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Charities in danger of ‘donor fatigue’ as shoppers are pressured to give

Donations today might cost charities donors in the future.

Donations today might cost charities donors in the future. Photo: TND/Getty

Being asked to make a donation to charities at the checkout comes with a bucketload of pressure and anxiety, researchers have found.

Collection boxes at McDonald’s drive-throughs and pop-up alerts asking for donations at supermarket self-serve checkouts are a common sight throughout Australia.

But a US study of consumer reactions to similar American charity campaigns shows that rather than making people feel good about donating, about 47 per cent of customers interviewed were negative about point-of-sale donation prompts.

Many customers associated being asked to donate at the checkout with feelings of anxiety, pressure, concern over being judged, and guilt.

Deakin University lecturer Virginia Weber told The New Daily it’s likely Australians share similar sentiments towards point-of-sale donation requests.

Over time, these feelings could translate to negative perceptions of retailers and less donations for charities.

‘Uncomfortable’ charities dilemma

Australians are typically generous, donating $12.7 billion to charities in 2020 according to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), but Dr Weber said people donate less when times are tight.

With the rising cost of living biting into everyday expenses, shoppers facing tighter budgets may donate only reluctantly when asked at checkouts.

Charities

Shoppers face pressure from more than their bank accounts at checkouts. Photo: Getty

This is the case for Melbourne-based nurse Meghan Davies, who said she regularly donates to charities like UNICEF, but feels uncomfortable when asked to donate at the checkout of her local supermarket.

“Honestly, sometimes it makes you feel a bit under pressure or obligated. And if you don’t make the donation, sometimes it makes you feel quite guilty,” she said.

Ms Davies also questioned how much of donations made actually go towards helping people in need.

The ACNC found charity expenses increased by $10.2 billion in 2020.

“You don’t know from the start point, where’s the end point, and through to there what fees are taken?” Ms Davies said.

Checkouts generate millions

As charities spend billions to operate, the demand for their services has risen sharply in Australia.

Foodbank Australia has seen demand spike 50 per cent above pre-COVID levels due to surging inflation, and CEO Brianna Casey told TND the charity’s partnership with Woolworths has brought in more than a million dollars in donations.

“We have just finished a successful campaign with our biggest national donor, Woolworths, where two million customers said ‘yes’ to rounding up at the self-checkout, totalling over $1 million in donations,” she said.

“This much-needed funding will go to our food relief efforts, as we’re currently providing food relief to more than a million people a month.”

Woolworths is currently running a ‘Small Change Appeal’ throughout October, with stores in different states supporting different charities.

More than $1 million has been raised for:

  • Variety in New South Wales, the ACT, South Australia and Northern Territory, as well as The Bread and Butter Project in Metro NSW stores
  • The Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal in Victoria
  • The Children’s Hospital Foundation in Queensland
  • Telethon’s Fundraising Appeal in Western Australia
  • St Giles’ Fundraising Appeal in Tasmania.

And almost $4 million has been donated to the Salvation Army, Foodbank, Rural Aid and Lifeline from the supermarket giant’s ’round-up’ prompts at checkouts.

A Coles spokesperson said the retailer finds customers are generous and “passionate about supporting the community”.

Coles’ suppliers, team members and customers contributed $142 million to the community for the year ending June 2022.

Complex response

Millions have been raised through checkout donations, but businesses could face donor fatigue if they continually ask for donations.

Dr Weber said if consumers experience anxiety and frustration, they rate the service encounter less positively which can affect their feelings towards the business.

“When it comes to checkout donations, these are sometimes framed as a win-win-win where it benefits the charity, benefits the consumer, and benefits the business by making the consumer feel positively toward the business for caring about charity and for donating,” she said.

“That’s not necessarily always the case though, with the reality of consumer anxiety and evaluation of these charity prompts being a little more complex.”

Danger of fatigue

Cassandra Chapman, researcher at The University of Queensland, said after being pressured to give to charity in public, some people may hesitate to donate again.

“When people are asked to give in public, [like through] street fundraisers, they tend not to sustain their giving for as long,” she said.

“When they think back about their gift, they think they did it because they were pressured rather than because they wanted to. With this interpretation in mind, they are perhaps less likely to repeat the behaviour when the pressure is removed.”

Dr Chapman said the possibility that people might avoid donating in the future after facing public pressure is a danger for the whole charitable sector.

“It is certainly possible that individual businesses who ask for donations may gain reputational benefits from these programs while, at the same time, inadvertently reducing people’s support of charities in general over time due to donor fatigue.”

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