Should Non-Profits Buy $800 Chairs?

by cv harquail on July 12, 2010

During a meeting in a downtown conference room at a non profit a few weeks ago, I noticed we were all sitting in Aeron chairs. These are geeky-stylish, ergonomically adjustable office chairs that retail for about $800 a pop. There were 12 of us in the conference room, sitting on a total of about $9,600.00, retail.

Aeron chairs are not that uncommon. I’ve been in many offices and conference rooms kitted out with Aeron chairs. But, this was the first time I’d found myself sitting in an $800 chair while having a conversation about fund-raising strategies.


This organization’s important programs are facing budget cuts, and so they are looking for ways to ramp up their fund raising programs.

“Why bother to raise the money from individual donors?” I wondered. “We could just sell these chairs.”

And, I wondered:

Are $800 chairs a bit too rich for a nonprofit?

This particular non-profit is not the only one I’ve seen with top of the line furnishings and a relatively luxurious physical environment. While I love an aesthetically competent workspace as much as anyone, I did wonder if this particular organization had its priorities in the right places.

I silently ran through the possible explanations, which included:

  • Ergonomics: The members need good chairs; they sit and work in these for hours on end.
  • Investment: A well-built chair bought once is cheaper than a poorly built chair replaced in five years.

What’s wrong with $800 chairs?

What was bothering me about the chairs was that they didn’t fit with my sense of “who this organization is”. Even though I know the chairs are technically great chairs, and environmentally preferable chairs,  and good-looking chairs, their premium price made me think that the organization was spending money on itself and not on serving its constituency.  I was applying the “non profit stereotype” of (1) constituents first, (2) bare bones overhead, and (frankly) (3) employees come last. There are a lot of problems with this stereotype of non-profits, and there is some truth to it, too.

Given my interest in other people’s businesses, I found a way to ask about the chairs as we chatted at the end of the meeting.

As it turns out, the organization did not pay full price for the chairs. They got the chairs from new media company that was going out of business. They paid about half the retail price of the chairs. (“Oh, only $4,800? Whew.” was the expected response, I think.) So, the member explained, it wasn’t like the chairs were luxury items or something.

While this story kind of got the organization off the hook for profligate spending, the fancy chairs were still important, and still communicated something about the organization.

The chairs’ appearance in the nonprofit told a story, and the story told me about the nonprofit’ character. But, had I been less inquisitive, I’d have gone away with the completely wrong story. And that might have become a problem.

The organization displayed the chairs (and, of course, used them) but the meaning of the chairs was ambiguous. (Or polysemous, for you lit-crit folks.)

Those chairs could tell many different and equally plausible stories. They could tell:

— the “We care about our people who work here long hours” story,
— the “We’re scrappy folks, who bought these at a distress sale. We use this same scrappy attitude everywhere”, and
— the “We don’t have our priorities straight and put our own comfort before the needs of our constituents” story.

Which story is it, really?


Whichever story visitors hear, or don’t hear, makes a difference in how they perceive that organization. And, these perceptions affect how visitors feel about the organization and how they will behave towards it.

Those fancy chairs could deter someone from contributing money, or encourage someone to entrust the organization to use a grant wisely. It all depends on the story the chairs “tell”.

Of course, some folks could just have taken the chairs for granted, and not even noticed them.

Regardless, this nonprofit needs to tell a coherent story about itself, its values, its priorities and its capabilities. The organization’s environment and its furnishings don’t just sit there– they tell the organization’s story.

And this organization’s $800 chairs made me wonder what its real story is.

My Nose, Other People’s Business

Aeron Chair, a piece of art?
May 28, 2008
from Frank Rogo

201007121400.jpg 201007121400.jpg


Meghan July 13, 2010 at 9:37 am

This post really struck a chord with me. As someone who works as a librarian for a not-for-profit library system now, but used to work in donor relations in New York City I have seen what things like expensive chairs really can signal: professionalism, pride in the organization and its employees, savviness in caring for employee’s comfort, as well as savviness in projecting an image consistent with operating and fundraising in a major metropolitan area, and, finally, a high standard in general for employees, programs, and even donors themselves.

In my experience, the organizations that branded themselves as “scrappy” tended to have a less professional environment, which translated into less impressive programs and a “bargain basement” approach to board building and fundraising. Their shabby offices sent a clear signal to employees – we don’t put energy or resources into your work environment and don’t expect you to expend extra energy or resources in your work.

