It’s a common practice, especially during the holidays, for cashiers at grocery stores and big box retailers to ask you if you want to donate a few dollars to a charity along with your purchase.
“I’d like to say no. I spent twenty minutes clipping coupons to save $5 and now I’m giving half of it to a charity I don’t know anything about,” you tell yourself, as you obediently nod and hand over your money. “At least it’s going to a good cause.”
But being put on the spot in front of the cashier and other customers isn’t a great reason to donate to a charity, says Sandra Miniutti, vice president of the charity-rating website Charity Navigator .
“I think it’s a difficult call to make when you’re in the moment of trying to check out, and you’re juggling your bags and maybe your kids. It’s a difficult thing to be asked, ” Miniutti says. “Many times donors don’t know much about the charity behind the appeal, and it may not be a cause that’s in line with their personal philanthropic goals.”
In fact, customers should feel no guilt at all about turning retailers’ charity appeals down, even if it’s only for a couple of bucks, she says.
“It’s not the type of money that’s going to change the world, but I do think customers shouldn’t hesitate to say ‘no’ because you don’t know anything about that charity, what their mission is about or whether they’re efficient, effective or a worthy cause,” Minuitti says.
There are 1 million public charities in the U.S., and the sad truth is that plenty of them are squandering their donations and doing little or nothing to advance the cause they claim.
“It’s important for donors to be aware that the nonprofit sector is huge,” Miniutti says. “We see a lot of scandals around issues that really pull at the heartstrings. Anything that supports heroes, whether it be our local policemen or returning war veterans. Issues around children; I mean, who doesn’t want to make a donation to help a kid have a wish or get some medical treatment?”
Investigators at the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting found that one children’s charity, Kids Wish Network, spent just 3 cents on the dollar  actually helping kids.
Of the 7,000 charities rated by Charity Navigator, less than 30 percent got the highest 4-star rating based on criteria such as how much of their funds they spend on administrative costs versus actually helping people, how much they have to spend to raise funds and how transparent and accountable their leadership is.
But even if a charity you’re being solicited to donate to is doing a great job advancing a cause the retailer likes, it may not be one you believe in.
“Presumably, the corporation or the retailer has done some due diligence, but again, at a minimum, that doesn’t mean that their interest in charitable causes matches yours,” Minuitti says.
The bottom line: Consumers need to be skeptical when considering which charities to support, and that ain’t happening in the checkout line at Target with five people waiting behind you and your baby screaming in your face.
A better approach is thinking about causes you want to support, find charities that are doing that well, and giving them your money instead, she says. That way you’ll know your money is actually working toward something you’d want, and get a tax break, to boot.
What do you think? Do you ever donate at the register?
(Photo: Flickr user ElCapitanBSC)