“Gifts much expected are paid, not given.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1753.
Columnist Eric Felten, writing in the Wall Street Journal (January 8), questions the effectiveness of charity drives at the cash register.
In just the past holiday season he had experienced opportunities to give at Ann Taylor, CVS, Kmart, Williams-Sonoma, Safeway and other stores. Safeway, which runs month long solicitations each quarter, recently raised $18 million in one month.
At his local Safeway the cashier actually draws attention to each gift on the intercom. He’s glad those who don’t give don’t get the same treatment. “But can’t I just get a gallon of milk in peace?” he asks.
Felten is not just being churlish. He wonders if there might be a backlash against such solicitations, where, like with the phone ringing at dinnertime or the panhandler on the street, we just all get better at saying no.
He asked Leslie Lenkowsky at the Indiana University Center for Philanthropy what he thought. Lenkowsky likes these pitches, since the donor has to make a decision to give, getting “both the product and the warm fuzzy glow.”
“Well, I’m not glowing,” says Felten. He doesn’t feel generous when he does it, and he feels like a skinflint if he doesn’t. “Are these the emotions businesses want to produce in their customers?” he wonders.
Generosity is, of course, a much admired but little practiced virtue. It is central to any Christian ethic, a reflection of God’s grace poured out on us through the sacrificial gift of his Son. Whatever we can give or do seems small in such a context.
But giving so your generosity is announced over the loudspeaker, or engraved on the side a building, has long been suspect. Jesus himself encouraged us to do our good works in secret. And giving out of embarrassment or pressure (think United Way at work) is equally suspect.
This is why 1 Corinthians 13 observes that we can give all our goods to feed the poor and still lack charity. In the end generosity is not an action but an attitude.
It’s worth cultivating, but not coercing.
Unfortunately you don’t have to go to Safeway to be manipulated in this way. Churches and Christian organizations can do the same thing in different ways, focusing on the transaction rather than the transformation.
A changed heart is a generous one. Thoughtful giving is responsible stewardship. It flows out of a life that holds the temporal lightly and delights in mercy. In the end, it is the cheerful giver that God loves.
This means we can give at the cash register.
But it doesn’t mean we have to.
Recommended reading: A Revolution in Generosity: Transforming Stewards to Be Rich Toward God