So there I am after work in the grocery check-out line, my brain blissfully in screen-saver mode, when the cashier asks if I would like to make a donation — for homelessness, hunger, heart health or some other undeniably worthy cause.
And I am a deer in the headlights.
Here is my dilemma, and maybe yours too: I don’t want to be too cheap to spare a buck or two (especially when everyone in line can see I sprung for the fancy mustard.)
But I’ve also wondered if even a meager contribution from me might somehow be used to benefit the retailer. (More on that in a minute.)
And though I’ve been known to donate to causes that I like on my own time, there’s this itch of resentment at the unexpected request, like a 9 p.m. robocall about my expiring car warranty.
Can’t I just take my rotisserie chicken and go home?
But say no and you imagine the cashier and the customers behind you thinking: Jeez, lady, kick a kitten on your way out, why don’t you.
And it does not stop at the grocery store. Another day I am at a big-box pet supply wrestling a bag of kibble onto the conveyer belt when the credit card terminal makes sad eyes at me and asks me to donate to save homeless animals. And what kind of person is against puppies in need?
This kind of cash register charity is hardly chump change. In 2020, more than $605 million was raised by a group of 76 such fundraising campaigns that each raised in excess of $1 million, according to a survey by Engage for Good, which helps businesses and nonprofits work together.
But concerns from the more leery among us recently boiled over on social media.
Just last month, a meme circulated showing a smiling Walmart cashier politely asking a customer for a donation to a local charity so the company could give it in its own name and get a tax write-off while continuing to pay her minimum wage. There’s a similarly-themed TikTok video targeting Target.
Nope, said Snopes, the fact-checking, myth-busting website.
According to a November piece at taxpolicycenter.org, the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center think tank, it’s the customer who can claim the donation as a deduction on their tax return. (Though apparently individual customers rarely do.) The store is basically only the collection agent.
What the retailer gets is positive PR for partnering with a good cause.
So why do some otherwise-generous folk bristle at these cash register solicitations? And maybe, like me, donate sometimes and not others, while not feeling especially right about it either way?
Here’s one intriguing answer:
Customers can see such requests as a violation of the social contract with the retailer. As in, I came in to buy stuff, you’re here to sell me stuff, and this whole charity-exchange thing is not what we agreed on. The research was born from 30-plus studies of thousands of participants, according to Efua Obeng, associate professor and chair of the marketing department at Howard University.
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“It violates the norms of our relationship,” said Obeng. “It violates what we as customers expect. It goes against the founding principle of what’s supposed to happen at check-out.”
So what’s a conflicted shopper to do?
Best and most basic advice I’ve heard: First consider the cause.
“If somebody asked me to put something in for a charity I knew nothing about, or I didn’t have any particular identification with, I wouldn’t do it — no matter how many people are behind me in line,” said Leslie Lenkowsky, professor at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University.
So if you’re feeling it, go for it. As for any guilt in deciding not to donate?
“The best way to overcome that is to go home and pick a charity you like,” Lenkowsky said. “And write a check.”