Former Theater Employee Confirms: There Are Better Ways To Donate Than Via Usher

Christopher Campbell at Cinematical saw our post last week on panhandling movie ushers, and he joined in with his own insider’s perspective on the situation:

At the last place I worked, we unfortunately encouraged ushers to do whatever they could to get as much money as they could. Why? Because the theaters that collect the most get special bonuses, or some other sort of incentives (I forget what exactly). So, some of our staff became quite aggressive with the customers in asking for their coin. They’d make remarks behind the backs of people who didn’t give, for instance, or otherwise attempt to make non-givers feel guilty in some way.

Campbell says he never saw any theft, but he confirms what we guessed, which is that the money collected is only as safe as the ushers and managers at the theater.

I’ve had a few experiences from the inside that should have me discouraging donating in this way even more. I’ve heard first-hand that fellow employees either stole from the cans or joked about stealing from the cans (not that the jokers were guilty, but at least it showed most people acknowledged the ease of such immoral theft). Some even referred to the cans as “the cigarette fund.” Horrible, to be sure, and it probably didn’t end with the minimum-wagers. Rumors abounded at all the cinemas I’ve worked at that managers also skimmed off the top.

Campbell points out that if you want to give money to the Will Rogers Institute or the Jimmy Fund, you can do it just as easily—and in private—via their websites.

“The Exhibitionist: Panhandling Fundraisers” [Cinematical]
(Photo: Getty)

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  1. nrich239 says:

    I really despise being asked if I want to donate a dollar for (insert charity here) when at any store. Makes me look like an ass but if I had money to be donating, it wouldn’t be just $1 through a store, I’d be donating personally to make sure it actually goes there.

  2. EBounding says:

    I just tell people I already donated. If some usher tried to hassle me for money, I’d tell him to look for the $20 that I gave to the ticket counter.

  3. beavis88 says:

    Hmm, yet another good reason that I’ve been avoiding movie theaters for the past five years or so…

  4. friendlynerd says:

    Add one more reason to the list of why I don’t go to the movies…

  5. apotheosis says:

    “Sure I’ll donate, take it out of the 97% profit you made on that bag of greasy, stale popcorn the surly jackass behind the counter shoved at me.”

  6. ringo00 says:

    @EBounding: Absolutely. I don’t mind the little buckets at the cash register to help little Jimmy Cancerpatient get his latest life saving surgical procedure, but begging for coins in the movie theater is wrong. Why not just tell people that you won’t start the movie until the donation goal is reached.

  7. SkokieGuy says:

    Ditto – and I hate running the charity gauntlet to get into a grocery store as well as so many check out processes having a built-in donation you must accept or decline before proceeding.

    [Would you like to donate $1.00 to help homeless pets? - Petsmart].

    When Petsmart (or any of these business) shout about home much they donated to help their favorite cause, are they speaking of our donations? Are they getting tax write offs for the money we provided?

  8. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    @SkokieGuy: I often feel like telling them when companies do when they’re solicited: “We have a budget for charity expenses, but we’ll be happy to consider fitting you in when we reevaluate the budget next year.”

  9. motojen says:

    Who’s the dummy that thought this would be a good idea? As if going to the theater isn’t annoying enough what with crying babies in R rated movies, idiots on cell phones, and teenagers giggling and gossiping the entire time. Now they’re spare changing in the aisles?

    Thankfully the alms for the poor routine hasn’t started at our local theaters (knock wood) but when and if it does, the first person to shove a can in my face is going to get an earful and then I’m going to demand a refund. I go to the movies to relax and enjoy a film. If I wanted to be hassled by people begging for money I’d just go for a walk instead. Every corner has somebody with a cardboard sign and hard luck story.

  10. timmus says:

    Petsmart posted a $41.2 million profit last quarter… maybe they should help a few more homeless pets.

  11. wallapuctus says:

    I worked in a theater when I was 17, and the manager there used to steal money from the Jimmy Fund buckets to buy lottery tickets, cigarettes, and sandwiches.

    Considering there was no way to track the donations people made he got away with it even though he was reported several times. He was fired after I quit, possibly because someone finally caught him in the act.

  12. Landru says:

    Let me get this straight: Instead of giving money themselves, companies now browbeat customers into giving money, yet they are able to somehow claim credit for it.

