The Commoditization of Giving – OPINION

6 03 2018

An Opinion Essay.

By Joe Hyer

Last weekend, I stopped by Ralph’s (my Local grocer) to pick up some things for dinner.  And there they were- the bane of my healthy eating pact, Girl Scout Cookies.  With that card table, full of boxes, ready to eat, right by the front door.  As I walked in, I smiled at the parent and young Girl Scout, and said Hello.

A sample cookie seller at a grocer in Anytown, USA

She asked if I wanted to buy a box, and that they were only $5.00 each.  In an instant, my brain recoiled.  I mean, for the past decade, it seems like the number of cookies in the box got less and less, and the price went up and up.  When they were $3, then $4 – I bought 20 boxes from Kate who worked at Buy Local without blinking.  But when she said $5, I did a mental doubletake and my mind reeled.

Why?  At the new price, I would get 16 boxes instead of 20 for my $80.  Probably healthier for me anyway.  At that point, though, standing outside of Ralph’s, hungry, I said, “I will see on the way out,” and escaped to do my shopping.  Sadly, I went down the cookie aisle – even the name brand cookies, with far more cookies in the package than the boxes outside, were all less than $5, and comparable ones were all around $3.  I get far better value, economically, buying cookies in the store than out front.

              And then, browsing for my groceries, it struck me- it’s not about the cookies.  It’s about a charitable gift to the Girl Scouts of America, and the local troop.  But it took  a full ten minutes for this idea to strike.  Maybe because I was in a retail store, full of products.  Maybe because other than the uniform, there was nothing reminding me that buying the cookies was ALSO a gift to the GSA and the local troop.  In an environment where I am buying commodities, it was natural, in my mind, to commoditize those cookies.

Because I could buy a comparable box of cookies for $2.99.  And that’s when my brain went- duh, and the other $2.01 is a DONATION.  I stopped right there in the cookie aisle, pulled $10 from my money clip, and had it ready in my pocket.  I got Tagalongs and Smores.  And supported my local Girl Scouts.

But it got me thinking.  Do people really give $99 to PBS so they can get the Josh Groban DVD and CD which comes with it?  I mean, I’ve given $99 to PBS several times — I think I got a CD once, but it was never the reason I gave.  I paid $35 for a candle shaped like a cow at the Splash Bash in Tenino in 2016 (Get yours May 26th at the 2018 Splash Bash)- and it was not in any way about the candle itself.  I don’t know what I would ever do with a candle shaped like a cow, except make some light.  I really just wanted to support the Quarry Pool fund, and no one was bidding on it.

Now, there are times when the commoditization of a non-profit product can help.  Example- non-profit food booths at Lakefair each summer.  If it rains all week, sales are half a good year.  But the Elephant ears aren’t down by half – they’re down just a bit.  Demoburgers run 20-25% down in a bad year over a good.  In this case- is the desire to give a few bucks to Altrusa International what keeps people coming even in the rain for Elephant Ears?  Nope- most folks don’t even know which non-profit it is, and awareness of what Altrusa does is not common.  And it took me just a few seconds to find the ‘Donate’ button at, so in the rain, I can give and still stay home.  It’s the same with the Demoburgers- they can give online 24/7- but they cannot get those grilled onions.  Sometimes, the commodity IS the product, more than the donation.

I hear friends in the area talking about which charity fundraisers they can and will attend – often based on the ticket price, and perceived value received.  But if a charity gives you $100 in value for your $100 ticket – it’s not giving, nor is it a fundraiser.  Or when my friends say, “Want to come to this free breakfast sponsored by (insert non-profit)?” and then they do an aside, and say, “Well, not totally free, they will be asking for money.”

So I go to a complimentary breakfast, hear a pitch about the great things a non-profit does, then get asked to invest in the non-profit.  Wait, I did this same thing in Mazatlan- I went to a free breakfast, got a pitch on all the great things the resort offered and does, then got asked to buy a $10,000 timeshare.  No, these are NOT the same thing.  But the tactics are similar.  One is a commodity, the other a charitable investment.  For the non-profit, the key is to use the pitch to turn the thinking from commodity-based to giving (hence the Power point slideshow with anthem-like music).  If they do it right, we’re no longer thinking about the breakfast at all, and instead are inspired to invest in our community.

