Now is the time to talk about charitable small monetary donations at the register in Starbucks company-operated stores.  Once in a while people visit and post idea threads which essentially say, “donate small Starbucks card balances to charity.”  Granted, there are not an overwhelming number of these threads, and I’m sure the dark cherry mocha lovers far outweigh the number of people who want to make small donations. Nonetheless, here are a few examples of the “donate small balances at Starbucks” threads:

In fact, I’m always a little surprised by these threads because I think many states now have laws requiring retailers to cash out small balances on cards, but it must be that many states don’t have this.  At least for in Washington and California, if a person has a card with a small balance it is possible to get cash back.

I can imagine it would be an administrative nightmare to add an infinite number of donation buttons to non-profits on the Starbucks register.  Starbucks can’t put themselves in the position of being United Way.  That is just not practical for many reasons.  However there are two donation options which are both great causes and a possible option for these small balance cards. Since most customers are unaware that they can donate to The Cup Fund and/or Ethos Water at the register, I’m creating this blog post.  (Starbucks calls their employees “partners”.  So your barista is a “partner”, for those reading the next section and confused by what is meant by “partner”.)

The Cup Fund:

The Cup Fund was created by Starbucks in 1999 to create a safety net for Starbucks partners in a time of great need.  This program is entirely funded by partner donation or other donative efforts like fundraisers or customer giving.  The Cup Fund helps Starbucks partners in times of significant and immediate need.  So if  a Starbucks partner needs immediate relief because of illness, death, or injury, this is a program that he or she can turn to.  Starbucks partners can receive small grants up to $1,000.00.

It’s common sense, but the better funded this program is, the more grants can be given out to Starbucks partners.  I occasionally find myself mildly irked when I see idea threads that say “help the poor” without any real conception of who is poor. Though we may not like to think about it, our baristas who make us smile each day sometimes are close to being working poor.  Creating a safety net for them is one way we can help. All of those tiny balances on cards will add up. Why not help those that make you smile each and every day?

Ethos Water:

Starbucks donates five cents (ten cents in Canada) from the sale of any bottle of Ethos Water to non-profit organizations working to bring clean water to Africa.  The Ethos Water website boasts that to date it has raised over 6 million dollars in funds to bring clean water to Africa. This really demonstrates the power of small change to add up. If a customer is in Starbucks, and decides to grab a water in a bottle for on-the-go, the side perk is that a small donation gets made.  Since most businesses will sell bottled water anyways, it makes sense to offer this chance to help children in developing nations get clean water.

If you have a very small balance on your card, and you’re looking for a good cause for a donation, this is a perfect opportunity.  The reality is that people like bottled water in plastic, and it continues to sell (I’m guilty of this too), but if you simply donate your small card balance to Ethos then you’ve donated sans any environmental impact.  This is a best case scenario.


As between the two suggested ideas above, I am more attached to the idea of donating to The Cup Fund.  I suppose this is because this safety net is critical for the well-being of partners in great need, and at any time, the next person in need might be the person standing right in front of me working hard to remember my drink, and all my quirks.

If a customer would like to make a register donation to Ethos Water or The Cup Fund, I do not know if these transactions count towards “stars” under the new My Starbucks Rewards program.  It would be wonderful to hear from Starbucks.  Out of curiosity, I’d like to know if a Cup Fund donation earns a “star”.

In addition, I have heard partners tell me that there are a few other donation buttons already in place on the register, but I don’t know what they are.  As always, I open the floor up for your discussion, and I’d love to know if any stores are already doing this: donating small balances to the Cup Fund.  If not, I hope this is helpful idea for someone out there…

I also feel as though this is a timely thread because right now there is great discussion and ideas about Starbucks’ donation to Haiti happening at   I don’t know if Starbucks could set up some sort of register donation to Haiti, or whether this is again best left to professional non-profit organizations like the Red Cross or other relief organizations.



Starbucks has officially announced that a donation to Haiti can be made at the register at Starbucks.  Money goes to the Red Cross for relief efforts.  Take a look at the official Starbucks blogs here:

The maximum amount that can be donated at the register is $249.99 and no tax deduction receipt can be provided.  Great cause and a easy way to make small donations!  I also want to comment, that baristas who want to know what to do with small balances on cards can still use the Ethos water donation button long after the “Red Cross” donation button is long gone.]]


[[Edit on January 16, 2010 – I am now hearing several baristas tell me that a button has been added at the register so that a donation can be made for Haiti relief via a Red Cross donation.  From what I understand, this new donation option has just popped up within the past day on the register.  Someone please tell me if I have this correct!

Also, if you read the comments, one person states that customer donations to the Cup Fund are prohibited (which seems very odd since it appears to have a button with all these other donation buttons). However, I want to make it very clear that I do NOT want to encourage baristas to do prohibited things.  I hope that I can get further clarification on from an SSC partner about this issue. I feel so bad for even suggesting baristas do something that might not be kosher at the register.  I would have assumed that if this was intended strictly for partners, that there would be some mechanism in place to alert partners to this.  For example, the register could require the entry of a partner number to make a donation to the Cup Fund.  Whatever the case may be, I do NOT want to encourage partners to do any prohibited transactions, and I will soon be seeking a definite answer on this.]]