It's time to end the cash-register-charity holdup -

It’s time to end the cash-register-charity holdup

The most annoying philanthropy is also the least persuasive


Mario Proenca / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Canada’s charitable sector just got a boost from on high. This Monday Governor General David Johnston announced the launch of My Giving Moment, a web-based campaign seeking to convince Canadians to increase their charitable contributions.

“Big or small, every gesture counts,” his excellency said in a press release. “I hope this campaign will encourage Canadians to find their own giving moments and pass them on to others—whether in time, talent or money.” A lengthy list of well-known corporate partners signed on to the campaign as well, including the major banks, Home Hardware, Tim Hortons, Target Canada and Procter & Gamble.

All this is, of course, a noble and well-intentioned effort. And Maclean’s wishes the Governor General good fortune with the project, the first initiative to be funded through his newly created Rideau Hall Foundation charitable organization.

But as worthy as it may be to spend time and effort encouraging Canadians to have more “giving moments,” it might be equally worthwhile to ask the charitable and corporate sectors to consider which of their practices tend to discourage Canadians from having such moments. Perhaps eliminating some of these irritations would stimulate even greater generosity.

An example: The My Giving Moments website features a rotating list of ways Canadians could increase their philanthropic effort. “Add it up!” reads one suggestion. “The next time a store asks if you’d like to add a dollar to your bill in support of an international development charity, do it.”

The habit of retail stores button-holing customers at the checkout for charitable donations of a dollar or two is, in our estimation, the most annoying and least persuasive example of philanthropy in Canada today. Regardless of whether it is done in support of international, national or local programs, the cash register charity holdup is a terrible idea.

First, the practice relies heavily on public humiliation for success. We’ve all felt the looming dread that comes from standing in a lengthy lineup knowing that when we reach the front the sales clerk will ask us if we want to add a dollar to our bill. Many of us end up saying yes, if only out of fear we’ll look like skinflints in front of our peers. Or slow down the line.

The same goes for charities that stake out beer stores and attempt to separate customers from their empties by appealing equally to the sentiments of generosity and shame. This is no way to build a greater spirit of charity among Canadians.

Further, it is charity without contemplation. There’s no time to make a reasoned decision about whether a particular cause is deserving of your donation in the few seconds before your sale is rung up. The store has already done the deciding for you. Encouraging this sort of uncontemplative charitable behaviour runs counter to the expressed goals of My Giving Moment, that emphasize a greater personal connection to the act of giving.

If a grocery store, coffee shop or postal outlet feels a particular charity is especially deserving of funds, let them make their own donation. Some stores have even taken to asking whether customers would like to round up their bill and donate the difference to charity. Okay. But if this is such a worthy way to give, how about rounding the bill down and giving that amount to charity.

Finally, it reduces transparency and risks making charities lazy by having businesses do the difficult work of finding and convincing potential donors for them. And as for the stores themselves, while they may think they’re basking in the reflected glory of good works, they’re also making shopping an even more unpleasant experience. Whether this results in a net gain or not is debatable.

None of the above should be taken as a discouragement to charitable giving or volunteerism. We encourage all Canadians to think about the many advantages they enjoy and make every effort to give back to those less fortunate, through donations of time or money, at home and abroad. And in ways that are personally meaningful. (We note with particular interest that Nigel Wright, Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff who either resigned or was “dismissed” for reimbursing Sen. Mike Duffy’s expense claims, has been spending his time in the political wilderness working at an Ottawa inner-city soup kitchen.)

Charities unquestionably make Canada a better place to live. But charities and business can do their part to improve the charitable experience. Ending the cash-register charity holdup would be a very good place to start.

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It’s time to end the cash-register-charity holdup

  1. Plus the stores get to claim the charitable benefit.

    • Yes, and I’m sure that’s the biggest reason they do it.

  2. It’s not just charities but sports teams, youth groups, dog parks and the endless list. Not that they aren’t good causes but it feels more like a levy than a charitable donation.

  3. I always refuse. Judge me if you will but I make my own donations to whom I support and when I can afford it. I won’t be guilted into making a donation based on public humility.

    • Bang on, Brenda

    • With an almost 50% tax rate, any one who works for a living already donates plenty to charities of the governments choice.

