Making a success of #givingtuesday

So, after many months of growing anticipation, #givingtuesday has arrived. All around America, people will be making their personal giving pledges to support their favourite good causes with time and/or money. Many will write the pledge down on a sheet of paper, photo themselves, and post the picture on facebook and twitter, to encourage their friends to do the same. At least 2000 organisations – non-profts and for-profits – have signed up as #givingtuesday partners, and several mayors, including in New York and Detroit, have proclaimed #givingtuesday in their city.

For the founders of #givingtuesday, such as 92Y, the UN Foundation and Mashable, and the other organisations and people that joined in the early days (including, as an occasional advisor, Matthew), the extent to which the idea has caught on and taken on a life of its own has far exceeded expectations. It is a case study in how a committed community can emerge in next to no time when a great idea combines with modern social media and an old fashioned spirit of getting stuck in.

However, after the day is over, people will legitimately ask, what did it achieve? Should it happen again next year/every year? And even, judging by the number of upbeat shouts of support there have been from around the world, should this first Tuesday after the fourth Thursday in November become an international day of giving? So far, most feedback on these questions has been very positive – Peter Sims, author of “Little Bets“, calls it the “social innovation of the year” – but not all of it.

Timothy Ogden, an intelligent skeptic according to Nick Kristof, has posted a classic piece of bah-humbuggery on the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Entitled, “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Giving Tuesday”, the article concludes depressingly that “the effort to make giving public and start a ‘giving season’ won’t materially affect giving in any positive way.”

Ogden makes two main points. First, he dislikes the making giving public aspect of #givingtuesday. Maimonides, an ancient Jewish teacher, would not have tweeted about his personal giving pledge, he implies. That is probably right, as Maimonides regarded giving when neither donor nor recipient is known to each other as morally superior. On the other hand, in his discussion of the eight levels of charity in his Mishnah Torah, he was generally pro giving of all kinds, even when it was done publicly. And he did not consider at all the inspirational effect that seeing friends give would have on giving by others, and thus on the overall level of giving – an effect that #givingtuesday may (or may not) show to be significant.

Ogden thinks that public displays of giving actually reduce the happiness and enjoyment people get from it. But his evidence relates to how people feel when they buy a product with some element of support for a cause included in the price, which indeed may rightly strike people as inherently more selfish than classic charity. Sharing with your friends, family and the twittersphere on #givingtuesday which organisations you are proud to support strikes us as inherently different from responding to cause marketing, and may generate very positive feelings in the donor that will potentially prompt them to give more. The traditional criticism of overtly public giving is that it is about swelling the sense of self-importance of the giver; but in the networked social media age, sharing information about yourself is not usually bragging or showboating, but rather just part of what is involved in defining yourself and your passions in an online community, something hundreds of millions of us like to do.

His other big worry is that #givingtuesday will not increase the overall level of giving, though it may concentrate slightly more of total giving on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – which may or may not make life easier for those in charge of charity finances. Three responses. First, #givingtuesday is deliberately promoted as “opening day” of the giving season in order to make it clear that this is not about one day, but about how giving is done throughout the season or even year ahead. It is a day for celebrating giving and pledging, but not necessarily the day on which the money must be handed over.

Second, the hope is that focusing on giving in general, rather than a specific cause, will encourage greater thought to go into gifts and a greater discussion of which charities are effective (as Rob Reich explains in his blog post). Here, the public element of #givingtuesday should help, by encouraging conversations like, “I see you are giving to cause x. Why? Is it any good?” There is still far too little transparency throughout the charity sector, and maybe #givingtuesday can help to change that. If so, even if the total level of giving remained flat, its quality might increase.

Third, maybe the public celebration of giving, and the sharing of uplifting examples of the difference it can make, will encourage people to give more. That is certainly the hope of Bill Gates, who wrote on his blog that “if the organizers of Giving Tuesday can get more people thinking about giving and encourage us to be more generous with our time and resources, they’ll have done a very good thing.”

Ogden cites various tangential academic theories and studies, but is essentially just being fatalistic when he says #givingtuesday won’t do any good. The facts may prove him right, though we suspect not, but to predict this beforehand is merely a counsel of despair. That, of course, was the attitude of Ebeneezer Scrooge at the start of Dickens Christmas Carol, but not of Scrooge at the end. #givingtuesday shares the message of that great inspirational novel: when it comes to giving, a change of heart and an increase in generosity is possible.