    Do they get to take the amount as a tax deduction?

    I also hate the panhandling in the supermarket checkout line.

  13. Jbball says:

    When I worked at a theatre, our GM got a $10k bonus for selling the most “stars” (donations). Pretty clear why it was pushed so hard.

  14. balthisar says:

    @SkokieGuy: Seriously, I like to know how they balance the books. They can’t just take a writeoff on the donated money without accounting for how they received it in the first place, right?

  15. MercuryPDX says:

    I agree with the Movie theater donation sentiment. One theater I went to had a shot glass at the bottom of a fish tank (Similar to this: [www.lansingstar.com] ). If you were able to drop a quarter into the glass, you won a free “Night at the movies for two”. People lined up for that.

    As to the Petsmart donations, I agree that they can be a little aggressive when they ask you in front of other customers and try to guilt you. I remember when it used to be “your change rounded up to the nearest dollar”, now it seems to be $5 or $10 (notice the $1 while available, is conveniently never brought up?).

    When I get hit with the pitch now, I usually say “Well my dog is a rescue, and I’m donating $100 to care for him right now… unless you’d like to cut me a break on these Greenies?”. They tend to stop pitching after that. ;)

  16. missdona says:

    My pat line is “I’m sorry, I only give to my church.” Usually, that does the trick. Ocassionally it gets me called a bitch (by random homeless people, and probably others), but I’m a bitch that still has a dollar in her pocket.

  17. DelGrady says:

    What’s with the excuses? Why bother lying to the cashier/usher that you already donated? You know what I tell them:

    No.

    That’s it. No explanation needed.

  18. edrift101 says:

    I wonder if the girl working the register at Arby’s wants to contribute to the Human Fund… I’ll have to ask.

  19. savvy9999 says:

    @speedwell: That’s the right tack to take.

    It may sound dickish, but this one will usually get the personal panhandler types: “I’d like to see the documentation that you are collecting for a real 501(c) organization, and for tax purposes I would like an itemized receipt for my donation.”

    See ya, usher boy.

    Over the course of a year, I give thousands a year to charities (usually online), and maybe $20 out of my pocket to impromptu girl scouts/panhandler types.

  20. mackjaz says:

    Yes, it’s all true… I used to work for the despicable United Artists, and for a time each year, the Will Rogers clip would be shown and we would have to move about the theater begging for money. Humiliating for all involved.

    And yes, I did personally witness one employee stealing money. She was a sad case who probably fit the bill for what a “needy” person is. I’m sure money got skimmed at every level. Nothing more irksome than a huge corporation dangling spare change under a minimum wage employee’s nose. I’m sure UA did everything it could to maximize the tax write-off, or whatever was going to make the most money that day.

    Don’t get me wrong, I was appalled. It’s stealing, however you want to look at it, made worse by the fact that some poor soul was trying to do a good deed. Of course, we employees were never told anything about exactly where the money went, how it was accounted for, or just what the hell the Will Rogers Institute was.

  21. HOP says:

    a pox on movie theaters….just netflix the thing when it’s availble….you really gotta see a movie the first day it is screened????? the only charity i give to is the salvation army…..by the time the rest of the charities get your money, umteen people have taken their cut….the charity you gave to gets a real small piece…..a true charity would be one that all involved ,advertisers, media ,printers etc, would donate their material….then the charity would get all…..’taint gonna happen..big bux in the charity business………

  22. quail says:

    @motojen: These donation drives go back to when cinemas first got permanent buildings within a community. It wasn’t uncommon for the cinema owner to get involved in the community and help raise funds for the volunteer fire department, the church, the school, etc. It’s sad that there’s so much corruption within these national based fund drives for charity.

  23. lemur says:

    @DelGrady:

    Why bother lying to the cashier/usher that you already donated?

    (Emphasis added.)

    When I tell the cashier that I give to charity through other channels, I’m not lying. However, I would not be surprised that most of them think I’m lying.

  24. bohemian says:

    I don’t give money to any charity until I have looked them up to see if they are legit, what they are actually doing with the money and how much actually goes to the cause vs. overhead.

