(Updated 12:10am, 7/21)
ABC World News Tonight had a story about the Steamin’ Bean coffee shop in Blue Springs, Missouri. Here’s a link to a UPI article from a few days ago which says basically the same thing the ABC story documented. To spare you from having to read the story, here are the basics:
On Monday, July 6, a customer in the drive-thru window paid for her drink and then paid for the person’s drink behind her in line — she called it her good deed for the day. Well, that person accepted the free drink and was so struck by the generosity of their benefactor that they decided to do the same, paying for the person in line behind them. The chain continues to this day, with over 1,300 drinks being bought.
When there is nobody behind them in the drive-thru line, people donate however much they want and, if that person orders a drink costing less than the donation they make, the difference goes into a charity fund. This “pay it forward” concept has made its way into the coffee shop itself, with people inside just paying money into the charity fund and then getting a free drink out of that fund from money that was supposedly contributed by someone else. The store has even posted signs describing the process. Proceeds from the fund will be used to pay for drinks in the event some jerkoff breaks the chain and doesn’t buy another coffee for someone else. On the ABC News broadcast, the owner said that he hopes the fund proceeds might someday be used to help buy someone’s groceries for a week, or some other helpful act.
ABC News touted this entire process as charity, but is it really? Sure, the first person was being charitable, no question about it. But for everybody else continuing the chain, I’m not sure that it is – especially now that this is a national story and the company itself actually has signs telling customers about the program and basically guilt-tripping them into not breaking the chain. For all of the people going into the Steamin’ Bean today, they get a free drink from someone else and they pay for some other person’s drink. They’re getting a drink and paying for one — how is that any different than the status quo? If they pay $5 and only ask for a $4 coffee drink, sure the $1 difference might be considered charity. But not the entire $5, which is basically the way the story is being presented. And if you donate the same amount of money as your coffee costs, you’re “keeping the chain alive” — yet you haven’t contributed to anything but this story.
The story I link to explains that as of July 15, the chain had reached 1,000 people and the coffee shop had a total of $160 in the charity fund. (They keep track by writing down a bunch of numbers in sequence and crossing them off as they go — one more thing your barista has to do while you wait for your coffee.) Think about those numbers. They’ve served 1,000 drinks and the chain hasn’t been broken, so 1,000 people have taken part in this system — and they’ve only collected $160. The average person is donating 16 cents per drink, and the store is collecting $16 per day in charitable contributions. Most coffee shops make several times that in their tip jar on an average day. But the whole “pay it forward” idea is cute — although it’s been done countless times before and even turned into a bad movie (Kevin Spacey, why have you forsaken us!?). So this story gets nationwide press. If the headline of the story were “Coffee Shop collects $16 per day for charity” I doubt it would get the same publicity.
On a different note, shouldn’t these charitable people actually want the chain to be broken? That would mean that somebody who really, desperately needs a $4 half-caff no-whip soy caramel latte but doesn’t have any money can get one. Only when the chain is broken will the original person’s charitable contribution of a free coffee actually be realized.
This form of incentive system creates some obvious problems. Knowing there’s a slush fund that is used to make up the difference whenever somebody doesn’t have enough money, I have an incentive to order an expensive drink and pay for the next customer’s inexpensive drink.* But with all the publicity and the signs in the coffee shop, people will think I’m a real jerk if I do that. (See the next paragraph.) To avoid that, especially if I’m a local customer, perhaps I contribute as much as the drink would have cost anyway. In that case, there’s nothing charitable about it. And it appears that most people are doing just that, since they’re only collecting $16 per day. But why all the needless complication of buying someone else’s drink instead of your own?
The owner, in a different story, says of this system, “We don’t want anybody to abuse it. The simple fact is that if someone does abuse it, it’ll be gobbled up and go away on its own. It’s the honor system and it can simply vanish if people abuse it.” Ah, now I see. So it’s charity, but don’t abuse it! It was designed to help people pay for coffee as a goodwill gesture, but by God nobody better actually use it for what it was intended for or it will go away! Maybe I’m too cynical, but I don’t think this is charity at all. This is an unnecessarily complicated scheme designed to guilt people into giving money to the coffee shop owner (Garin Bledsoe) so he can donate it to any cause he sees fit. From the story linked in this paragraph:
With a vision “to impact as many as possible from the simple act of goodwill,” Bledsoe contributed some of the pay-it-forward fund to Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea in Chicago during a vacation this past weekend. The Intelligentsia manager nodded along, Bledsoe said, and thought it sounded like a nice concept. Then, Bledsoe pulled out $40 in cash and handed it over.
The owner collects money from people in the town of Blue Springs, Missouri, a satellite city just outside Kansas City. But instead of using it to help people in that community, he gives it to people at a fancy “coffeebar” in Chicago that has its own barista classes, roasting facilities, and a New York City “Training Lab.” Do you think the people in Blue Springs who are donating this money were doing it to help people in Chicago? Doubtful. Yet the national news media are jumping on the story and praising this guy like he just donated both of his kidneys to a pair of albino orphans.
This story reminds me of a practice they use in Petsmart and Petco to get “donations.” After they ring up your order, they ask, “Would you like to donate $1.00 to help homeless animals?” Many grocery stores also set up donation programs like this, but the system is purely voluntary. They have slips of paper at the register you can scan that will add $1, $5 or $10 to your grocery bill, and the money goes to food banks and homeless shelters. But in that case, you just put one of them on the conveyor belt if you feel like being generous. Nobody waves the slips in your face and asks you if you would like to donate $1, $5 or $10 to help starving orphans. The pet stores are more confrontational about it, asking you the question directly. It is the second half of the question that hangs in the air, unspoken. The implied full question is: ”Would you like to donate a dollar to help homeless pets… or are you a cruel, heartless, selfish bastard who can afford to spend $15 on a new chew toy for your precious dog while you allow other dogs to go hungry?”
Now don’t get me wrong — I love animals (some of them are absolutely delicious). I plan on donating to the Humane Society when Jake passes, since that’s where I got him and I think that would be a good way to honor him. But I never donate the dollar at Petsmart because if you’re going to try to coerce a contribution out of me by making me feel guilty about it, I’m not going to donate, plain and simple. In my mind, coerced charity is not charity, and I take a stand on that — partially based on principle, and partially because I simply don’t respond well to guilt trips, as most of my ex-girlfriends would likely confirm. One time at a clothing store, right before I was going to pay, I was asked if I wanted to donate $1.00 to help homeless children. My response: “Nah, screw the kids.”
When you donate money to a worthwhile cause or help a neighbor because you want to out of the goodness of your heart, that is charity. But when you donate money because you feel compelled to by peer pressure, that is not charity. When you are instructed to donate by signs in the store telling you that it is basically expected of you or by an owner that says it is “abusing the system” if you don’t play along, that is not charity. The “pay it forward” thing might be catchy, but it’s only generating $16 per day, and it’s doing so in an unnecessarily inefficient manner.
My advice to Mr. Bledsoe: just get a tip jar. Let your customers know all the good causes their donations will support. You won’t get the same national coverage, of course. But you’ll probably have more money at the end of the day, and it won’t take as long for your customers to get their drinks.
*And if you know me, you know this is probably what I would do. Actually, if I’m being completely honest, I’d probably just get the free drink and break the chain. It’s not that I’m not charitable. But if this is considered charity, then so is paying my taxes. After all, I put more into the tax system than I take out of it, and my money is used to help other people — ergo, paying my taxes is making a charitable contribution. Yay me.