The Case Against Charitable Giving

A reporter friend of mine who always has the scoop on weird or interesting stories had the following post on Facebook this week:

If you'd like to support efforts to help our returning military veterans at home, you could donate directly to a number of national or local charities that provide great services. Or you can buy an $800 washer/dryer pair at Sears and have the retailer donate $20 of that. Because #America.

That's right, friends. A company that is on the brink of bankruptcy is trying to cash in on goodwill toward our troops to sell appliances. If you'd like to read more about it, here's the article my friend linked to.


Here's the deal: corporations and for-profit business have a long history of using causes to boost sales. In the case of restaurant fundraisers, where 10-15% of a customer's bill goes to support an organization on a given day, I think it's a good fit for schools or small organizations that don't have the manpower or expertise to fundraise. In fact, most of the time, these arrangements are beneficial to both the business and the nonprofit. Nobody's winning big, but everyone is winning.

The problem with this initiative from Sears is that the amount going back to charity is abysmal. Only 0.05% of the total cost is actually being donated. Look, the organization that Sears is donating to will be glad to receive up to $200,000, and will certainly do great work with the funds. Rebuilding Together is a national nonprofit with local branches, including one in my own community. It's a worthy cause. It's an odd choice for this initiative, considering it doesn't exclusively serve active military or veterans, but it's still a great organization.

Rather than purchasing one of these washers or dryers for your feel-good moment of supporting the troops, do a little research and make a direct donation to any one of the more than 400,000 nonprofits that serve our military. If you don't know of an organization that serves troops in your community, call your local United Way or a local community foundation to see if they can point you in the right direction. CharityWatch and Great Nonprofits both have good resources to find national organizations, but I recommend checking out Charity Navigator, where you can  find organizations that serve military families, provide social services or support wounded troops.

And hey, if you're going to give a gift directly to a nonprofit organization, but still need a washer and dryer, check out your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, where you might be able to find a great bargain and support another local nonprofit.

A final thought for nonprofit leaders: Promotions like these are not a healthy thing for the world of nonprofits. In this field, we're always fighting against negative perceptions of high salaries and boycotts due to overhead – you'll soon start seeing the misleading, inaccurate and out-of-date chart circulate amongst your Facebook friends which tells you which nonprofits to avoid this holiday season. We're always fighting to demonstrate our missions are worthy of a person's hard-earned and usually stretched dollar. It's our responsibility in the nonprofit world to set the standard regarding donations. And this standard is absurdly low. So initiatives like this, where a company is donating less than one percent of the buyer's total cost, are damaging. We must demand better.