At the end of the day, these are just chairs we’re talking about here, but if I were to interview for a non-profit today (my library system is conducting layoffs…) something like those chairs would speak volumes to me as a potential employee. As a potential donor, I think they would also convey a positive image to me about the organization in terms of how they would steward my donation – with savvy and sophistication.

cv harquail July 13, 2010 at 10:00 am

Meghan, thanks so much for your comments on Twitter and for bringing your ideas here to the comments to expand on them. You were raising so many of the key issues with your tweets; I’m glad that the post resonated with you.
I’m really intrigued that you’re experience has put ‘scrappy’ with ‘unprofessional’, rather than with ‘abstemious’ or ‘humble’ — probably the positive interpretation of hodge podge furniture ‘they’re spending their money elsewhere’ and the important question is “why”? If indeed they operate on a shoestring, there’s an explanation, and as long as things are functional it might be okay. Yet, given a choice, I’d rather have a nonprofit spend the money on solid, good quality, furniture and an attractive environment. Our surroundings say so much about what we think of ourselves, and they also do so much (usually unconsciously) to influence our attitudes that a quality environment has positive effects we can’t even calculate. Stewardship applies not only to how we use the financial resources, but also to how we care about individuals and the group that is the organization…. so let’s hope more donors have your expectations.
And the idea of savviness– that is one quality in short supply, in nonprofits and for profits too.

John Rockefeller July 13, 2010 at 2:31 pm

What you should also take away from this is to not assume a position on a company or a person until you know the whole story. This tells as much about the organization as it does about yourself.

cv harquail July 14, 2010 at 7:28 am

Hi John — I must admit that I felt a little chastened when I got such a benign response to my questions about the chairs… it’s easy to generate a huge (and impugning) story from just one data point, and it’s important to consider other variables too… So, I’m wondering what it said about me that I had this concern…and I think actually it goes to Meghan’s point about savviness. I think I really wanted them to be savvy, smart, competent, etc… and worried that they were tone-deaf about their image. Amanda’s point (coming up) is a great way to detour people like me towards a more accurate conclusion. Thanks for prompting us to remember the big picture.

Amanda Rose July 13, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Interesting post and one worth discussing. I’d add two things to consider.
1) charity: water, an organization I’ve worked with and seems to be the posterchild these days for how to do it right has a great office in nyc – and one would think they paid a lot for the furnishings. but if you walk around their space, you don’t need to even ask the question because it is neatly noted as a thank you on the wall that steelcase and other suppliers donated furniture and fixtures for the office. smart idea and continues their ethos of transparency.
2) read the book Uncharitable. it talks about the importance of investing in staff and how that ultimately benefits the organization and fundraising/projects.

cv harquail July 14, 2010 at 7:40 am

Amanda, funny you should bring up charity:water– just yesterday (hours after I put up this post) a colleague was telling me how she thought they were on the cutting edge of everything organizational and socially-mediated. Hmmm. And I just wondered why they don’t use more water imagery on their website. … since otherwise their have a fantastic design sensibility.

It’s also great to point out how the act of posting thank you’s to the furniture (and other) donors has so many simultaneous effects– telling us who gave, where things came from, that they were free, that the organization thinks that knowing this is important, etc.

As an aside, I had a similar experience when I was riding for the first time at a county park. I was really surprised that all of their tack was name brand stuff from an expensive company… like having BMWs for drivers’ ed at your high school. When I mentioned it to someone, he told me that the barn had burned to the ground 6 years ago (no horses harmed) and that the manufacturer had both donated and sold at cost all of the tack, which was mostly scratch ‘n dent, and stuff people had tried and then returned… And, what was also neat was that, while the tack was 6 years old, it looked virtually new because it was so well-cared for… The appearance of the tack said even more to me about the values of the folks running the barn than any mission statement could…

Thanks for the recommendation of Uncharitable– I’ll go read it, and maybe use it to prompt a few more posts.

Meghan July 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm

I really appreciated Amanda’s response and example of an organization that has gotten a big bang for their (in-kind) buck.

Spencer July 18, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Chair, chairs, chairs!

You know at first I was thinking, “Wow what a grand misuse of money.” Then I re-read this post and read all the comments. I do believe Meghan has swayed me just a tad.

I can see how the right image of a company can add value to the employee and cause them to want to remain or even work for a company that oozes the impression they care. I guess in todays world of tough competition that is a welcomed idea.

Here is my rub. I just believe the company wasn’t really thinking about the employee, nor were they thinking about the ramifications of purchasing such expensive chairs. I feels more like an arbitrary decision by someone in charge of purchasing. Maybe we are giving them too much power and authority to think like we see it.

Here’s to Meghan for opening my eyes a bit more regarding employers caring about their image or level of care toward employees and customers.

; )

cv harquail July 21, 2010 at 10:47 am

Spencer, you’re right to point out that it’s really the motivations and thoughtfulness (or lack thereof) behind the action that matters– and we can’t always tell this from the appearance of the symbols or items themselves, which is why getting the story behind the object is so important. Gotta have the ‘why’ with the ‘what’.

In a mindful organization that was striving to demonstrate its values throguh its actions, even someone in a staff role like purchasing agent would be thinking about how to choose items that express or at least don’t contradict the value messages that the organization wants to send.

