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As cashiers guilt us into giving, it seems the kettles are running dry Add to ...


Whoever came up with the idea of turning the cash register into a bully? You know the routine: you stand in a line waiting to pay for the groceries, a bottle of wine, a Christmas present, and then, just as you're poking around in your change, the cashier says in a voice that can be heard six shoppers back: "Would you like to donate $2 to ... ?" It is not new, but recently it has become a phenomenon in this country. I ran into it numerous times down east while following the Olympic Torch. I see it when I go into a grocery, liquor or general store in Ontario. A check with friends in the Western provinces and British Columbia confirms it has become ubiquitous when shopping anywhere that remotely resembles a chain.

And while one person says it doesn't bother her - "I just say 'No' " - the others find it "annoying," even when they give.

There is a profound difference between quietly filling out a United Way form at work and being asked publicly, in front of strangers, if you would like to support what is clearly a worthy cause - be it cancer research or a local hospital. If you say "No," you come across as heartless. Yet if you said "Yes" every time you are asked these days, you would need a second job just to keep up the charity payments.

"I hate it," says a friend from Alberta. "I feel awful every time I say 'No.' I even feel badly saying, 'I already donate.' I have to wonder how many people are shamed into donating to these things."

But the concern runs deeper than just for those being asked. While shopping at an international chain recently, I could not help but notice the forlorn-looking Salvation Army volunteer standing beside a kettle that seemed to hold few deposits. Those who had just "given" at the cash register perhaps felt as if they already done their humanitarian duty - albeit a lousy toonie - and passed by the kettle without pause. Those who were "annoyed" by being asked for perhaps the third or fourth time that day at various cash lines, also scurried past, the look on their faces suggesting they were not amused at being centred out as "grinches." Over at the liquor store - medicinal purposes only, you understand - they were asking again. Those already feeling guilty about the 40-ouncers seemed to give willingly to this cause (a local hospital) yet when they passed by a homeless man sitting cross-legged by an outside trash bin, his cap sitting between his legs, they no longer had that $2 coin to assuage the guilt of indulgence.

Hospitals and health research need money, absolutely - who would be foolish enough to argue otherwise? - but their need is not instant. Whatever toonies are gathered up by these endless cash-register prods will, eventually, be turned over to the good causes with great smiles and corporate congratulations.

That homeless man, sitting there in -17, needs immediate help. And the Salvation Army needs to be able to offer help tonight and tomorrow, at a time when temperatures are plummeting. Food banks may also be affected, with contributors less likely to drop that extra box of cereal in the bin on the way out as they've already been hit up by another charity.

The cash-register phenomenon has not passed notice among those being affected.

"Some people are concerned about it," says Marcel Lauzière, president of Imagine Canada, a Toronto-based umbrella organization that speaks for and encourages charities.

Unfortunately, no one really knows much about the overall effect of the phenomenon. "We don't have any data on it at all," says Lauzière.

"It's not a bad thing to give, but this is very new." Lauzière's concern is for long-term, sustainable giving, and he says that his organization has noted a decrease in the number of Canadians who give to charities and get a receipt back. There are no receipts, of course, for $2-a-pop, yet it is possible that some of those who hand over a toonie time and time again feel they have done their charitable duty. But as the head of Imagine Canada says, no one really knows. All he can say is, "Giving is good." And who can argue with that? With less than a week to go before Christmas, however, the Salvation Army stands at only 55 to 58 per cent of its goal of $16-million for the annual kettle campaign.

That goal would match the amount raised in 2008, yet the Army feels that the financial meltdown - you know, the one that's over - and the huge job losses across the country are causing as much as a 40-per-cent rise in needs.

They need that $16-million.

"We're cautiously optimistic," says Salvation Army spokesperson Andrew Burditt. "It's starting to get cold. There's snow. It puts people in the mood for Christmas - and they tend to give then." The hope is that those who are already giving at the cash register - when put on the spot - will still give when they pass a kettle where no one will be asking, no one will be listening, and no one will be judging.

The Salvation Army has no idea whether or not the cash-register request is taking money from their kettles. All Andrew Burditt will say, with great diplomacy, is all that needs to be said on the topic: "In general, people want to give when and where they're comfortable."

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