When a colleague sells cookies

Times Staff Writer

Since when did the office become a peddlers bazaar?

The guy in the next cubicle is pushing wrapping paper to fund his kid’s school. A friend in accounting asked you to sponsor her 5K run for leukemia research. Holiday wreaths are for sale in the cafeteria, with proceeds going to a local homeless shelter.

‘Tis the season for giving. And for asking: How do you fend off the annual onslaught of office hawkers without being labeled a Scrooge?

First off, co-workers ought to think twice before asking you to support their pet cause, says Ann Marie Sabath, founder of At Ease, a New York-based business etiquette training firm.


“Work should be just that, work,” she says.

But youth groups and charities increasingly rely on the revenue from cookie sales, magazine subscriptions and cash donations to keep them afloat. And many people want to help a good cause, especially when it involves their friends and co-workers.

Merchandise sales generate $1.7 billion annually for schools, sports leagues and church groups alone, according to Jon Krueger, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Assn. of Fund-Raising Distributors and Suppliers, which provides merchandise to many of the groups.

Workers passing the hat on behalf of their children account for a big share of that total, he added, with the largest chunk of sales rung up now, in the months before Christmas.


Most employers tolerate some office fundraising so long as colleagues don’t badger one another. Some common-sense rules can help.

If you’re selling, “take the high road and err on the side of good taste,” advises Deane Brengle, who publishes the Fundraising for Small Groups Newsletter from Belding, Mich.

E-mailing all your colleagues about your daughter’s candy drive is definitely out, he says. “It’s spam.”

And if you’re not sure what’s OK, ask.


Krueger urges fundraisers to use a light touch. Put up a flier for the run-walk or the candy sign-up sheet in the lunchroom; don’t buttonhole people at their desks.

It also helps to be creative, he says. Displaying the items for sale in an attractive basket with a handwritten note from the student about the goals behind his or her fundraiser may work better than twisting arms.

And if you don’t want to buy, just say no.

Tell your co-worker you just bought from your neighbor, Sabath says. “And maybe you just have.”


Declining gracefully is harder when the boss is the one hawking, of course. “Don’t kid yourself,” she says. “People keep track.”

If you want to help out but hate fruitcake or think the wrapping paper is overpriced, offer to make a cash contribution or ask the seller to donate the products you buy to needy families.

Understanding that donors can feel besieged, the San Diego-Imperial Council of the Girl Scouts of the USA launched its “Cookie University” program last spring, targeting company executives for bulk sales. Teen girls learned to make sales pitches sophisticated enough to persuade managers at a local hotel and a car dealership as well as several real estate agents to buy hundreds of boxes of the trademark cookies, which they gave out as customer gifts.

The San Diego council, which sold 2.5 million boxes last year, plans to expand the bulk sales program this spring to include several hundred girls. Other Girl Scout councils have mounted similar efforts.


Those bulk office sales took some of the pressure off individual workers in the offices to buy -- and relieved the guilt of those who say no.

“We can all personally relate to donor fatigue,” says Jo Dee Jacob, chief executive of the San Diego-Imperial Council.

So can Sue Perry, who has been on both ends of workplace fundraising and finds the whole business “pretty painful.”

The USC administrator has contributed plenty over the years to her colleagues’ pet causes but says she has no trouble saying no when she doesn’t want to give.


Yet with twin boys active in school and sports teams, Perry has also hit up co-workers.

“They’ve been fine about it,” Perry says, adding that many contribute in part because “I’m sure my sheepishness transmits.”


Work Rules, an occasional column about ethics in the workplace, has its own cubicle on Page C2 of Business. Reach Molly Selvin at molly.selvin