The grocery store cashier rings up the final item and provides the total to pay. Then comes the question, “Would you like to round that up for such and such charity?” or “Would you care to make a donation to such and such charity?” What is wrong with this picture? Plenty.
There is a not-so-subtle effort to shame the shopper into saying yes so as not be be embarrassed in front of the cashier-cum-fundraiser, the next person in line or the grocery bagger who has just arrived and asked you how your day has been so far or what your plans are this afternoon. After all, what kind of a person refuses to round up his or her bill for a good cause when only 20 or 30 cents is involved, or 15 or 75? Pocket change that you can do without is the message, so get with it and donate and save children, dolphins, polar bears, Civil War veterans or sociopathic billionaires - whatever charity du jour, that is, the one chosen by the grocery store, not you.
Over the past several years in Bellingham, I have encountered this charitable giving situation at Fred Meyer, Haggen Food and Whole Foods. I have not had the experience yet at Safeway because I do not shop there. My most recent experience at Whole Foods is informative.
Having been asked by the cashier if I wanted to “round up,” this time for the Whole Planet Foundation, I replied that I did not care to and that I was tired of being asked. I also told her that I had no idea what the charity was and how it operated at which point she offered to explain it to me which I am sure endeared her to the other shoppers in line. I declined her offer, thinking to myself that this young woman was going to convince me in a few minutes or less that the charity was worthwhile while her billionaire boss, Jeff Bezos, raises wages to an impoverishing $15/hour and then reduces employee hours. Does she get the irony?
So what does the Whole Planet Foundation do anyway? Doing a bit of looking, I found this on its website:
“We support tenacious, innovative, and hardworking entrepreneurs all around the globe. Most of the entrepreneurs who receive microloans are women, who traditionally have fewer resources and less access to financial services. Whole Planet Foundation identifies and partners with microfinance organizations (MFIs) who provide and administer responsible financial services to their members.”
According to the foundation’s financials for 2016 (the latest posted) the charity took in about $8 million of which about $1.8 million (22%) went for overhead and administration. I find that percentage to be a hefty chunk of a charity’s donations going to running the program rather than serving its target population. But is the giving worthwhile? Anushka Peres, a photographer and PhD Candidate in Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at University of Arizona looked at the foundation with a critical lens and wrote a piece entitled “In Looking ‘We’ Become: Neoliberal Giving and Whole Planet Foundation’s Faces of Poverty”
“Neoliberal corporate poverty reduction programs based on microcredit and/or microloans, like WPF, unite economic systems with individual freedoms and global justice enterprises, ultimately supporting the production of a small and wealthy elite class. Christine Keating, Claire Rasmussen, and Pooja Rishi suggest that “microcredit approaches are deeply grounded in the political rationality of neoliberalism that seeks market-based solutions to a wide range of problems and deploys a justification of individual liberty and responsibility” ... In practice, however, the neoliberal logic that develops and sustains microloan solutions to poverty provides different results. According to Keating, Rasmussen, and Rishi, such programs may also cause increased debt ..., invite shifts in certain gendered dynamics while also aggravating gender norms ..., and provide too temporary a solution to a much larger problem .... These scholars also identify feminist critiques of the pervasive microcredit discourse surrounding women’s empowerment. They say, “some critiques stress the ways that microcredit is deeply imbricated in the process of neoliberal globalization and exemplifies the co-optation of feminist goals of empowerment for neoliberal ends” .... Such rhetorics reduce understandings of women’s empowerment to market based visions of racially problematic and indicative of what some would consider anti-radical uses of the term. Furthermore, microcredit programs may not meet their proposed goal of reducing poverty. Instead, they “contribute to an overall reshaping of the political and economic landscape that often deprives those most in need” ... . Microcredit appears to be a seemingly moral quick fix to world poverty and often to global gender inequalities, a perceived solution that may in fact exacerbate the situations it intends to alleviate.”
In other words, this is a “charity” I would not touch and serves as an example of what your grocery store may be proffering at the register. This particular example is all the more galling in that Bezos, a man worth $137 billion, calls on his Whole Foods customers to raise, through their nickels and dimes, a miserable $12 million dollars a year. This amount does not even achieve the level of a rounding error on his tax return. He could round up someplace in his own financials and donate $100 million to his own charity tomorrow and just the money to these “entrepreneurial women” instead of promoting this neoliberal claptrap of micro-financing that actually creates instant debt for those who accept the money.
The point of all this above is that you should not let your grocery store guide your charitable giving. Research your charities carefully using on-line resources such as Guide Star where you can find information on how your charity of choice uses the money you donate. In the meantime, politely and firmly refuse these calls to giving at the register. Talk to the store manager to let her know your concerns about blindly giving. Let’s stop these extractive practices.