Monday, October 20, 2008

Generosity With Other People's Money

I don't like being accosted for charitable donations. And whereas I'm an introverted, socially dysfunctional misanthrope, when I say "accosted" I pretty much mean "personally solicited".

I've noticed a trend recently in charitable fundraising efforts. Maybe it's not new, but I hadn't noticed it much before, and something about it didn't sit well. Today I realized why.

The trend is for businesses to try to guilt-trip their customers into supporting causes directly related to that business. Think supermarkets promoting food banks, or sporting goods and tire (if you catch my drift - especially you Canadians) stores urging people to donate to charities dedicated to helping underprivileged (meaning underfunded) kids get sports equipment.

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with those causes, although I must admit that with people starving to death in the world, I have a hard time getting upset that some kids' parents can't afford goalie pads. Still, there are plenty of good causes, and everyone has their pet issues, so I try not to trivialize other people's concerns with "there are more important issues".

Anyway, toward the point. These businesses are attempting to motivate people, strictly through guilt (the omnipresent TV ads about the sporting goods charity are blatantly manipulative), to buy stuff from them and give it to charity. That sounds fine, at first. Any donated items need to be purchased somewhere along the line, so I can overlook the possibly self-serving charity selection.

However, I've just realized what puts it over the line. Let's take the campaign from the sporting goods / hardware chain urging people to buy and donate sports gear. We'll call the chain, oh, I don't know, National Carwheels (NC for short).

NC wants you to buy stuff from them, of course. Their contribution consists of paying for the charitable ad spots (which mention NC's name and display their logo prominently), and maybe serving as dropoff points or somesuch. That is, you can come into the store, buy something, and just... leave it there.

I don't expect NC to just donate all the needed equipment. I understand how business works, and that's just not feasible. However, I think that their current charity model, presenting themselves as some sort of partner with the donors, is a cynical sham.

If they really want to be a partner, and really be charitable, here's what they should do: offer to sell the donated items at wholesale. I don't expect them to give the stuff away, but selling it - for charity, remember - at full retail betrays their real motivation. The charity angle is just a sales promotion. Not that there's anything wrong with sales promotions, but it's a bit sickening to watch them get wrapped in claims of altruism.

Set up something whereby my $50 donation doesn't just get $50 retail worth of gear for underprivileged kids, but $50 wholesale. I don't know what NC's profit margins are, but I'm guessing that the difference would be significant.

If revealing wholesale pricing like that is too much exposure of privileged information, then give a discount that puts it somewhere in the middle. That could even be promoted as a "matching" program of sorts: "For every $100 donated, NC will provide an extra $20 worth of equipment!"

Again, note for the record that I have no problem with business trying to get some promotion out of their charitable activity. Just don't try to amass guilt sales while contributing essentially nothing. I can tell when it's something other than rain hitting my leg. As long as these businesses are making no sacrifice - not even a discount - then they're just trying to encourage generosity with other people's money.

Enough rambling. Here's another picture from our our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting.

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