Charity Hold-Up at the Register: A Modest Proposal

stock-photo-money-shop-supermarket-cash-register-cash-check-seller-cashier-buyer-418048c0-7e3b-4d61-9b8d-8f49c68bbff0Requests are quick and to the point.

“Care to round that total up to provide holiday care packages to soldiers?”

A customer’s attention is diverted from her wallet to bins of cheap mass-produced toys or stuffed animals.  “We’ve set aside these to give to children who won’t otherwise have any gifts this season.”  Which will you buy? Only $4.99.

One of my late-breaking favorites is, “Will you donate to feed shelter animals?”  An affirmative response brings up a screen, with donations starting at $2 and up (and up). Thus, a purchase of cat treats for $2.99 now costs close to five. There is no dollar donation option. You didn’t bring a lot of cash, so out comes the credit card.

Let me be clear: I have no problem with charity, or requests.  My husband and I are not grinchy at any time of the year. Money is set aside for various causes and, in the interest of full disclosure, we track charity spending and take tax deductions.

As an educator teaching courses in corporate social responsibility, my students and I have examined the phenomenon of directing money from customers at retail counters to charities.  Back in the day, it wasn’t popular to ask consumers to leave more money in the register than their items cost. Folks left jars on counters.  Generosity was welcome but optional, allowing poor students and families, retirees, or anyone down on cash reserves an opportunity to retain their privacy and dignity. Without pressure, people could give as they were willing and able.

Today, a customer can reasonably expect to get interrupted during checkout with a charity request as part of the transaction process at many major retailers.

I don’t know anyone who appreciates the "easy convenience” of donating to a worthy cause without due consideration. Some customers are in need themselves. The retiree I met today, in fact, prompted this piece. “It’s so embarrassing to have to watch your money the way I have to. I hate to say no,” she told me on her way out, after we'd both stood in line listening to a line of cashiers ending transactions with "And won't you donate to our books for the needy program? Here's the selection."

Retailers do capitalize on their commitments to charity interests. The NFL has been famously outed for not donating any money at all to the breast cancer awareness it promotes. Their donation is raising breast cancer awareness through their dedicated use of pink, ribbon symbols, and stories. (1)  The benefit to the NFL is obvious, the value to breast cancer patients and survivors, less so.  (Admittedly, for fans there is likely an armchair feel-good moment or memory.) This example raises questions regarding partnerships between retailers and charities that complicates decision-making at the register for those willing to stop and think.

Organizations like Charity Navigator (2) can help us decide what worthy causes we can and should support.  At the register, though, without time for thought or research in front of a cashier instructed to treat charity requests as a routine part of a transaction, there's no time to reflect. I want to know, and have sometimes asked to no avail:

  • What is the nature of the partnership between you and the organization you are collecting for? Do they get 100% of collections, or does your retail establishment collect an administrative fee?
  • If you are selling from a bin of unwrapped toys, and you are asking customers to purchase from that bin to give away (with the cashiers instructed to remove a toy from the bin to give the customer tangible evidence of a transfer to the needy), how much did the $4.99 toy you charged the customer cost the store? No chance the store profited from the transaction, is there? If so, what percent?

I am not Scrooge, but what began a while back as a holiday request now extends throughout the year in the two places I live, Chicago and Chico, CA, and probably everywhere else. And yeah, I admit – sometimes I give, but I always wonder about the flow of the dollars that flew out of my wallet, just like that.

So, a proposal. Retailers, make transparent your relationship to charities. Make it available like you make paper shoes or hearts available to people to write their names on, and plaster on a wall. Or if you want to save paper, and you should, laminate a card for the register, and at the door, detailing the flow of those hard-earned dollars along with what you want us to know of your genuine charitable commitments. Have it signed by whoever cut the deal between your retail firm, and the head of the charity that is receiving the money you collect.

Let us know the percent of the dollar(s) that went to the charity, versus that retained by you, the donation partner. There must a contract somewhere.  (If not, we need another way to know this is all legit, right?) Your cashiers should be privy to the details. We get that ads and TV commercials cost major cash, so some cut is not necessarily a bad thing, but tune us in, please.

Post the card, and let us make an informed decision to round up, give, or buy out of a bin to support those in need.

There’s a real opportunity to create something good out of all this effort; please do it.  And here’s an idea: include in the “partnership contract” with your major charity of choice, that you will retain the option to also put out a can for a local cause like sports gear for needy team players or the nearby animal shelter. You know, places we can stop by to see our contributions in action.

In the newly created business landscape of “register charity,” which I suspect is governed by contractual and mutually beneficial arrangements, where have those local charities’ jars gone? You don’t see many of them anymore. See, there is a lot we don’t know, perhaps because not enough of us ask.

More transparency on the part of retailers can go a long way toward getting donations to roll in the many directions, near and far, they need to go.





Filed under: Human Rights

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