When You Give, Who Benefits?

By Monique Veselovsky

Over the past few decades, Canada has moved away from its label as the “welfare state.” The government has propelled us into a liberalist economy, which means opening markets and decreasing social spending. The focus is more on personal gain, what one can do for oneself, and not what one can do for a neighbour. Despite this, Canadians continue to be generous when the need arises. 

 We are now approaching the winter holiday season. As we get closer to family celebrations, our food donations are sure to increase. Many will likely consider a food-basket program, providing disadvantaged families with a Christmas meal. But what we are not likely to consider are the profits some companies have found to make from this generosity.  

How does this happen? How have corporations been able to find a way to benefit off charitable giving?

 It is only in the last few years that Sobeys has offered pre-packaged food donation bags. As a Sobeys cashier, my sister packed many of these bags. The store offered two options - one $10 bag and the other $15. She decided to do a little math one day on the products she was packing into these bags. Based on the sale price of the food items packed into the larger bag, most of every dollar you spent went towards food in the bag; however, with the smaller bag, the cost of food added up to about $1 less than what you were paying, leaving the grocery store with nearly a 10% profit on the sale (not including the regular profit made off the food items).

 This profit may not seem significant, but it adds up. And if the grocery store is seeking to benefit the community, why not offer the food at cost? Then consumers could offer more through these pre-packaged food bags than what they would be able to purchase themselves for the same amount of money - especially as these bags are donated on behalf of Sobeys, adding to their portfolio of corporate responsibility. In that case it would be easier to overlook the 10 cent to 1 dollar profit made off the sale of the bag. These bags are clever as they make you (the consumer) consider doing something you might not think of off-hand, leaving you feeling good as you make a donation almost as an afterthought. In the increasingly busy lives we lead, making goodwill and charitable giving convenient is becoming a commodity in business.

 Perhaps, as these food bags are an easy grab, they do encourage those to do something charitable who otherwise wouldn’t. In this case, they may do more good than harm. But this is not the first time a company has taken advantage of our goodwill, as well as our ignorance. Many stores, including grocery stores, offer at-the-cash donations for various charities and causes. This money is then put towards a cheque that the store is able to “donate” (on our behalf) to the charity. So, for example, the $2 you give at Walmart for the Children’s Wish Foundation, along with the five hundred thousand others who donated $2 in the same month, allow Walmart to write the Children’s Wish Foundation a $1 million cheque. And then Walmart can use that donation for tax benefits.

 It’s a very clever model. When a cashier asks if you’d be willing to give $1 to feed hungry kids, or help disadvantaged children learn how to read, it’s hard to say no. And besides, what’s a dollar to most of us? When you’re at Chapters buying a $25 book on the perfect feng-shui bedroom setup to promote creativity, health, and self-actualization, it’s almost embarrassing to deny little Jimmy a $1 juice box. And you’ve probably picked up enough pennies off the sidewalk over the course of your lifetime to account for that dollar anyway.

 We may not often think to donate a couple dollars, especially when we don’t know about many of these charities. But, if you do a little research, you can find an organization that works towards something you believe in. And then you can make your own small donation—often online—that you can then write off in your own taxes. You probably deserve that break more than Walmart.

 So this holiday season, as you open your wallets and your hearts, open your minds as well. Think about what you are doing, and how you’re doing it. And make sure that your goodwill is put towards those who are truly in need.

Monique Veselovsky

Monique Veselovsky has always loved the art of the story.  As an advocate for social justice, she understands the power of storytelling in overcoming difference.  Her greatest desire is to create dialogue and share knowledge, for there is no greater story than someone’s lived experience.  She hopes to tell her story here.  Join her on: Instagram or Twitter