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Multitasking Philanthropy and Shopping

I went to the supermarket the other day to do the weekly family food shopping and, while I was paying my bill, the checkout clerk asked me if I wanted to make a contribution to a charity. I said no, but I felt a little guilty about it. When I left the supermarket with my bags of groceries, there were kids on the curb asking for contributions to local charities, all of them good causes. When I got home I paid my bills, and my insurance company asked me if I wanted to make a contribution to their nonprofit. I’m not sure what it does. That one was easy to reject; I just didn’t click the box. No human interaction required.

What’s going on here? Eric Felton wrote about this growing trend in the Wall Street Journal last month. He thinks these requests are annoying at the very least—and ultimately bad for charities:

My guess is that putting the touch on people in semicaptive situations such as the grocery-store checkout line isn’t necessarily a good thing for charity. Perhaps I’m wrong, and quotidian solicitations will make us more mindful of the plight of others and more open to helping the sick and the needy. But I suspect that the growing number of stores asking customers to chip in may end up creating a backlash. There was a time when telephone solicitations for charity worked—and so they proliferated. But after a while, people became ever more practiced at saying no.

I wonder how committed to promoting charity the retailers will be if they find shoppers have started to look at their storefronts with the same dread that greets the phone ringing at dinnertime.

I personally am not offended by this approach. There are probably some people who donate very little to charity, and this may be one of the few times they think about making a contribution. I personally won’t give to these requests, however, because I have my doubts about how much money actually ends up in the hands of charities after it has gone through all the corporate processing. And these are usually not causes that are of primary interest to me. More important, I’m concerned about whether this approach underscores the stereotype that suggests that charities are nice people doing nice work but not really that important or serious.

For me it boils down to the head/heart dichotomy again. Giving spontaneously from the heart is a good thing to do occasionally. I personally go out of my way to support street musicians, because many of them are really good and I appreciate their effort to make my world a little more enjoyable. We can all afford a few dollars here and there, and there are lots of good causes. But let’s not kid ourselves: if we’re really serious about tackling an issue, it’s going to take some solid research about organizational effectiveness and impact—as well as some serious money—to make a difference.

Topics: Giving Wisely