      • No. Paved roads, constructed hospitals, and a military which protects you are not a charity. They are a service provided to you, which you have to pay for.

        • What nightrain is likely getting at is that the government itself directly contributes to certain charitable organizations. The money they use for this purpose was raised through taxation (or borrowing money we’ll have to pay back).
          Not saying I agree with that stance – just trying to make it clearer (assuming I’ve properly understood the comment).

          • Thanks Keith. That’s pretty much what I was getting at. I was referring to “charities”, not roads etc. I didn’t feel I had to explain that but I guess I was wrong.

          • @ KeithBram No not anymore since CPC defunded many programs and closed down youth programs like Katimavik and turned CIDA (Canada’s International Dev. Agency) into a front for mining company PR in poor countries.

          • You’ll note that I was just clarifying nightrain’s statement, not endorsing it.

            I agree our government is far less charitable in its aid these days – and very targeted. Only those who share their ideology get money.

    • Well put. I believe in charity, but not most charities.

  4. I just say “not this time, thanks” and that’s it.

    • I agree. I don’t feel shame. I participate in a lot of volunteer work and we give generously. If that retail outlet’s chosen charity is whatever the cashier is asking about, then let that company support that charity. They have more money than I do, no doubt.

  5. The ‘United Way’ was meant to solve this problem….one largish donation instead of dozens of small ones. But it hasn’t stopped….there is always someone at the door. Your door or the grocery store one. And at the LCBO or the dept store. And even the local variety store has containers for your change….or clerks everywhere simply ask as this article points out. It gives people another reason to shop online.

    Canada has 80,000 charities….which is absurd to begin with. And being nickel and dimed to death all the time is annoying. Just say no.

    If you want to give to a charity….pick one. Write a healthy cheque once a year and be done with it.

    • The United Way was infamous decades ago for making deals with employers to make deductions from employee paycheques. Problem is, they never informed the employees! All too many people found these deductions on their paycheques and had to go to HR to get it stopped and they actually counted on people being guilted into not doing this. This is a good example of an organization that exists to perpetuate itself.

      • All of it is a long way from what it started out to be. And now people think it’s mandatory to donate!

        Meanwhile other charities are breeding like rabbits. We need a complete overhaul on the idea of charity and how it should be handled.

  6. I’ve wondered how these stores are treating these donations. Are they able to take a percentage of it, do they give it to the charity and reaping the tax benefits themselves, are they claiming they are giving the money?

    I shop at walmart and am always asked to donate and sign up for a credit card everytime, the worst is when someone says yes or asks questions now they hold up the line.

    With the recent revelations of how many charities just soak up the money for themselves I’m surprised more people don’t say no. I have no reservations for declining any kind of charity. I chose who i give money too carefully and also put in a lot of personal time and effort supporting others.

    • I’d be shocked if they are keeping any of the money. It’s just too public and too big a PR disaster if it came to light. And it’s really easy for them to separately track the donation money at point of sale (and for that to be audited). Same with tax benefit. To the extent they can claim a deduction, they’d also have to show the offsetting revenue. It’d be a wash.

      As CdnGardener implies below, it’s a PR boost for them, not a direct financial gain.

  7. Equally you often see the companies hand in an “oversized” cheque giving the impression that the company is the sole contributor and not acknowledging they did it on the wallets of customers….

  8. Say no if you wish.

  9. I usually say yes unless it involves verterans or books for schools (as a certain book chain likes to collect for). Those two things should not be charities but public services we provide for by taxation.

    • Maybe, but you can make the same argument for 90% of charities out there.

  10. I call it “institutional begging”, and I always say “not today, thanks”. Store clerks are required to solicit donations from their customers, and woe be unto them if they don’t. It’s uncomfortable for everyone.

  11. When stores do this, I almost always say “no” – and leave feeling more disgruntled and less satisfied with the merchant. They aren’t winning me over with this behaviour – in fact, quite the contrary.
    I pick my own charities and decide how much to give. I prefer making a decent donation that comes with a receipt for tax time.

  12. If I’m going to give money to a charity, it’s not likely to be one of the “institutional” charities that these store drives focus on. I’d rather give money to a charity with far less overhead.