    So my answer is no to the impromptu money begging. I also don’t sign ballot initiative petitions on the spot either. I got burned on that once when someone lied what the initiative was for and had the required text covered up. It ended up being for some wacko anti-government group who wanted to abolish the judicial branch. Lesson learned. Nobody gets a signature or cash on the spot.

  25. Darklighter says:

    @savvy9999: It sounds dickish because it is. These are low-wage workers just doing what they’re told. If you treat them poorly, it’s only going to make them treat you the same way. If you don’t like the policy you have to take it to the higher-ups. Otherwise you’re just being a dick to people who don’t deserve it.

  26. Kajj says:

    @HOP: There’s something about you post that makes me picture a crotchety old prospector dictating to a Western Union clerk. Maybe the all misapplied punctuation reminds me of Morse Code. “A pox on them movie shows! They ain’t got nuthin’ on Vaudeville.” Greetings, time traveller.

  27. dorkins says:

    Just say, “Thanks, but I give directly to _______ already.”

  28. marsneedsrabbits says:

    We haven’t been to a theatre (except the IMax at the museum) since 2005. The last movie we saw in the theatre was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We paid more that $40.00 for a matinee, but that wasn’t enough for the theatre to be able to afford an usher to keep people from talking on their cell phones and screaming at the screen throughout the entire film.

    We all decided not to go anymore after that.

    I’d like to say that we miss the sticky floors, yelling idiots, cell phones, $4.50 sodas and $6.00 popcorn, but we don’t.

    The whole thing was pretty much solidified in our minds when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out on DVD and was priced at around $10.00. $10.00 and no screaming, no cell phones, no high-priced soda or pop-corn.

    Kids who grow up watching movies at home are probably unlikely to go to the theatre as much as kids who grew up, as I did, going to the theatre every week. It just isn’t in their list of things to do.

    Theatre chains don’t seem to care, though.

  29. FilthyHarry says:

    Ok, first of all I’m pissed off cause I’m sitting in a crappy seat next to assholes and I’ve probably paid around 30 bucks for tickets for 2 and snacks to see a movie that statistically in my experience is going to be a major piece of crap. Now an usher makes a disparaging comment about me to guilt me into giving up change. There would be some entertainment alright. Whoo I’d throw a fit.

  30. revmatty says:

    @DelGrady: Precisely. At the check out counter, in front of the store, or the homeless guy on the street. I see no reason to explain to them why I won’t give them money.

  31. The theaters that collect the most get special bonuses, or some other sort of incentives (I forget what exactly).

    Oh noes! In other news, “Area man shot or stabbed or something. We’re not sure.” This post only confirms one part of Chris’ thesis: there are some obnoxious panhandlers and the theatres should put a stop to that. Later on, if you read the whole post, (emphasis mine),

    But, more on point, it should still be acceptable for movie theaters to collect for charities through less offensive practices than panhandling in the auditoriums. …

    You’ll probably see ushers panhandling for [the Jimmy Fund] this summer, if you haven’t been accosted for your donation already. Feel free to give as usual or not give as usual. Or wait and donate on the website when you get home. But if the practice annoys you, make sure and complain to the theater.. Just please don’t take your annoyance out on the children by refusing to give altogether.

    Exactly. It’s your choice.

  32. @FilthyHarry: Why’d you go to the movie in the first place? Maybe you should stay home.

  33. Vandon says:

    @SkokieGuy: When Petsmart (or any of these business) shout about home much they donated to help their favorite cause, are they speaking of our donations? Are they getting tax write offs for the money we provided?

    Sure. Of course they write off what they donate, but they also list that extra $1 as income, so it’s all a wash in the end with the tax forms.

  34. @savvy9999: It may sound dickish, but…

    That’s because it is. The underpaid ushers are just doing their job. They don’t get paid enough to deal with dicks.

  35. Eoghann says:

    They did this at the Regal Cinemas I was at last weekend. I was sitting on the end of the row. When the bucket came by, I just stopped and stared at the usher. No words, no expression. They just went to the next row. Painless, and I didn’t have to say a word. This works at convenience stores clerks who ask me as well.

  36. Livardo says:

    I just say “No” and that’s that. I don’t know if the clerks give much of a crap if you donate or not, but I’m not going to donate to some charity I know nothing about.

  37. RayDelMundo says:

    When they stick out the bucket, reach in and grab a handful.