Does saying ‘no’ to checkout charities make me a bad person?

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I’m picking up a $1.50 coffee from the servo, and the lady asks if I would like to donate $2 to kids with cancer. I squirm awkwardly before saying “no thanks”. I imagine she must be wondering how this degenerate demon clawed its way out of the seventh circle of Hell. What kind of person doesn’t want to help kids with cancer?

“We already give to a few places,” I say, needing to justify my morality. I wonder if I should pull out my bank statements to show her evidence. Maybe if I grabbed her by the shoulders and said, “I’M A GOOD PERSON,” I could get the message across, but I don’t think good people grab other people by the shoulders. It’s only two bucks; why am I such a scrooge?

Many charities appeal to our emotions, which can get in the way of our logic.Credit:

Woolworths asks customers if they would like to round up their payment to the nearest dollar to donate to a specified charity, like Foodbank or the Salvation Army. Cotton On sells charity silicon wristbands, shopping bags, or water bottles at the checkout (just don’t think about the environmental impact of these trinkets).

A recent survey by Philanthropy Australia found that Australia gives 0.81 per cent of our national GDP, which ranks us 19th in the world behind Britain on 0.96 per cent, Canada (1 per cent), New Zealand (1.84 per cent) and the US (2.1 per cent). Apparently, we’re not as generous as we think, but is that why we get so uncomfortable when confronted with checkout charity?

Philosopher Peter Singer says in his 1971 essay, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, that we tend to frame charity as something optional. “The charitable man may be praised, but the man who is not charitable is not condemned,” he writes. He argues that we are morally obliged to give money away from our position of relative affluence in the world.

Growing up in church, we learned the principle of tithing. According to the Bible, it’s your duty to give 10 per cent of your income away. The word ‘tithe’ literally means ‘tenth’ in Hebrew. As I understood it, it didn’t have to be given back to the church as long as it was going somewhere where it could help others. It was an expression of gratitude and an acknowledgment of my winning the “genetic lottery”. Even in hard times, I’m still better off than a large percentage of the world.

Perhaps that moment of awkwardness during checkout charity arises from a wrestling of our wisdom and compassion: we might have no idea what the organisation is or even if the company representing them is trustworthy with our donations.

One TikTok user expressed this in a widely shared rant, “Has anyone else just had a f—ing gutful of this forced philanthropy shakedown every time you go to the f—ing supermarket?” She argued that as a “multimillion-dollar conglomerate”, Woolworths should be making these donations themselves.

When I walk past a homeless person on the street asking for money, I have a similar internal battle. How are they going to use the money? Is it going to benefit them or feed an addiction? Why should I even be making a judgment on what’s best for them? To my shame, the internal struggle becomes so intense that I often keep walking because I don’t know what to do. I have a similar reaction to those lanyard-wearing charity muggers on the street when they try to intercept you.

Many charities appeal to our emotions, which can get in the way of our logic. And not all charities are the same. Singer argues that we should seek out charities that “can demonstrate that they will use donations to save lives and reduce suffering in a way that is highly cost-effective”.

If we practise the kind of regular giving that’s structured into our finances, based on third-party researchers who assess the effectiveness of charities, perhaps it will be slightly less awkward when confronted with kids with cancer at the petrol station. On the other hand, it’s only two dollars, you tight-arse.

Cherie Gilmour is a freelance writer.

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