  13. During my years working as a cashier, I had to ask people for donations a lot (which I didn’t like doing, much like how I hated asking people to buy extended warranties, but that’s beside the point). You can actually collect a fair amount of money this way.

    But addressing the author’s cry of “public humiliation,” I don’t think most people understand how little other people care if they give or not. The cashiers certainly don’t, and they don’t have time to judge customers regardless of what they say. When you’re working an 8 hour shift on a busy day, hundreds of people can go through your register and by the end of it you’ve heard every variation of “I already donate” and “Not today, thanks.” A quick “No” will suffice and keep the line moving.

    And the only time I’ve ever seen other customers react to a “No” was when a guy made a huge deal out of the practice one afternoon. It started with “Can I just say that I hate when I get asked this?” and ended with him arguing with my manager until he was red in the face. He eventually left with his purchase (after taking the high ground and insulting my manager’s uniform) with his embarrassed teen son trailing behind him. A LOT of customers said “Yes” to donating after that, usually adding “What a jerk!” and throwing us some kind words.

  14. The practice at the register is equally uncomfortable for the cashier, however their performance may be partly assessed on asking customers if they would like to contribute or round up their bill for a worthwhile cause. The cashier would prefer to leave marketing to others.

  15. I give a fixed amount to charity each month. Sometimes it’s to friends’/families’ causes or my own. I feel GREAT about it.

  16. I do not see this as a big deal, sometime I do give the $2.00, sometime I don’t. At least this way, one knows there is some accounting going on with the funds and nobody can pocket the money before it is given to the charities.

  17. Could not disagree more. I think it’s ingenious, and I always say yes. What’s a buck added on to your grocery bill? I’m quite happy to spread out a bit of my disposable income this way. It may not be “contemplative”, but that’s fine, I do that kind of giving as well. I don’t feel shamed or pressured. I suppose I would if I resented being asked for less than the cost of a lottery ticket to support those less fortunate.

    The approach I hate most is the kids in blue vests with clipboards accosting you on the street. I always feel terrible for them – what a way to put yourself through school. But at the same time, they are looking for the bigger, “contemplative” types of donations that I prefer to make without the hard sell sales pitch. I get resentful of having to turn them down, although they are remarkably good natured and positive most times.

  18. If the leftist Rideau Hall is encouraging it, then I’m out.
    I give to poor kids & in cases such as the recent Phillipines tragedy, not at the checkout.

    • Another bad Harper appointment?

  19. A modest suggestion: ask the cashier if the store matches the contribution. When they sheepishly admit they don’t, your demurral holds the high ground. The pretentious need to be unveiled for the sake of the earnest.
    I have only encountered one store that matches the contribution; if I had bothered to read the banner, I wouldn’t have had to ask.

  20. If you look at the 6-figure salaries that many CEOs and directors of these charities are being paid and the vast amounts of money that are spent on advertising and promotion, the net benefit to most of these causes is actually negligible.
    If you really want to do some good help an individual who needs help, not necessarily financially. Maybe you have a disabled neighbour or senior who could use a hand now and then… Opening your heart doesn’t mean opening your wallet.

  21. I agree, end the checkout solicitation. I choose when and to whom I will make a charitable donation.

  22. I never give at the register and I’m a professional fundraiser at a Foundation! I don’t appreciate the shaming however, I handle that by saying “I already have my charities I donate to”, no one can argue with you! In addition, it doesn’t necessarily help the organization because it doesn’t receive a list of donors so it can’t thank, recognize and steward those donors for future gifts – basically, it doesn’t allow the charity to develop long-lasting relationships with the donors. It isn’t a sustainable approach and I won’t support any charity who does that.

  23. I say, “No, and I don’t like to be asked.” (I know the cashiers have no choice, but they are the liaison between customer and management.) It’s another annoying part of the increasing interrogation we’re expected to undergo when we spend money: Are you paying with your store credit card? Do you want one? What is your postal code? Did you see our specials in aisle 6?

    Also the irony is that none of these stores permit begging by third parties on their property. What’s the difference whether you’re panhandled in the parking lot or at the cash register?

