Being Objective about #GivingTuesday

While the intent behind it is noble, there has not been enough critical analysis of #GivingTuesday. Several years after the first charitable giving day, I have started to develop concerns. There is no hard evidence that it increases overall giving and there is some evidence to suggest that it decreases contributions through cannibalization. It might also be decreasing giving by encouraging very poor stewardship practice.

Those who disagree with me will be quick to point out that #GivingTuesday has spurred a tremendous increase in online giving. I would counter that it has corresponded to a tremendous decrease in gifts by mail and over the phone. My first job as a fundraiser (over a decade ago) involved processing credit card donations over the phone and batching checks to deposit at the bank. I doubt this job still exists at very many nonprofits.

The shift to online giving was already a trend. Donors tend to give slightly less online than they would in person and it is undeniable that giving has remained steady at 2% of GDP for a very long time. We are a generous nation to be sure, but no gimmick has yet done much to alter that 2% figure.

The root of the problem with #GivingTuesday, I believe, is that the event was created not by the intended beneficiaries but by representatives of corporate America, the public relations sphere, and/or enormous, already well-funded nonprofits. The unfunded folks I work to support every day were not part of this movement’s creation. It was thrust upon them in an effort to help, which in some cases we would call paternalism. The movement’s creation is credited to United Nations Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin. Before becoming CEO of one of the most well-endowed nonprofits in the country, Mrs. Calvin (whom I have met and admire greatly) had no experience working at any nonprofit — let alone one operating under the scarcity mindset that most do.  The UN Foundation has its own building on Pennsylvania Avenue and inside that building is a large room, the Swag Room, filled with freebies to give away. It should be noted that Mrs. Calvin was instrumental in the promotion of “cyber-Monday,” so perhaps we should be asking questions about a social good campaign modeled on a retail gimmick created by AOL.

#GivingTuesday is presented as an opportunity for small nonprofits to expand their constituent base. But Mrs. Calvin has never been in a role that required the sort of scrappy fundraising most of the unfunded are forced to engage in. The nature of fundraising makes it difficult for these recipients to point out the downsides of this campaign. The organizers of #GivingTuesday think only in terms of public perception and metrics they can brag about (like selfies shared). The fact that giving has remained at 2% of GDP since its inception does not appear to be a concern for the campaign’s organizers. There are other metrics they can use to make it appear that giving has increased when it has not.

It is true that some nonprofits have been able to increase their fundraising because of this day. The internet is replete with infographics and reports that purport to prove that the day is a success. But the nonprofits that benefit most are the ones with the most corporate and celebrity ties and the best PR savvy. Is that how we should judge a non-profit’s virtue? And has anyone done the sort of unbiased analysis needed to prove the real effect here? Most of what I find written about #GivingTuesday is more or less cheerleading. Media outlets basically just print the Press Release.

I’ll give a hypothetical, but realistic, example of how engaging in a #GivingTuesday campaign can harm a small non-profit. Imagine a typical donor – we’ll call him Jon Q Donor. There is an organization here in his hometown that Jon Q. Donor has been involved with and supported for years. He was planning to make what is for the Donor Family a somewhat significant gift this December. Then, the #GivingTuesday emails came. This organization does great work, has a solid base of support, but is not PR savvy. The people who run it are not good at fundraising this way, but the match from the Gates Foundation and Facebook is difficult to resist so they dove in head first.

Over half of the emails they have sent Jon so far got his name wrong even though he has met with the staff hundreds of times. They called him Carol. Jon could overlook that but if they got his name wrong it makes him wonder how many other names they got wrong. Did they call everyone Carol? What is painfully obvious to Jon is that he will not get the attention he normally expects. Jon will be donating elsewhere and he’ll be donating less than he planned. 

This is what can be called cannibalization. Most fundraising gimmicks are focused on making giving easier and more accessible to donors who were going to make a gift anyway. When they are stopped by a canvasser on the street — or asked by a friend to dump ice on their head — they give, but they give slightly less than they might have and then they don’t make up for it later. This is the “I-already-gave” effect. Cannibalization is very hard to prove and it is hardly a feel-good story so it is mostly ignored by the organizers of events like #GivingTuesday in favor of more positive metrics like number of retweets and “impressions.” While retweets and impressions are not worthless, their connection to awareness and action are tenuous.

I understand the appeal of participating in a campaign that purports to make your fundraising easier, yet I am unconvinced that competing with every other nonprofit out there in a 24-hour, no-holds-barred battle royale fits the definition of “easier.”

Asking for money requires effort and comes with a cost. Nonprofits must do it but they must be smart about it. Even the most efficient and life-saving nonprofit in the world would lose donors if they solicited every hour on the hour. Timing and restraint are critical. You need to find the right time to ask the right donor. You should not assume that every single donor wants to be asked on the same day as everyone else. You should also think about what else you need to ask for. Is there a petition campaign coming up on December 10? Do you have a Gala this January? Do you need volunteers to work with your service recipients? Are you sure it is okay to ask them for those things plus money in the same month?

If you are participating in a campaign this year make sure you do not turn your back on your stewarding and cultivation plan. Donors need to be developed, maintained, and encouraged to give regularly and in increasing amounts. Donors need to know about and support the organization’s activities. #GivingTuesday encourages one-time gifts from strangers.

This holiday is still young and it can become a major boon to the nonprofit sector. In order to make charitable giving part of our annual holiday traditions, the nonprofit sector needs to stop the cheerleading and PR focus and engage in serious evaluation. More importantly, it needs to involve small nonprofits and struggling fundraisers in the campaign design. I would happily volunteer to advise and could bring dozens of smart, savvy-but-struggling fundraisers to the table with me.

P.S. In the time it took me to write this, I received seven fundraiser requests to give through Facebook’s campaign.