Are Cash Register Donations A Scam? Mostly No, But Yes Also

Emily Chambers
Emily Chambers has very strong opinions on very unimportant things and will fight you on those things for no reason. She’s been known to try to make friends by quoting Brockmire and John Oliver at you. She’s from Chicago and will remind you of that fact early and often. Do not feed the Emilys.

Just to set your expectations at the right level, yes, I’m going to be discussing accounting, auditing, and tax law. You should now be riveted. But in case you’re not, I’m also going to be hopefully helping you decide what’s become an overwhelmingly ubiquitous decision: Do I donate an extra dollar at the check-out at CVS?

Actually, this is now occurring at a lot of registers. I’m only using CVS as an example because when I needed a Diet Coke to go with my Italian beef and cheese fries dinner last night (the beef place only sold Diet Pepsi and that is not OK), I had to make a split-second decision if I wanted to walk to the CVS to get a 2 liter or if I wanted to duck into the Potbelly’s for a large fountain. Outside of fountain drinks being superior (this is always fact), I also had to spend a second thinking about if I wanted to pay an extra dollar for St. Jude’s or whatever very worthy charity CVS is collecting money for right now. Here’s the thing about that, I work at a very large, very worthy charity. I do accounting for charity and still thought, “Oh, god, if I don’t give a dollar are they going to look at me? It’s not like I can’t afford the dollar or mind giving it, it’s just every trip outside costs an extra dollar now.” I need to be clear, I’m not stingy. I’m just tired.

But based on both my experience at non-profit accounting and Rounding Up donation fatigue, I thought I might be able to shed a little light on why we keep seeing the charity requests at registers (or online portals or self-checkouts or basically any time you’re spending money and don’t have the mental capacity to weigh if you should be giving your seventy-six cents away right now) and answer some questions. Questions like:

So Are These A Scam?

The simplest answer is yes, but not in the way you think. I should also specify I’m talking about larger companies asking you to donate to an organization you’ve heard of. If you see a tip jar at your gas station asking for donations for a little league team, they might be straight-up stealing. I’m not saying they’re more likely to steal, only that there’s almost no level of oversight with those campaigns so I can’t vouch for them. I’m talking about Walmart asking you to add two bucks to your credit card purchase for the American Cancer Society or something.

And on those, I’ve seen a lot of online misinformation, particularly on Twitter (I couldn’t believe it either). Usually stating that companies are keeping the donations, using the donations as their own tax write-off, or donating the money but then asking you for money to reimburse themselves. Those things are all absolutely wrong. If the aforementioned Walmart asks if you want to give a dollar to fight cancer, they’re legally obligated to turn that dollar over to the American Cancer Society and say, “hey, my friend Dan wanted me to give this to you.” They can’t say, “Well I gave Cancer a dollar yesterday so I’m keeping this one.” Or “Hey, this is my dollar I’m giving you.” These cause-marketing campaigns essentially work like the Salvation Army bellringers on a mass scale. Companies use their stores and employees as fundraisers in order to reach as many donors as possible. But never, under any circumstance, are they legally allowed to keep the money or donate it as their own.

Ok, So Then How Is It A Scam?

I love that you’ve been paying attention. Because of course it’s still sort of a scam, but that’s mostly about the tax code. Our government, in its infinite . . . not wisdom, but they tried real hard, decided to incentivize charitable giving. Which is good! We like charity! We would prefer political and societal policies that just give every human being a decent standard of living and safety, but short of that, charity is the way to go. The problem with incentivizing it is that then people learn to game the system. The reason it feels like a scam is because it looks like corporations are trying to do good, and that gives most of us pause. Corporations don’t do good. Corporations make money. If “making money” and “good” line up, corporations won’t insist on doing bad, but they’re never altruistic.

So the first reason it’s a scam is because corporations have entire departments to figure out exactly how much to give to charity in order to minimize their tax liability. Instead of paying taxes on their profits and funding society as we’ve all voted for, they get to decide which causes should be funded because they’re rich. This is one (of many) of the problems with the tax code. If you’re so rich you can give away a lot of money, you get to decide that instead of funding public schools, you want to fund anti-choice groups. It’s wielding power and wealth to advance your own interests at the expense of those who really need you to pay your fucking taxes. Even when you support the cause, you can see why it isn’t great to let billionaires dictate what’s valued in actual dollars. That’s how you end up with studies from the Bald Men Named Jeff Really Are The Sexiest Institute.

The other reason it’s a scam is because companies are legally allowed to state something fundamentally true for the purpose of deceiving us. You might have noticed up in the second paragraph I said CVS is “collecting” for a worthy cause. These donation campaigns function because the company usually makes a fairly sizable donation from them (which they then get to claim on their taxes) and fundraises an additional amount from customers. So they give $5 million and try to raise another $2 million from customer donations (again the customer donations being an amount they cannot include). But when they put out press releases about all of their charitable work, you’re goddamn right they say $7 million.

Because technically it’s true. As long as they use words like “collected” or “raised”, and not “donated” or “gave”, they can use the higher amount. They’re relying on the general public not being familiar enough with charitable work to not know the difference. Like how non-accountants might use “income” and “profit” interchangeably. Or how people who haven’t watched The Bachelor might look at you funny when you claim these are four different men.

Companies tell the absolute, literal truth in order to deceive you. It’d be like saying to your boyfriend, “Wait, did you cheat on me,” and him responding, “I did not have sexual intercourse with anyone else this weekend.” Because it might be the truth, but he definitely cheated on you. They’re lying to you with the truth and trying to garner some goodwill by misrepresenting the good act they did. And if that’s not a scam, I’m not sure what is.

So Should I Donate?

Maybe? I wish I had a better answer, but, like, I don’t know, what do you think? I can tell you for sure that if you want to give a dollar to a charity through a register campaign, the dollar will get to the organization and it will be used in keeping with that charity’s mission. So a dollar promised to The Anti-Cruelty Society will be spent trying to help animals, but, yeah, Big Lots is going to ride that adorable kitten’s coattails (which seems like something they should be trying to prevent). Charitable giving and tax code reform is a much bigger issue than just these register asks, and frankly won’t be impacted one way or another if you decide to give. Giving your extra change isn’t supporting a corrupt system (any more than anything else you do in a late-stage capitalist society), but refraining won’t stop it either. So please understand I mean this sincerely when I say: do whatever makes you feel good.

Philanthropy is, at the end of the day, an organization selling you a good feeling. You give us $10 and we send you a note saying that you’ve helped a kid with a cleft palate. Or fed a hungry family. Or cleaned up a river. More than anything else, charity functions on creating warm and fuzzies. We’re like a trip to a G-rated brothel selling the best 15 minutes of selflessness you’ve ever had. But if that trip to the check-out only creates feelings of apprehension, resentment, and in some cases open hostility, we fucked up our job.

If you can donate, either your time or money, and feel comfortable doing so, I would encourage you to do it. It’s kind of nice and I don’t really care for nice. Find something you believe in and try to support them even if you’re only tweeting about them to raise awareness. And if you’re feeling very charitable, ask a non-profit accountant to explain in-kind donations and watch their eyes light up.

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