    • There’s no irony. Do you let strangers sleep in your bed? There’s definitely a difference between whether you do something on your property and whether you allow others to do so.

      Other than that, I do agree with the rest of your comment.

      • It’s been a while since I had a stranger in my bed, and I do acknowledge property rights. The irony is that the stores don’t want customers pestered by others, but gladly engage in their own pestering.

  24. The truth is that Point of Sale giving is the #1 source of charitable donations. So saying they should stop it because it is annoying is completely besides the point. The point is, it works. Charities need our money and most people don’t actually give all that much. Consider that many religions ask for 10% of your income to go to charity… few of us come close to that.

    • It works, and it’s for a good cause, therefore it’s something we must put up with? Faulty argument.

  25. If every person asked the cashier to call a manager, then tied up the line for 3 minutes while they told the manager that they did not appreciate being solicited in line, then the stores would soon realize that this is a mistake and would stop doing it.

  26. Give money directly to the organization of your choice, then they get all the money. UnitedWay and the others are all taking some off the top.

  27. I really like the idea of “rounding down”. If the store will knock two bucks off my purchase, I’ll match it.

  28. to all here complaining about being asked to volunteer donations to charities: Do your homework and find what these orgs actually do with your money BUT

    Heaven forbid that you be asked to help someone in need..all the DE-FUNDED YOUTH PROGRAMS, FLOOD DISASTER VICTIMS IN ALBERTA, not to mention disasters across the world! I help those I can…But I wont complain because some kid at the supermarket is raising funds for the Air Cadets!

    The Macleans article reeks of rotting sentiment and makes me wonder why the author doesn’t just go write a piece about some crackhead mayor like all his colleagues.

  29. I used to dread the potential momentary embarrassment at the till but it gets easier every time to just say no thank you.

  30. I feel sorry for the cashiers, here they are getting paid minimun wage and they have to ask each customer and then put up with all the crap from people telling them no. I never give at the cash register and have called the stores to complain. It will only get worse now that December is coming and having to pay for a gift box so a charity will get the money puts me over the edge. I intend to do all my shopping on line until this practice comes to an end.

  31. Excellent editorial. I have always felt that this kind of thing is nothing more than corporate pan-handling & I have no difficulty in saying “no”. I have no idea what the money is being used for – salaries? administration? overhead? advertising? charitable work? Who knows? I donate to three educational charities every year – I know where the funds are going and what they are being used. Better that than to just hand over your money.

  32. The other side of the donation coin is, who get the charitable donation receipt? Nice little deduction for those large corps. when they add all those loonies and townies all up and include them on their Income Tax forms.

  33. When I am asked to donate at the grocery, drug or other kind of store I say “Not today”. This implies that I have already donated and I am absolutely not embarrassed to say this. My yearly donations are made at a time when I am able to make them.

    I have also decided, recently, to stop donating to charities that send many mailings and/or who include useless “gifts” like cards, pens, address labels, etc. These things cost money that should, in my opinion, be going to the recipients of the charity, not to be used as guilt trips to get people to donate. For the past 3 years I have only donated locally, to places that don’t shower me with requests. Their donations have increased by at least 30% and I feel like I am actually helping people in my community who need assistance.

  34. Safeway, Sprouts and others used to do this incessantly around my
    little corner of Colorado. But they seemed to have stopped doing it.
    Most people slink away, feeling slightly guilty. But not me. I raise a
    BIG vocal stink about it, deliberately letting other customers know that
    at least one person isn’t intimidated by the shakedowns, hoping that
    others might have the courage to follow my lead.

    I tell the clerks that I know it’s not their fault, but I strongly
    resent being shaken down for money when I just want to shop in peace and
    that their begging is the main reason I just HATE shopping in their
    store and I usually avoid it if at all possible for that very reason.

    Sometimes with the ol’ “can we round up” scam, I tell them no, but
    because I consider myself to be a loyal customer I expect them to round
    DOWN due to my loyal patronage!

    My vocal one-man campaign seems to have had some results because they don’t do this that much around here anymore.

  35. The customers foot the bill, and the stores get to claim the donations as a big fat deductible on their taxes… This is why I NEVER donate at the register; when I want to give, I give directly, and NEVER through an intermediary! I encourage all others to do the same!