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Giving Tuesday, explained

A short history of Giving Tuesday, the international day for giving back.

Photoillustration of retail workers, packages, and dollar signs. Javier Zarracina/Vox; Getty Images

Giving Tuesday — the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving and the internationally recognized day to contribute to charity — is upon us.

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, has always been the kickoff event of the holiday shopping season and one of the biggest shopping days of the year. Marketing experts recognized how popular it was and followed it up with Cyber Monday, a second day of mega-sales focused on online shopping, and then Small Business Saturday — making the period after Thanksgiving famous for its blitz of deals.

Some people noticed that would likely leave a lot of people looking to step away from shopping and do something a little more meaningful.

In 2012, the 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation introduced Giving Tuesday with the hope that after several days of big sales and rampant consumption, there’d be interest in giving back.

“I remember [92nd Street Y director] Henry Timms saying, ‘All the days of the week are going to be taken, we should grab Tuesday,’” Rob Reich, a professor of political science and philosophy at Stanford who studies philanthropy and who participated in the development of Giving Tuesday, told me.

They were right. #GivingTuesday went viral almost immediately.

At launch, #GivingTuesday was just an idea, some publicity, a social media hashtag, and a package of advice and branding for organizations anywhere that wanted to participate. The 92nd Street Y developed the hashtag, marketing advice, and resources, and released them all for any nonprofit to use.

“It was a deliberate choice not to have intellectual property,” Reich told me. “We had a website with a logo but it was not copyrighted. You could use the hashtag, you could do whatever you wanted with it. Everyone could put their own content into it, with the hope it could spread.”

Since Giving Tuesday’s launch in 2012, nonprofits all over the US — and, eventually, all over the world — have hosted fundraisers and events, using the branding and hashtag associated with the movement. (Giving Tuesday formally broke off from the 92nd Street Y in 2019 to become an independent organization.)

In its first year, it’s estimated that about $10 million was donated to charity through online Giving Tuesday fundraisers. The following year, it was $28 million — and the momentum hasn’t really slowed.

Despite the pandemic and economic crisis, donations hit record highs in 2020: Giving Tuesday reported that total giving in the US alone reached $2.47 billion, a 25 percent increase over 2019. Almost 35 million people participated.

As for what to expect this year? It’s hard to say. Because of the pandemic, Giving Tuesday has no idea what’s coming, Woodrow Rosenbaum, the organization’s data and insights lead, told me. “The landscape is a lot less predictable,” he said. “We look at donation trends and volunteer behavior going back many years, and the models we observe in prior years are just all broken. It’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen for the rest of the year.”

Regardless, the rapid growth in donors and awareness underscores the fact that Giving Tuesday has become a phenomenon in its own right — an outlet for a backlash against the consumerism of the holiday shopping season.

The perfect conditions to launch Giving Tuesday

Shoppers eagerly participate in the sales events of Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

But ... well, many people also hate the post-Thanksgiving shopping crush, and question what it says about us as a society. Vox has covered its grueling effects on the retail workers who make it happen. The website Black Friday Death Count documents instances of violence in retail stores during Black Friday sales.

So the idea of a day, after the sales, to step away from buying and focus on giving struck a chord. (Besides, some researchers have posited a link between generosity and gratitude, which makes after Thanksgiving a good time to get people to think about giving.)

Giving Tuesday has been picking up steam since its first year. In 2013, its second year, it received coverage in Charity Navigator and the Chronicle of Philanthropy and a headline donation from Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz to the top global poverty charity GiveDirectly. It also went international.

“We’ve grown to 80 countries, [and] recently welcomed South Sudan and Peru and Nepal and Greece,” Giving Tuesday CEO Asha Curran told me. “Giving Tuesday exists in countries where Black Friday and Cyber Monday don’t exist, and that reminds us that there’s this value that unites us.”

Does Giving Tuesday do any good?

All of this activity is still a relatively small share of total charitable giving. In 2020 Americans gave more than $471 billion to charity.

Compared to that, the $8 million Facebook is offering in matching donations, and the $2.47 billion that people in the US contributed last year, is just a drop in the bucket. Even if Giving Tuesday continues its exceptionally fast growth for another decade, it wouldn’t be the main source of funding for most charities.

That’s probably a good thing. The best thing for charities is to get regular donations, ideally monthly recurring ones. While a day like Giving Tuesday can be a great occasion to put giving in the news and start a conversation about our ability to do good in the world, it wouldn’t be good for it to become a make-or-break fundraising event for nonprofits.

But the fact that Giving Tuesday contributions are still a small share of all charitable donations doesn’t mean they don’t matter. It doesn’t take millions of dollars to save a life — it is estimated you can save a life, or do a comparable amount of good, for only a few thousand.

And there’s another way Giving Tuesday matters: It’s “not just a fundraising day,” Curran said. It’s a day when people talk and think about giving back.

“Donating money is the most common behavior” that the Giving Tuesday team documents, “but only donating money is the least common behavior,” Rosenbaum told me. Most people participate in making the world a better place in multiple ways: through donations, through volunteering, through sharing information about great organizations, and through directly doing important work.

For a sector of our economy where we spent $400 billion last year, with tens of thousands of organizations working on different projects, the question of how to do good in the world is not discussed enough. It’s probably a good thing for us to talk a little more about how we make the decisions that improve our world.

A day for getting better at doing good

Giving Tuesday’s organizers won’t tell people where to give or volunteer. Making the most of the occasion, though, requires thoughtfulness about the impact of your contributions, whatever form they take. It’s a great occasion to dive into the conversation about how to do good in the world. One of the reasons we need a day focused on giving is that most people care deeply about their communities, their causes, and the world — but don’t necessarily know how to get the most results with their money, time, or career.

My colleague Dylan Matthews has written about some strategies to make your money go further — from checking with charity evaluators to targeting the poorest people to funding basic research and the development of new solutions to our problems. Effective altruist groups have developed resources for ensuring that the causes and charities they’re excited about can make the most out of the day, including donation matching events.

Ultimately, making the world a better place requires generosity and a dedication to measuring impact, talking about what we want to achieve, and gaining a better understanding of the problems we’re trying to solve.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.

Update, November 30, 2021: This story was originally published in 2020 and has been updated throughout for 2021.

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