Although you’d have had to click the link ” – the “We care about our people who work here long hours” story”‘ < /em>to find it, one blog post I cite is from a manager, Zane Safrit who describes doing exactly that “52-Week Employee Recognition Plan – Week 1: Buy Them An Aeron Chair

What’s even better about Zane’s story is the story of the process the organization created to deal with concerns about cost and favoritism (since they couldn’t avoid chairs for everyone all at once). It’s a great story that also might address your interest in engagement in general. cv

Christine Livingston July 19, 2010 at 9:26 am

Wow, what an interesting topic and supporting comments.

What I keep thinking of here is the story of the cobbler’s children who went without shoes while their father provided them for the rest of the village. Whether in perception or reality, my picture of your non profit is that they took care of themselves first. To my mind, that only strengthened their ability to support their constituents.

Thanks, as usual, for being provocative, CV!

cv harquail July 21, 2010 at 10:50 am

Christine, I’m with you on this one– I don’t see how organizations, nonprofit or forprofit, can prosper when their employees are not cared for in the most basic of ways. I think there is often a knee jerk reaction from for-profit people/donors, and a submissive abstemiousness by non-profit members, that prey on each other to create the expectation that non-profits shouldn’t have quality things. it’s not like they took a vow of poverty just to help make the world better….? cv

Jeff Hurt August 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm

This post really hit a nerve with me and reminded me of a former employer.

I worked at a nonprofit that was struggling with a positive cash flow, slashing budgets for the third time in six months and looking for new revenue streams. Then our Executive Director went out and bought a $300 new automatic trash can for our kitchen, a $200 new coat hanger, a host of other kitchen products and a $1,000 leather massage chair for a closet to create a quiet room for the staff. There were also 18 new $800 Aeron Chairs, a $1,500 plasma screen and a new board room table for $2,000. More than $20,000 worth of new items were purchased.

What was very disturbing was that we were hurting financially and dipping into our rainy day reserves. Staff was very upset as we didn’t want a quiet room, massage chair, new chairs or new kitchen items. We wanted to be ensured that there was money to cover our next paychecks and that we didn’t have to slash important items from the budgets. We even had let go part-time staff that we desperately needed to complete some projects.

Were these purchases to make employees feel cared for? I believe the Executive Director thought so. But no one every asked the employees.

In your story, I submit that most people would not ask the nonprofit leadership about the costs of the chairs and would automatically assume incorrectly. Perception is reality in their minds.

In the nonprofit sector, finding a balance between wants and needs is always challenging work.

cv harquail August 3, 2010 at 11:29 am

Geez. Jeff, that sounds like really bad “leadership” on the part of the Exec Director. Isn’t one of the first things you do when trying to help employees is ask employees what kind of help and support they need. This is the kind of situation where the employees ought to be offended, and dispirited… since any Exec Dr acting this way doesn’t ‘get’ what the organization is/members are about.

Perception is reality– and it’s crazy how the same item or action can symbolize so many things to different people. All the more reason why symbols/actions should be embedded in stories/explanations about the reasoning and the relationship to organizational goals.

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. cv

Garry Polmateer August 3, 2010 at 1:07 pm

VERY interesting post. Nothing quite so polarizing as an Aeron chair, huh? Kind of like the HUMMER H2 of chairs 😉

The biggest takeaway for me is our nature to make judgments and opinions based on what we see. You did a great job analyzing this and realizing that many things have a story that we don’t know. I.E. those chairs may have been a gift, or purchased during a boom time in the past.

I sit at my desk for 40-60 hours a week, and after a few months of that I started saving up and bought an Aeron chair on eBay with my own money. I spend more time working and less time stretching so I have no doubt about its productivity benefits.

In the end, (maybe being sympathetic towards the awesomeness of Aeron Chairs), I look at them as another tool which can enable your staff to do more, and do it comfortably… (and with some style). Obviously there is a right time and a wrong time to buy such things and such purchases should be handled with sensitivity toward staff and stakeholders of the organization. No one balks when it’s time to spend $800 on new computers for the staff, as it’s required to get your job done. In my opinion, so is comfortable, adjustable seating.


Linda Chreno August 3, 2010 at 2:35 pm

I agree that a great chair is worth the price – and my Board agreed with me. They realized that I spend a great deal of time in that chair and this was a way to help me. For my staff, I also bought them – but I was with a small staff organization so it was not a huge outlay of money.

The health benefits – and less time off due to back problems, doctor visits, etc – was important to me. It seemed to increase productivity and let us know that we were valued.

cv harquail August 3, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Hi Garry- You’re singing to the choir about the Aeron chair– I got one for myself for my 40th birthday…
The Aeron chairs specifically hold a lot of different meanings, but even if we think of them as chairs– why don’t we think of them *automatically* as worker equipment, vs. luxury furniture? Maybe we have gotten so far away from paying attention to the bodies of knowledge workers– but if we can get Windows 7, why not a decent chair?

And Linda,
it sounds like you had a plan/story for the chairs so that the purchase was understood ‘correctly’, and was appreciated. Even in a not-very-flush not for profit, the people who are the organization are the most important resource. We need to care for each other before we can really solve the problems of the world. … cv

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