The Billion-Dollar, Ownerless Idea

#GivingTuesday has revolutionized philanthropy, and rules social media. How did this altruistic juggernaut come so far in just seven years?

December 3, 2019

1:26 pm

In its inaugural year, 2012, #GivingTuesday raised $12 million for 2,500 NGOs. That was pretty good, too.

But last year, #GivingTuesday raised $380 million. There were 14.2 billion social media impressions, 3.6 million gifts made online, and there were more than 150 countries that participated in #GivingTuesday. #GivingTuesday had become a social-good juggernaut. In its seven years of existence, it has raised more than one billion dollars.

The brilliant thing about #GivingTuesday is that there isn’t one clear definition of what it even is.

Seven years ago, #GivingTuesday was a novel idea that dedicated one day of the year to giving. “Giving” was intentionally never defined, as it could mean money, but it could also mean donating time, goods, mentorship, or services. It could even mean a “slacktivist” tweet or a Facebook “like.” Not defining #GivingTuesday was always a part of the plan.

#GivingTuesday is an example of what authors Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, in their 2018 book “New Power,” call the “ownerless brand.” Timms is a co-founder of #GivingTuesday, and was then Executive Director at the 92nd Street Y, a powerful cultural and community center on New York’s Upper East Side.

At the time, wrote Heimans and Timms in "New Power," when Timms co-launched #GivingTuesday in 2012, his 92nd Street Y colleagues asked why the 92Y logo was not a part of the design. “This missed the point. If 92Y stuck its logo onto #GivingTuesday, no other organization would want to take part. … If they really wanted this initiative to spread, Henry argued, 92Y couldn’t own it.”

That philanthropy philosophy has proven prescient. Now #GivingTuesday is arguably the most important day on the philanthropic calendar. Any doubts? Just check your email inbox today, and you’ll likely be awash in requests for donations for #GivingTuesday.

A small sample from our own inboxes this morning includes:

  • A message from Alec Baldwin for People for the American Way: “Saving the country from Trump is the most important thing you can do this Giving Tuesday.”
  • Make-A-Wish Massachusetts and Rhode Island: “Support wish children on Giving Tuesday.”
  • Kiva: “We’ll be matching all donations made to Kiva on Giving Tuesday, December 3rd, so be sure to mark your calendar!”
  • The International Anti-Poaching Fund: “If you pitch in with your Giving Tuesday donation right now, you will get an extra dollar given to IAPF for each $1 you donate through our website.”

How did this even start in the first place?

Thanksgiving is an American holiday intended to celebrate a hundreds-years-old bounteous harvest that brought joy and relief to the immigrants who journeyed to a New World. (One that, it is important to note, was already occupied by indigenous people.)

But though the U.S. holiday is itself named for the giving of thanks for that cornucopia of comestibles, there is very little “giving” involved anymore.

Instead, within 96 hours of the close of Thanksgiving, 72 of the next hours are devoted to a feeding frenzy of consumerism: Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday.

Thankfully (ahem), seven years ago, Timms and his friend, Matthew Bishop — another ex-pat Brit — launched the idea of #GivingTuesday as a day to kick off the giving season and to counter the commercial aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday.

As there is very little official infrastructure for #GivingTuesday, the day relies heavily on friends and enthusiasts. One such enthusiast, or “champion,” is Amy Neumann, tech innovator and author of “Simple Acts to Change the World.”

“It has been incredible as a striving world changer and social media super-fan to watch this day of generosity and giving expand so fast,” Neumann told Earth’s Call. “Generosity is something most people have a lot of, but sometimes get too busy to share. To surpass a billion dollars since 2012 is incredible.”

Another champion is social media "power influencer" Sean Gardner, who told Earth's Call, "When you connect with people around the world about #GivingTuesday, you will hear what a joy it is to give back. Global connectivity and cultural exchange is, in my view, a necessity. And this is where #GivingTuesday soars. Everyone should take part in this international day of giving. It is about encouraging a philanthropic spirit in every corner of the world."

“And in addition to an easy-to-measure and powerful metric like money,” added Neumann, “add to it the passion it inspires from nonprofits to get creative: the simple act of creating awareness every post can make, times millions or billions; and the positive energy and smiles created by doing even a very simple act of kindness. You don’t have to do something ‘big’ for it to matter. #GivingTuesday is a million tiny actions that together make a huge impact. And it sets a kind, warm, and generous tone for the holiday season.”

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