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.