Should You Donate to Charity at the Store?

Today’s post was inspired by Rebecca’s recent viral tweet:

Everyone’s been there: you’re checking out at the grocery store and you get asked if you want to donate a few dollars to charity. But should you donate or not?

When I’ve talked to people about being asked to make donations at the register (a.k.a. “embedded giving”), they mention feeling guilt when saying “no” (because it makes you look cheap to not donate a dollar when you’re buying a hundred dollars’ worth of groceries), especially when the cashier asks you personally instead of just being prompted on a screen. In fact, stores know that you feel guilty when you say no and that’s exactly why they ask! (Interestingly, according to the report in the link, consumers like to be asked to donate to charity, but most people I’ve asked do not.)

I used to work in retail and so I have experience being the one who had to ask others to donate. First of all, I didn’t have a choice–I had to ask people to donate because it was part of my job (Mystery Shoppers would rate us on how well we stuck to a script that included asking upselling questions to customers, and the rating would affect our quarterly bonus). If enough people donated at my register, I would get a small bonus, but otherwise I didn’t care. So, if you think the cashier is judging you for not donating, they’re likely too pre-occupied with trying to make sure they remember to ask all the right questions. Just kindly say “no” and move on—the cashier has already forgotten about it. (If you want, you can say something like “I already donated to a charity,” like this advice columnist says, but honestly I was more concerned with getting people out of my line than what they did with their own money.)

[Note: while I’m on my soapbox about my experience working in retail, there is one thing you should know: if you get a receipt with a survey, please fill out the results. If you didn’t hate your experience, just give everything 5 stars, because that would directly affect the internal bonuses given to the employees, and so many people either never filled them out. Corporate considered anything below a 5-star rating as garbage. End soapbox.)

“Donations at Eden Project” by HowardLake is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

If you don’t directly donate to charity already, donating at the register is an easy way to contribute (and it’s only a few dollars). A lot of people like it because it’s an easy way to contribute a small amount of money—just enough to make you feel good about yourself. But if you’re able to set up a donation on your own time, you should just do that instead. Even better, use a site like Charity Navigator to make sure that your money is being used wisely instead of covering high overhead costs of unscrupulous administrators. Or check out the “Donating Tips” from Charity Watch to know how to donate smartly.

The problem I have with donating at the register is this: you don’t know how your money is being used. Maybe the store is directly donating the money, but maybe they’re taking a fee. Donating at the register is definitely easier, but donating directly gives you confidence that your money isn’t being wasted.

If you donate directly to a charity yourself, it’s easier to get a tax receipt to claim as a deduction (although, thanks to the recent change in the tax code, you may not be able to get as much of a tax benefit as before). And, depending on where you work, your employer could offer a matching donation, making your contribution even better! A common misconception is that the store can claim your charity donation as a tax deduction, but that’s not true because it’s actually your tax deduction (if you itemize claims and if the charity is eligible for that deduction).

Related to donating at the register is donating by buying a product that claims to give a portion of their profits to a given charity. This is a tactic used to manipulate you into thinking that the store/product is a good entity and thus getting more of your business. Also, it makes you think that you’re doing a good thing without providing evidence that you are.

After all, companies don’t do cause marketing solely to give, but also to get more of your business. Surveys show that almost 90 percent of consumers say that given similar price and quality, they’re likely to switch to a brand associated with a good cause. (Case studies suggest that is actually what happens in stores.) And businesses get to bask in the warm glow of good PR. (Source)

So, should you donate at the register or not? The best way to support a charity is to give them money. If the only way you do that is at the cash register, it’s better than not donating at all. But consider the fact that when you sit down and donate directly, your money may be going further.

Image Source: “January 9, 2017” by osseous is licensed under CC BY 2.0 


Mary Brock works as an Immunology scientist by day and takes care of a pink-loving princess child by night. She likes cloudy days, crafting, cooking, and Fall weather in New England.

One Comment

  1. The only place I ever donate at the register is at PerSmart, but that’s because they run the shelter in the store. I mean, I see and play with the cats when I’m there then always add $1 to the shelter charity when I’m leaving. However, I wonder how much I’m still being tricked. The shelters are usually run by 3rd party charities, so I might still be better off donating directly to them rather than to the store. I’m unclear on how much of my donation goes to the shelter vs the store for their costs in providing space to the shelter.

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