What’s More Annoying: Charity Solicitations at the Cash Register or at Your Doorstep?

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People should feel good about giving to charity. Then why is it you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth after being guilted into giving by store clerks and door-to-door solicitors?

In “Sorry I Gave at the Store,” the WSJ’s Eric Felten writes about the store checkout line imposition:

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?

There are thousands of worthy charities, and people should not feel bad about taking their time in choosing where they’d like to give, and how much. You can’t really think or find out much about the worthiness of a charity on a checkout line, not with antsy customers in line behind you. And if a charity’s best fundraising bet is a quick public pitch—the equivalent of someone in a department store makeup section trying to spray perfume on your wrist, only with guilt—that doesn’t speak well of the charity’s worthiness. Many generous people prefer to give in different ways, knowing that some donations have more impact than others. Some donations, for instance, help fund the salaries of charity administrators who concoct partnerships with retailers—leading to donation drives at store checkout lines.

Over at the Freakonomics blog, meanwhile, Stephen Dubner reports on an experiment in which charity solicitors leave a flyer at homes, alerting residents about the charity and that a solicitor will be ringing the bell at a specific date and time. They have also tried flyers allowing residents to check off a “Do Not Disturb” box. After distributing the flyers, charities have seen a decrease in the number of people opening their doors by 10% to 30%. My guess is they’ve also dramatically decreased the amount of time wasted by solicitors, allowing them to canvass more neighborhoods and collect donations from the people who truly want to give in less time.

Dubner wonders if, in light of the highly popular do-not-call list, people might soon be asking for a “do-not-knock” registry.