Friday, November 12, 2010

Captive at the Cash Register

"Would you like to donate a dollar to our Love of Giving fund?" On a recent shopping expedition, I was asked this question (or some variation thereof) at four stores in succession and I thought it warranted a blog post on the etiquette of asking for money.

We've all been there. You've schlepped around a busy store, found what you wanted, hauled your purchases to the checkout line, finally made it to the front, and, just when you're about to pay, the cashier asks if you would like to donate a dollar (or amount of your choice) to either their own proprietary charity or another more established one with which they have struck up a partnership. Successfully put on the spot, you have the following options:

1. Say yes willingly and genuinely feel good about it
2. Say yes begrudgingly because you will feel like a schmuck if you don't
3. Say no, feel like above-noted schmuck and avoid judgy stares of fellow store patrons
4. Say no and launch into a rant about how you're sick of "everyone asking for money all the time"
5. Ask for more information which will satisfy your own curiosity or requirements for charitable donations but also result in putting the cashier on the spot and annoying people in the line behind you who just want to pay and get out of the store

You can probably tell by the tone of my multiple choice list that I'm not a huge fan of the "captive at the cash register
request for money" approach to philanthropy and it seems to
me that it's strategically flawed anyway - who wants to be asked
for additional funds at the exact same place where they see the
effect that the HST has on their wallet?

Let me make it clear that I don't blame the store employees in any way. I know they are doing their job and I'm sure they have been directed to ask for donations from every shopper, regardless of how busy they are, how grumpy the person is or how many others are standing in line. It also feel seems that they're not furnished with the information they need to answer questions from would-be donors. When I encountered a request for donations at four stores in succession one day a couple of weeks ago, I decided to ask some questions of clarification before making a decision. I won't name the stores but lets say that they include a national drug store chain with lots of shoppers, a department store with a storied Canadian history, a toy store with a penchant for mis-spelling its name and a provincial chain store with somewhat of a stranglehold on liquor sales. At each store, I asked the cashiers two questions - does the company match the consumer donations and does the company use consumer donations to get a tax write-off?

Only one employee was able to confirm that the company matched the donations but since it's effectively a crown corporation I wonder if they aren't matching the donation with my money anyway. The other three cashiers offered only sighs or blank stares or suggested I call head office. No one was able to answer the tax write-off question but one of the employees said, and I quote, "I don't know but if it's true, I'm going to start my own charity so I can get a write-off". Just the kind of person you want on your frontline. I should add that in all four stores, the livid stares of shoppers standing behind me in line were boring into the back of my skull with a burning intensity as I held up the process with my questions.

Proponents of the cash register donation say that consumers like it because it's fast, simple and they have some "power" over where their dollar is going. Besides, if you're not interested, you simply have to say "no" and you won't be asked again. I have found this to be true. But an unofficial survey of my friends, family members and neighbours revealed that, for the most part, people are experiencing charitable fatigue and find this approach tantamount to harassment.

What do you think? Is the cash register donation request harmless, crafty, strategic, annoying? I'd love to hear from anyone who works in the charitable sector.


  1. Hi Louise! Just catching up on your blog posts.

    I feel compelled to comment on this one as I'm generally not a fan of this kind of approach, along with those holding binders and harassing pedestrians on streets or others in subway stations.

    I have no problem saying "no thank you" when asked, because it's an ambush, if you look at it in simple terms. I'd prefer to donate money on my own terms, generally from the comfort of home.

    Take care!

  2. Hey Louise,

    I'm a reporter with The Globe and Mail and I'd like to interview you for a story about this very subject. Could you please drop me an email? dbascaramurty at globeandmail dot com.


  3. I think its up to each and every person as to how they feel about it. Some of them may want to donate it through them and some may want to do it to their regular places. I had come across a store where they used that money for some people who dint have change, so that was a nice sweets gesture by the store people.
    cash register

  4. I do work at a non-proift and I don't mind this approach. I say "no" if I don't want to donate and yes if I do. It takes no time at all either way. Thanks for the thought of having the store match the donations, didn't think of that. I wouldn't consider myself a traditional fundraiser but this type of donation request is purely painless and no need to feel like a schmuck at all. I give to enough charities that I have no qualms saying no. OK ramble over. Just say no and move on...

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  6. In general, I disagree with requests for donations that are out of left field, missing any context, and untargeted. I would put telemarketing calls, canvassers who knock on my door and cash register fundraising in this category. However, if stores are going to do it, then they need to do a better job of educating and training the employees so that they are able to answer questions and accept that no means no.