Charity and shopping …. really?

I’m getting fed up with all of the charity solicitations when I’m out shopping.

I take my philanthropy seriously.  Each year, Len and I sit down and go through all of our large gifts, review our priorities, decide which organizations to support, etc.  We do big gifts, we do little gifts.  We do operating gifts, we do capital gifts.  We serve on boards of non-profits, so we give our time and energy as well.

So why do I find it so annoying when I go to the grocery store, and they ask me if I will add a contribution to the Boys & Girls Club?  I’m there to pick up milk and orange juice – what does the Boys & Girls club have to do with that?  I find it an intrusion on my personal space, an “ask” when an ask is not appropriate.  Last week, when I was purchasing a mattress pad at Bed Bath & Beyond, I was asked if I would pay for a bottle of hand sanitizer that would go to a soldier in our armed services.  Really?  Mattress pad = hand sanitizer for soldiers?


I think that the reason it annoys me is that I automatically feel guilty.  How can I be so cheap as to not add a dollar for the Boys & Girls Club?  To purchase a bottle of hand sanitizer?  But, I sternly remind myself, my giving is under my control, not under the random control of merchants, who are making selections of charities according to their values, not mine.  After all, there is no “bad” cause.  In fact, there are probably hundreds of thousands of worthy causes.

Now I realize that some people are not charitable on a regular basis.  Perhaps for them, it’s a nice reminder that on occasion, one should do something generous for strangers.  However, even for the not-so-charitable, I would argue that it would somehow be better to inspire them to be thoughtful about their giving, rather than purely opportunistic.

In fact, this whole charitable giving + company marketing is really getting out of hand.  Buy this yogurt, and we’ll give to breast cancer research.  Buy these glasses and we’ll give a pair to a poor person.  Buy this jacket and we’ll donate to hurricane victims.  Sure, these are all worthy causes, and perhaps the people purchasing these items are motivated by the pitch, and thus both the companies benefit, and the charities benefit.  But, I wonder, how much truly goes to the charities, and how much is really about burnishing a company image.  What if, somehow, I could direct those donations to the charities that I want to support, not those chosen for me?

Now, I’m a diehard capitalist, and have no problem with positive company branding exercises. But I’d really rather make my own priorities about when and where to give.  And I’d like you all to back-off on the constant asks.  Particularly when I’ve just popped in for a carton of milk.

6 thoughts on “Charity and shopping …. really?”

  1. I definitely agree that these solicitations have gotten a bit out of hand. The first time I encountered the grocery store checkout donation ask I found it pretty innovative and was happy to donate. There were a few things that went into this decision – novelty, convenience, and credibility. I found the add on donation pretty original and, as a product manager, thought it was a great use of a up-selling feature. It’s interesting to see something like this spread across brick and mortar institutions over the course of a few months – it’s much more common to see “mechanics/features” spread across web properties (how many ad interstitials popped up over the last 6 months). I still believe it was an interesting concept, but totally agree that it’s gotten to be so ubiquitous that I could shop at three different stores in a day and be asked to donate for three different (and as you mention, unrelated to the store) causes. At some point it does become a burden.. if I’m not willing to donate, I’m a jerk. If I donate once, why would I not donate the second time? There must be a better way to combine the proper frequency of solicitation with a more appropriate cause (hunger + grocery stores).

    The convenience and credibility point are interesting to me. I tend to donate through various sites for specific causes (,,, but don’t really pre-meditate. My donations are often originated through social media, where a cause I want to support is coupled with a ‘credible source’. I actually think there is a lot of value in finding more ways to reduce friction and increase credibility, and these retailers have certainly done that in the short term. But I think the resistance we’re feeling to this trend is another form of friction that will cause it to stop being effective. I recently read about a start up that’s trying to do donations with credibility in a more sustainable manner: It will be interesting to see how they do.


  2. I was walking through Costco the other day with the intent of getting pasta and milk, the large staples I always buy. Unfortunately they have hawkers at every corner, offering samples of fresh smoothies, cookies, hot sausage, you name it! The thing is, I’d already eaten! I eat regular meals and don’t need to be distracted from my goals by these other temptations. I didn’t need to try any of these things, and the bunches of people clustered around the sample carts got in my way. Now, I’m sure for people who don’t eat regularly, it’s nice to have a small snack, and heck, it’s a great way for those companies to do marketing, but it gets in my way. I don’t need it there and when I’m focused on staples, the last thing I need to start thinking about is junkfood!

    End Analogy

    Samples are a thing that are never going away, charity samplers are just the new thing.


  3. I too give a lot of thought to the charities And causes I support. I consider the “add a dollar for xxx charity” plea at the checkout to be only mildly annoying. The stores near me tend to partner with local charities. I think they capture the small donations efficiently. Many people won’t give a second thought to $1.00 where they would not be willing to write a check and mail it in. Or rather, not think about it. And of course it costs something for the charity to process each donation. Each monthly check from the grocery store is less to process than hundreds of small individual donations.


  4. Check out the film PINK RIBBONS, INC. to see just how out of control the corporate marketing of breast cancer has become. Companies whose products are known to cause cancer are now sponsors. Its unbelievable.


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