Starbucks pays small for volunteerism; should philanthropy give back?


Are you in?

Anyone who pledges to do at least five hours of community service in the entire year of 2009 can walk into their local Starbucks and claim a tall coffee. Surely, it's a small reward (your time is worth 35 cents an hour to Starbucks) and it's hardly unusual for the coffee company, which frequently donates Starbucks gift cards to nonprofits as a way of thanking their volunteers; I've received them for tasks as varied as taking photos at the Library Foundation gala and helping clean up my neighborhood park. Oprah has jumped on the bandwagon, publicly backing the campaign and asking people to pledge. It's been so successful -- with 600,000 hours pledged so far -- that other businesses must be kicking themselves, eager to offer incredibly small rewards for charity. A free hamburger at McDonald's perhaps? Two bucks off a haircut?

760,000 (and counting) hours have now been pledged at -- you have until Sunday, January 25 to claim your reward -- but the philanthropic effect of this is intangible at best. There is no accountability, though you can download a punch card if you want to keep track, and five hours in a year is such a long timeframe and an easy target that it's possible many will honestly mean to make good, and never actually will. Others will give dozens of hours a week; surely the reward is, for them, only a tiny token in a life already devoted to the good of the community.

While it's obvious that Starbucks cares enough to get some web design chops, advertising dollars and marketing muscle behind this campaign, it's hardly going to change the world and the reward is too small to change behavior. What do you think? Are rewards like a free cup of coffee insulting? A nice little perk for doing something good? A reason to work for your community? Can your philanthropy be bought and paid for with coffee?