If they do it wrong, the audience is left wondering how little they can give without offending, in payment for the free breakfast they’ve been provided.  This is why I think Table Captains, supporters of the non-profit who recruit friends and associates to fill up the tables, often hurt the cause they are trying to fundraise for.  I am asked to come to a FREE breakfast.  And yes, I am automatically reminded of timeshare pitches, because of the frequency you get invited to them while in Mexico.

              Because the thing is – someone is paying for that breakfast.  Even on the occasion where a caterer donates – they are still paying for it.  What I would prefer to hear from a Table Captain – Can you join me at a breakfast to learn about this great cause?  There’s no cost to you.

You’ve just confirmed what I was certain of- it’s not actually a free breakfast, but someone is taking care of it to get access to me.  But you in no way have emphasized or called out the value of the breakfast.  As a potential donor, this puts me in a better state of mind at the event, because no one has placed the commodity in front of me.  We know it’s there, it’s been acknowledged, but it’s not overt- making it easier for me to cross into the ‘Giving mode’.

Non-profits walk a fine line sometimes on these gala fundraisers.  With multi-course meals, open bars, party favors, décor – costs and ticket prices really go up, and people expect more value.  It’s a positive feedback loop- costs rise so ticket prices rise, and so on, and so on – until one year, people just don’t see the value, and numbers drop.  Or an organization realizes it is putting in so many resources to put on an event, with a net return that isn’t that high, that it doesn’t make sense any more.  Remember Sand in the City?  The Downtown Fall Ball?

Sadly, what usually happens is over-commoditizing their event.  Guests look at the admission price and think more about what they are getting than how much they are giving.  I don’t think it’s solely the non-profits fault, we as donors forget to be in a giving mode, and we have to take some of the blame for that.  Had I not stood in the cookie aisle at Ralph’s and though it through- I may not have bought any Girl Scout cookies.   And while the front of a grocery store is a great place for foot traffic- selling boxed cookies so close to where one buys boxed cookies will naturally shift the thinking towards a commodity, and away from giving.

             You might see Girl Scout cookies on sale the next few weeks.  It is our region’s season.  Yes, they are sold year-round, in different parts of the country.  I did a little research for you.  According to the GSA website, 65-75% of the retail sales price (which is not $5 nationwide, it also varies by region) stays with the local Council.  The Council determines how much of that the unit and individual earn.  By that math, $3.25-3.75 of each box stays local.  $1.25-1.75 gets the cookies baked (by one of 2 bakeries nationally approved), packaged and delivered.  That’s lower than I expected.

              So they have kept the cost low and maximized the amount going to the local Girl Scout Council (The National Council does get a licensing fee from the bakery).  The only problem I see- um, my Tagalongs weren’t that great.  I mean, they were fine- but they tasted like any other cookie on the market to me know.  They weren’t stale, but they weren’t overly fresh.  The chocolate was fine, but not high quality.  Overall, they were a good cookie- but not an epic one.  The Girl Scouts are relying our giving focus, not our good-deal sniffer, to sell cookies.

Of note, I completely missed one of the best reasons to buy cookies until I wrote this story and researched the Girl Scouts.  Sure its about financially supporting their programs – but what I learned on their website, it’s also about learning responsibility, fiscal responsibility, entrepreneurship, a savings ethic, presentation skills, communication skills – it’s about the girl as much as it is about the Girl Scouts.  Strip everything else away, and that’s the true RTG*.

Non-profit fundraising is a growing and complex field- and these are just a few issues faced by non-profits, large and small.  Even Sustainable South Sound faces this- as a membership organization, we often talk about ‘member benefits’ both tangible and intangible.  We’ve had trouble ensuring other non-profit partners understand that part of a membership fee buys our existence – the basics of having a non-profit organization.  We commoditized our business membership so it was synonymous with a Coupon Book – but we are far more than just a coupon book.

At SSS, we hope all of our readers give this year, to any and all non-profits you see value in.  It is only through those investments that South Sound can truly thrive.


*RTG – Reason To Give, the RTG is an acronym invented by Joe Hyer in 2018 so he sounds more professional talking about fundraising, and the article feels better researched.  It replaces the earlier term RTB. This was giving them the reason to believe in your cause, which then converts to an RTG.  With a compelling RTB, you create a perfect RTG, and hopefully then convert to AG**.

**No, not the attorney general.  Actual Gift.  As a formula-  RTB + RTG = AG.  See, it’s really very simple.