Monday, January 11, 2010

Ask Not

In Friday's WSJ, Eric Felten wrote about how uncomfortable it can be when charity is Feeling Imposed Upon You:

If you shopped at any number of stores participating in the hospital's campaign--including Williams-Sonoma, Kmart, CVS drug stores, and others--you also were asked to contribute. Chances are, like me, you dutifully added to the kitty. But I wonder how many, like me, came away with a bad taste from the experience, an unpleasant sense of having been imposed upon.

I asked Leslie Lenkowsky, who is director of graduate programs at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. He acknowledges that the practice involves some arm-twisting--"You get to feel badly if you refuse to donate"--but he thinks that the register pitch is not only effective but morally superior to indirect methods (such as when a store contributes on customers' behalf a small percentage of its revenues). "From the charity's point of view, this will be viewed as more ethical," he says, "since the donor has to make an affirmative decision to give." And if you are a customer/donor, he adds, "you get the product and the warm fuzzy glow."

Well, I'm not glowing. It's more like a slow burn. If I answer yes to the pitch, I don't feel the least bit generous; I'm left with the nagging sensation of having been made to cry "uncle." I never feel as though the offhand donation amounts to much—what, only a $5 donation when spending $100 on yourself?!—which leaves me feeling rather like a skinflint. And yet, if I don't pony up at all, there's the reflexive twinge of shame. Are these the emotions businesses want to produce in their customers?

Perhaps my reaction is unrepresentative. Retailers plumping for a little beneficence are confident that "the ask" helps them build a more intimate, involved and satisfying relationship with their customers. Emilie Antonetti, managing director of Brooks Brothers' charitable arm, the Golden Fleece Foundation, says that the company's clients have "embraced tremendously" the campaign as "an opportunity for us to come together and do something impactful." And in talking to a number of retailers, I was assured time and again that customers like being solicited for donations and that no one ever complains about being asked to give.

Yet I'm not so sure that a lack of complaints, or even robust levels of participation by customers, means that people like getting hit up for donations while they're shopping. Could it be that people made uncomfortable by being asked for a donation while their wallets are open and they're standing in front of a crowd at the register are just the sort of people discomfited even more by the thought of complaining about being asked to help children with cancer?

Now, I'm a big believer in charity and have no problem supporting worthy causes. Why just this last Christmas I made significant donations to the Human Fund on behalf of my fellow Fraters contributors. But I join Felten in decrying the rise in cash register charity pitches. There's something unseemly about putting people on the spot in such a public fashion and forcing them to say no to kids with cancer if they don't feel like making a contribution. I haven't experienced this pinch much here in the Twin Cities, but when I was on vacation in Miami every time I went to the local grocery store to pick up beer and potato chips I was asked if I wanted to donate to some charitable endeavor or another. It wasn't easy to summon up the will to say no, although I was able to resist the pressure play every time.

There are a couple of objections that I have to such aggressive asking. Chief among them comes from Matthew 6:1-4:

"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. 2 "Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When you're publicly being asked to give, you're not only opened up to feeling shame for not giving, you also put in a position to blow your own trumpet if you do donate. Why of course I'll give a dollar to help that children's hospital. After all, I am a good person and that's what good people do. My giving is providing that public approval of my goodness.

The other is the way that charitable giving continues to move into areas where I don't feel its appropriate. I've written before on how I dislike the organized efforts to get you to agree to donate to charity at work, usually accompanied by plenty of implicit peer pressure. Now, I don't mind that companies provide their employees an opportunity to give. But at many companies, such charitable campaigns have almost become "opt outs" rather than "opt ins" and that isn't right.

This is the problem with the ask at the cash register. It forces you to say no. Having a jar where you can donate spare change is different. You initiate that action at your discretion. If you want to give, you give. If not, no one likely notices or is involved in the matter.

The ask also brings charitable giving into what is supposed to be a commercial transaction. I give you money that I've acquired through the sweat of my labor, you give me beer and potato chips. We both want to ensure that we're getting fair value in the exchange and so there's bottom line considerations about costs, price, and value that go into it (even if we don't always think about it that way). Now, when the transaction is almost complete, a third party is brought into the picture. The consumer no longer is merely dealing with bottom line financial concerns. There's the emotional appeal of helping sick children and the guilt that will come if you elect not to. A whole new range of feelings comes into play with no chance to really analyze the costs and benefits. In such an ambiguous situation, the easiest thing to do is say yes, part with your money, and move on. The dissonance is resolved and you probably even momentarily feel a little better about yourself as a person.

Until later, when you might start to wonder if you really want to shop a place that puts you in such an inappropriate situation in the first place. I know that I don't.


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