’Tis the Season for Charity—at the Checkout, on the Street and at Dinner

No, I don't have a minute for the environment, or pets, and I'd rather not donate to a mystery foundation

Actor Tommy Steele poses at a photocall to promote his role as Ebenezer Scrooge in the new stage version of "Scrooge" at the London Palladium on October 27, 2005 in London, England.

Actor Tommy Steele poses at a photocall to promote his role as Ebenezer Scrooge in the new stage version of “Scrooge” at the London Palladium on October 27, 2005 in London, England. MJ Kim/Getty Images

I do not know when I started to turn Scrooge-like; not the McDuck variety, but the actual curmudgeonly type that begins to dread the holiday season. Not that I am averse to charitable giving, or indeed action, as I often try to assuage my privilege-induced guilt by devoting time to projects in the community.

My issue with the holidays is best explained by my retail day in Manhattan a couple of days before Thanksgiving. On the way to buying lunch, a young man in a green bib posed the question “Do you care about the environment?” At the checkout of Wholefoods, the checkout chap through his bold expression of facial hair asked “Do you want to donate to children?” On the way back to the office via the other side of the road, a young lady in a pink bib queried “Do you care about women’s health?” In Fairway later in the day “Do you want to buy a turkey for someone? … We’ll ring a bell if you do.” In Petco, technology got in on the act as the credit card terminal enquired “Do you want to donate to a homeless pet?” My mumble to the screen of “I already did that, hence my shopping here” brought a snort of disdain from the cashier.

Upon mentioning my new grumble, I have found that I am not alone as many ask a variant of the following:

  1. Are checkout campaigns legal?
  2. Does the cashpoint company claim a tax deduction?
  3. How far can the point of sale provider go?

Despite the fact that checkout personnel are invariably unable to give chapter and verse of what type of homeless animal the donation is going to, what percentage of each given dollar reaches Fido, and which organization is managing the funds, the practice is legal.

These basic flaws are probably overlooked due to the fact that the campaigns raise hundreds of millions of dollars, and the local or federal governments know that they would have to step in if such practices were rendered illegal. However, if the retailer has charged a collection fee or if the credit card companies have taken a percentage, primarily that should be disclosed and furthermore, should be either returned to the consumer, or forwarded to the charity. One might like to see more information being made available, so that a proper choice can be made by the consumer rather than a sudden micro-ransom being forced at the checkout checkpoint.

As to whether the companies claim a tax deduction, I have no idea, but if they are, such a practice is seriously questionable. Ostensibly, the deduction should inure to the consumer and the receipt or credit card statement should be properly drawn to enable the individual to calculate charitable deductions at the end of the year.

While I am not usually a fan of the slippery slope type of argument, there is a real need for guidance on how far the point of sale provider can go.

My recent experience in the UK, where the charitable donation was automatically added to my restaurant bill, is evidence that many companies feel entitled to make choices for the consumer without their knowledge. In this instance, it was Zuma London full of the smug confidence that its presumed-to-be well-heeled patrons would not look at their check and certainly would not be so gauche to question £1 to the Savitri Trust.

Frankly, it does not matter whether the charity is a scam, transparent, or true, but when one agrees to be a diner at a restaurant, that relationship does not entitle the service provider to change the terms of engagement, and add any charges outside of the usual taxes and service fees. Suffice to say, the I did incur the mild contempt of the maître for being the rare customer that actually checks his bill.

Now the season of good-will to all men is upon us, one is met with the familiar ting-a-ling of the Salvation Army and the entrenched homeless man on my street-corner makes his daily request for Vitamin Water. This heralds a time to give.

Robert Garson is Managing Partner of Garson, Ségal, Steinmetz, Fladgate LLP, an intellectual property and international litigation firm in New York. He is also a barrister qualified in England and concentrates on IP and First Amendment matters.

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