NPR logo Love It Or Hate It, #GivingTuesday Has Become 'A Thing'

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Love It Or Hate It, #GivingTuesday Has Become 'A Thing'

#GivingTuesday pulled in $46 million in charitable donations in 2014. Lee Woodgate/Ikon Images/Corbis hide caption

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Lee Woodgate/Ikon Images/Corbis

#GivingTuesday pulled in $46 million in charitable donations in 2014.

Lee Woodgate/Ikon Images/Corbis

You hit the mall on #BlackFriday. You patronize local businesses on #SmallBizSaturday. You surf the web for deals on #CyberMonday. And if you're feeling a little guilty for how much cash you've dropped — along comes #GivingTuesday.

#GivingTuesday was born four years ago to encourage people to open their wallets for a good cause. Not everyone is a fan. Some critics think #GivingTuesday clutters people's inboxes with empty fundraising appeals that provide no compelling reason to give. And they ask why the day is in December, a time when most charities see a bump in donations anyway as folks remember how nice it is to be generous (and to get a tax deduction for the current year).

On the other hand, it's hard to argue with the results. Last year alone, #GivingTuesday pulled in a whopping $46 million in charitable donations – a 63 percent increase from 2013.

The event first started in 2012. The organizers – the 92Y in New York City and the U.N. Foundation – were hoping 50 nonprofits would participate. The concept was simple: On the first Tuesday of December, charities can use the hashtag #GivingTuesday in their online appeals.

"We ended up with 2,500," says Asha Curran, director of the 92Y's Center for Innovation and Social Impact and one of the founding members of #GivingTuesday. "Even though it was a small number looking back, we were asking a question: Is there an appetite for something like #BlackFriday and #CyberMonday, but about giving?"

The answer was a resounding yes. In 2014, the number of participating organizations had skyrocketed to nearly 35,000 charities, civic groups, celebrities and for-profit companies, which may encourage employees to give and match donations. The event has expanded to countries like Singapore, Kenya and New Zealand.

The average online gift size? $100, says Blackbaud, a group that puts together a report of #GivingTuesday each year.

Today, Curran describes the event not so much as a "giving day," but a movement — one that includes a bevy of actions beyond donating money.

In Watertown, N.Y., for example, residents are encouraged to donate hours, not dollars to the Volunteer Transportation Center to help those with no vehicles get to medical appointments, grocery stores and other important locations.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is encouraging donors to share accounts of meaningful donations to nonprofits in a campaign called #MyGivingStory. (As our readers may know, the Gates Foundation is a supporter of NPR.)

Kathy Calvin, CEO and president of U.N. Foundation and #GivingTuesday cofounder, attributes the day's exponential growth to the fact that the event is truly a collaboration between nonprofits. "It's controlled by nobody, owned by everybody," she says. "We're working together to raise awareness. This includes logos, sample press releases, social media toolkits. Anything we could think of."

But the event does have its critics. Brady Josephson, founder of Shift, a Vancouver-based agency that helps nonprofits raise money, warns that it's too easy for charities to run "bad fundraising," a concept he outlined in a 2013 article titled "Why I Hate Giving Tuesday" in The Huffington Post.

"What is in these #GivingTuesday appeals and communications?" he wrote. "A great new story? A special giving opportunity that I can be a part of to do something powerful, unique or impactful? Again, generally speaking, no. They are cash grab emails."

Two years later, he stands by his earlier remarks. But he thinks some charities have changed for the better. "More organizations are adding value to #GivingTuesday by giving people incentives to donate."

So a charity might cover extra fees that come with making online donations, partner with corporate groups to match donations, provide donors with an incentive like a gift on #GivingTuesday, he says.

But Josephson wishes that #GivingTuesday didn't have to be in December, when 31 percent of all charitable giving happens because of the holiday season and the end-of-year tax incentive.

"The timing is unfortunate. December is already a great giving month. The charitable sector doesn't need help in terms of giving," he says. "They need it in spring or summer, when donations are down."

Not every charity has joined the bandwagon. Some, like Moree Scofield, public affairs manager for Water.org, Matt Damon's clean water group, think #GivingTuesday is a noisy day that can feel a bit competitive.

"We only ask for money a couple times a year," she says. "We don't want to sidestep our efforts or dilute it or confuse it by generating a whole other promotion around #GivingTuesday."

Even though they aren't participants, Water.org still sees a spike in donations from their dedicated donors who are aware of the day.

"Everyone's using the hashtag #GivingTuesday," she says. "But from our perspective, those who would donate to our cause would give to us at the end of the year, hashtag or not."

Before you get hit with a deluge of #GivingTuesday-themed Facebook posts, Tweets, blast emails and even SMS notifications on your mobile phone tomorrow, Sandra Miniutti of Charity Navigator, an independent group that evaluates charities in the U.S., has some advice:

"Stick to your plan and stay focused on your philanthropic passions," she says. In other words, if you already have a charity in mind, don't get distracted by other online offers.

"And be a thoughtful, informed giver," she says. "Vet charities before you give." Charity Navigator's database rates charities based on money spent on program vs. administration and fundraising costs, and also on their willingness to make their financial statements public.

And if you give on Tuesday, what next?

Let's hope you can enjoy a #FeelGoodAboutYourselfWednesday.