depends what it is. A specialty hand tool or something might work this way, but having Mary's Own Personal Giant Copy Machine in the office would be weird.
posted by ctmf at 9:53 PM on May 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

Also, Mary doesn't want management to start thinking if they just drag their feet on buying things the employees need, someone will eventually get frustrated enough to donate it for free. That's how buying things doesn't get in the budget next year either.

Sorry to be Mr. Negative. The answers above pretty much covered how to do it, but I think it's worth thinking about the 'SHOULD she do it' part too.
posted by ctmf at 10:01 PM on May 12, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Will Mary get any (real or perceived) preferential treatment, good performance reviews, etc. if she does this? Will the other employees feel pressured to buy things for the company too, so they don't look less committed than Mary?

So many reasons this is a terrible, terrible idea.
posted by ctmf at 10:03 PM on May 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is an aside from your original question (in which I agree with ctmf), but has Mary approached the manufacturer of your gadget and see if they would be willing to make a donation (or provide a substantial discount) of the gadget to Mary's nonprofit? Consider exploring avenues of having the manufacturer be promoted as a sponsor, or maybe the manufacturer has a factory second that's not fit for retail that can be donated (if appropriate).

I've been in this situation more than once and have found that it's often worth a shot, you can score lots of free stuff for good causes with a good mission and a smile.

In that context, that avoids any awkwardness with something coming out of Mary's pocket personally but still adds value for her org and allows her to go the extra mile to contribute towards its success.
posted by Karaage at 4:34 AM on May 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Best answer: So I am a manager at a non-profit that produces a number of delightful widgets per year! I deal with this all the time. I have some thoughts and suggestions.

The best option - have the company buy the device and maintain it. Make a case to management or leaders that it will help the mission, free employees up to do X and Y other projects to advance the mission, or save Z dollars to go to other things. Beware arguing for doing the same job faster - it's a way to make your leaders cut staff, normally an unpopular topic at a non-profit.

They can't afford $5,000? How about $1,000? Most production equipment can be amortized over a 5 year period. If you buy the equipment in year one, the company pays $5,000 in cash, but through the magic of accounting, only $1,000 is realized as an expense that year, and the other $4,000 is listed as value residing in the equipment itself (as an asset). Over the next four years $1,000 per year is depleted from the value of that asset and becomes $1,000 of expenses for that year. You can research amortization/depreciation of assets elsewhere.

Go to leadership and say you can do twice the work for $1,000 a year. Consider including a reasonable amount for yearly maintenance. For people who make things access to good tools is an HR retention issue. I've quit jobs that paid more but forced me to work with crappy tools in a poor environment.

Downsides: this doesn't work for small amounts. Accountants will not amortize a $200 saw over 5 years it's not worth it. The threshold is $1,000 with my accountant. If your $5,000 gadget is really a tool chest with multiple smaller items find a vendor that can bundle it and give you one bill. Also - cash - spreading the expense out over 5 years doesn't help if your company simply does not have the cash to buy it on hand, can't go to the hassle of a loan, or uses cash-only accounting.

I would caution against buying the gear yourself. You could donate it free and clear, then it breaks, and doesn't get fixed, and you are sad. Or you can buy it yourself and retain possession but use it at work, then it breaks or wears out, and then ask the company to fix it, and they are sad because they are asked to fix something they don't own, and you are sad because your relationship is awkward with your boss. You could buy it yourself and Leaders/co-workers without your financial background could feel resentful that you are buying job security that they can't afford.

You also could consider setting yourself up as an independent shop, buying the equipment yourself, then providing services to the non-profit as a contractor.
posted by sol at 4:50 AM on May 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

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