Is Giving Tuesday Broken?

For social impact organizations, Giving Tuesday can be challenging. You're busy with other fundraising efforts, and there's a lot of competition for donors.
Giving Tuesday Website

Since its inception in 2012, Giving Tuesday has grown from a grassroots initiative to an entrenched feature of the annual giving cycle. The goal of Giving Tuesday is to “take back” Thanksgiving from the major commercial events that threaten to eclipse the holiday's theme of thankfulness with cold, hard consumerism. In contrast to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday seeks to replace frenzied holiday shopping with expressions of gratitude in the form of charitable donations and volunteer activities.

Clearly, Giving Tuesday (or #GivingTuesday) struck a chord. Perhaps it taps into our deep, collective desire to make the world a better place. Or perhaps it serves to quickly offset the guilt that naturally follows a long weekend of binge-eating and binge-shopping. Whatever the reasons, Giving Tuesday has grown steadily year over year. That’s true both in terms of its national profile and the money it has helped raise. In 2018 alone, Giving Tuesday resulted in $400 million in online donations in the U.S (compared with $28 million in 2013).

Today, it could be argued that Giving Tuesday is to social impact organizations what Black Friday and Cyber Monday are to profit-driven companies. That is, a predictable, recurring scaffold on which to build major campaigns that are responsible for driving a large percentage of annual proceeds.

But is Giving Tuesday really an altogether good thing for social impact organizations? What are the downsides of this otherwise heartwarming event? And how should thoughtful social impact organizations approach Giving Tuesday moving forward?

The Trouble with Giving Tuesday

On the face of it, it’s hard to be too critical of Giving Tuesday. It was, after all, conceived as a sincere attempt to shift Americans’ focus from consuming to giving. But for nonprofits and other social impact organizations, the reality may not be quite so straightforward. In fact, some nonprofits have strong enough reservations that they are opting to skip Giving Tuesday altogether.

What gives?

On an Increasingly Crowded Playing Field, the Biggest Players Reap the Rewards

Giving Tuesday has quickly solidified from a grassroots initiative to a recognized and accepted annual tradition. The result is that more and more organizations — including for-profit corporations — have gotten in on the act.

As Giving Tuesday becomes increasingly crowded, smaller organizations are finding that it’s harder to get a foothold. It can feel almost impossible to make an impression in the stretched-thin attention economy of the day (and season). In this context, the largest organizations — who may be least in need of the individual donations that Giving Tuesday generates — may receive the lion’s share of the attention and support.

Major corporations are also getting in on the act and changing the game. It’s a good thing when profit-driven companies make grants, match donor funds, and generally use their brand equity to raise awareness of causes and worthy organizations. But by positioning themselves as Giving Tuesday champions, these same companies often funnel attention toward themselves and away from the organizations that need it most.

The Giving Tuesday Effect: More Giving or More of the Same?

Another concern lies in the question of whether or not Giving Tuesday actually results in more overall giving.

On average, Americans give roughly two percent of their income to charities each year. That's a figure that has remained remarkably constant over the years. If Giving Tuesday doesn’t contribute to an overall bump in charitable giving, then what is its effect? Rather than causing an uptick in giving, it might serve to further concentrate individuals’ steady giving efforts toward the end of the year.

If that’s the case, Giving Tuesday effectively exacerbates an already challenging budgeting scenario that results from uneven giving throughout the year. This is the reality many organizations already face. They must prepare a sound annual budget knowing that as much as 50% of their funding won’t come until the final weeks of the final quarter of the year.

On the other hand, Giving Tuesday makes way for big businesses like Facebook and Paypal to flex their philanthropic muscles. And that’s something that might not happen on the same scale without a very large stage and a bright spotlight already in place.

The Twin Risks of Donor Fatigue and “Slacktivism”

With so many organizations timing their asks around Giving Tuesday, this event also runs the risk of fatiguing potential donors. Fundraising pleas from various organizations can become too numerous when everyone is asking at the same time. When that happens, donors may find it harder to differentiate between asks and even organizations. Ultimately, this information overload may make it harder for donors to choose any one organization to support.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s also the concern that Giving Tuesday may promote “slacktivism.” Slacktivism refers to public displays of support that go unbacked by the sorts of actions that social impact organizations are hoping to trigger.

The fact that so much of Giving Tuesday is enacted on social media may contribute to this tendency. After all, it’s far easier to like and share an organization’s plea for funding on Facebook than it is to actually donate money, volunteer time, or otherwise support that organization.

In fact, when it comes to giving, people may subconsciously equate social media activities (such as liking and sharing) with other, more substantive forms of support. Consider this: As Fast Company reported in 2013, liking a charity on Facebook actually makes people less likely to donate their time or money to that organization.

Making Giving Tuesday Work for Your Organization

Giving Tuesday isn’t broken. But from the standpoint of social impact organizations, it is complicated. For most organizations, the benefits of participating in Giving Tuesday still outweigh the drawbacks. And for a not-insignificant subset, the decision to participate in Giving Tuesday may not feel like a choice at all. There’s just too much on the line.

So how should thoughtful social impact organizations approach this annual giving tradition? Here’s a little food for thought to chew on along with your green bean casserole and pumpkin pie:

  • Big organizations should make way for the smaller ones. Organizations that are primarily funded by major grants or foundations don’t really need Giving Tuesday to meet their financial needs. We challenge these organizations to sit out Giving Tuesday or find other ways to participate that allow smaller organizations to reap the financial benefits. For example, big organizations might choose to raise funds for smaller, synergistic organizations. Alternately, they might structure their campaigns around non-monetary forms of giving, such as volunteering or other forms of activism.
  • Differentiate your ask. In order to stand out from an exceptionally crowded playing field, smaller organizations must find novel ways to approach Giving Tuesday. Whatever they do, they should avoid creating campaigns whose main message is simply “do it because it’s #GivingTuesday.” Instead, they should tie their asks to specific goals or outcomes.
  • Go for recurring donations. Online fundraising platform Classy found that the people who typically give on Giving Tuesday are meaningfully different than those who give in the final week of the year. The difference? Giving Tuesday donors tend to have relatively lower incomes, are personally invested in the causes they support, and — most importantly — are more likely to sign up for recurring monthly donations. Contrast this with the wealthier cohort of end-of-year donors who typically make larger, one-time donations for tax purposes. Smart social impact organizations can leverage this difference by making sustained giving the goal of their Giving Tuesday campaigns.
  • Start planning well in advance. Organizations that want to make the most of Giving Tuesday should start planning this major campaign well in advance. The reality is that you will effectively lay the foundation for success in the first three quarters of the year. If you wait till the last minute to plan your Giving Tuesday campaign, you’ll undoubtedly leave bigger opportunities on the table.

In many ways, Giving Tuesday is a feel-good success story that we can all get behind. But social impact marketers who approach this annual giving event with eyes wide open will be best prepared to make smart decisions that benefit their organizations — and others in the impact space.

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