The longstanding Boxtops for Education program in which everyone and their grandmother cuts the tops off of General Mills products and gives them to a student they know to pass on to their school is changing this year. Recently, the Boxtops for Education program announced that they are sunsetting the physical approach to collecting boxtops and moving to a purely digital offering. People will scan their entire shopping receipt into an iOS or Android application, and the credit for purchase products will be given to the selected school.

Upon hearing of this change, a few concerns immediately came to mind:

The new model involves scanning your grocery receipt into the Boxtops for Education application rather than cutting the little shield off of the box and turning it in. The receipt contains a host of information that can (will) be gathered by General Mills without clear definition about what will be done with it including:

  • Where you shop (both the store and the location),
  • What else you bought on that trip, potentially including non-participating products and pharmacy items,
  • What type of credit card you used,
  • The last 4 digits of your card, and sometimes the name on the card too,
  • If you participate in a store loyalty program. And perhaps the loyalty number itself if printed on the receipts,
  • Loyalty savings amounts. Sometimes a year-to-date total is on the top of the receipt and tallied after each sale,
  • Coupons you used, including those that are for General Mills products

Combine this with a privacy policy that is vague and includes a lot of “wiggle words” that allow General Mills broad license to use the data they collect, and this program feels more like a data collection and fishing exercise than one based on a philanthropic offering to help schools.

Access by all:
One of the most amazing things about Boxtops for Education in its original incarnation was that anyone and everyone could participate. Children, parents, grandparents, friends, bosses; everyone. It was easy to see the badge on the box, cut it and give to your closest kid to give to their school. This notion of “everyone” also extended to people of all socio-economic categories: rich, middle class, working-class, poor. Everyone could be part of the process to help their school through the purchases that they made. With many General Mills products on the list of approved WIC products, everyone could feel like they were giving back to their community.

With the move to digital, there is now a technology barrier in place: you have to have a smartphone to be part of the “new” Boxtops for Education. Some people have selected to not have a smartphone for various reasons. There are cost and affordability reasons, as well as some with a conscious desire to not spend time in the increasingly addictive, depressing and complicated world of social media and news that exists today. For whichever reason, they do not have a smartphone, they can no longer participate.

From “family” to “individual” affair:
The instances of people taking on missions as a family continue to decrease as technology glues parents and children alike to their device, nose pointed toward the table or floor, curtailing conversation and meaningful interaction with each other. I recall the process of gathering the bags of boxtops we had personally collected, and those given to us by family and friends. The process of counting the chits was communal at the kitchen table, and the joy of seeing a child take them into the teacher, knowing that they were part of making the school better is now replaced with individual scanning of receipts and submission – a singular activity. Unfortunately, the new system can not be used to measure your total contributions to the school (yes, you can see what has been contributed to the school as a whole, but not by family, nor by a child). This makes it less engaging for children and less chance that it will become a family-wide endeavour. This is a lost opportunity to keep parents and children moving forward on a shared mission and one that does good for their community.

Most of these issues could be solved with distinct and human-readable information as to what data will and will not be used for, and the ability to easily opt-out of it being shared (or even better, no sharing unless the person explicitly opts-in). There should be a way to participate both physically and digitally in order to give a choice to those who do not wish to use technology or do not have the technology necessary to do so. There should also be a way to cover up the information not related to General Mills products on the receipt, including the store itself, and personal information.

Keeping a physical mechanism also allows grandparents and those who may purchase products to give to their grandchild and amass a proud pile to give to their teacher, and feel like they are genuinely part of giving back to their community and their school rather than asking Mom or Grandpa to scan her receipt and have no role in the process, thus not instilling a sense of philanthropy and participation in the child, directly.

Technology is already credited with greater isolation, independence and less community involvement, along with greater gathering of broad, often unnecessary data without a clear definition of what will be done with it. This move to digital, which I am sure reduces costs for General Mills to run this philanthropic gem, which has been adored by parents, teachers and families since 1996, but it shifts those same people into the role of “the product” in return for their desire to help their school.