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(tyler olson/istockphoto)
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Is your donation getting the best bang for its buck at the checkout? Add to ...

Let me first say that I’m a big believer in donating to charity. In fact, I think it’s essential for any successful society to have citizens who are willing to help those that are less fortunate than they are.

I make this assertion lest someone reads what is to follow and determines that I’m a Scrooge of the highest order – a tight-fisted meanie who cares more about her tax situation than she does about making a difference. So, once again, please know that I’m a big fan of supporting charitable organizations.

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However... I’ve noticed recently that everybody wants my dollar. Purchase something at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the toy store, and you’ll be asked, “Would you like to donate a dollar to X charity?”

When it first started happening, my response was always, “Sure.” It’s an effective way to get people to donate: Make it an amount that they’re never going to miss, especially if they’ve dropped $50 or $100 already, possibly on things they don’t really need. The technique worked on me quite handily.

But lately I’ve noticed that it’s not just one store doing a campaign once a year – it’s all the time and at many of the retail establishments I frequent. So, I started wondering if I was really making the best choice donating in this manner.

Here’s the argument: Let’s say I reply “Yes” to every cashier who asks me for a $1 donation, and let’s say I hit those retails establishment five or six times a week (believe me, that’s conservative – my family has been known to go to the grocery store alone three or more times a week, with our growing kids and all). Six bucks times 52 weeks of the year - that’s over $300 donated to charity, with nary a tax receipt in sight. As someone who’s always meticulously kept my charitable donation receipts and claimed them come income-tax time, it seems a bit of a waste.

One of the retail chains involved in this kind of $1 donations at the checkout claims on their website that their campaign raises $2.5-million a year from customer donations (as well as donations from employees, who I assume get receipts for their contributions). It’s a very impressive number and I'm sure a great deal of good comes of it. But I can’t help but think: That’s an awful lot of money given by an awful lot of Canadians who are not getting tax credit for what they’ve donated.

Toronto bookkeeper Peter Fagan suggests to clients that they donate to just one or two charities a year.

“Make a big donation and every year you can change it up,” he said. “Donating a large amount to one charity is beneficial to the charity – instead of the $20 donation that goes to administration, they are actually getting dollars they can use. Also, you only have to track down one receipt.”

As opposed to the little $1 mini-donations at the checkout every so often, Mr. Fagan recommends donations once a month that come directly off your credit card or bank account. Of course, you’re going to want to make sure it's a registered charity, both so you can get credit come tax time and also to ensure you’re not donating to someone’s fancy-car fund.

“There have been a lot of scams over the years, especially involving children’s charities,” Mr. Fagan said. “You can go online to check out a charity and see if they are in good standing” with the Canada Revenue Agency.

Another important tip: “If [a charity says]a $200 donation will get a receipt for $2,000, it’s too good to be true,” Mr. Fagan said. (The CRA also has a page of tips on how to donate wisely and avoid fraud.)

Having said all this, I'd like to note that these frequent $1 donation requests at the cash have accomplished one important thing for me – it’s put donating at top-of-mind for me. When I decided to stay home with my twin one-year-olds after my maternity leave expired, my income dwindled considerably. And I’m sad to say that my charitable contributions dwindled as well, as keeping up with the bills became a higher priority. Now that I’m getting more of a handle on my finances, it’s time to beef up my donations as well.

Having cashiers repeatedly ask me whether I’ll donate to a charity definitely reminds me to make those donations happen. I do it quickly and efficiently online, through the excellent website Canada Helps.

I may say no at the cash, but the request certainly isn’t falling upon deaf ears.

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