10 Years In, GivingTuesday Has Become a Day Charities Can’t Afford to Sit Out
In 2012, social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook were solidifying themselves as messaging clearinghouses. Some 500 million people around the world used Twitter in 2012, and nearly twice that number used Facebook. Nonprofits were taking note.
In New York City, a group of fundraisers at the 92nd Street Y hatched a plan to harness social media as a megaphone for nonprofits. Using the hashtag #GivingTuesday, they encouraged donors to contribute to nonprofits during the week after Thanksgiving. Thanks to support from big names like
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In 2012, social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook were solidifying themselves as messaging clearinghouses. Some 500 million people around the world used Twitter that year, and nearly twice that number used Facebook. Nonprofits were taking note.
In New York City, staff members at the 92nd Street Y hatched a plan to harness social media as a megaphone for nonprofits. Using the hashtag #GivingTuesday, they encouraged donors to contribute to nonprofits during the week after Thanksgiving. Thanks to support from big names like Bill Gates, fundraising technology company Blackbaud, and the consumer discount company Groupon, the effort took off. That first year, donors contributed more than $10 million in online gifts to charities.
Because GivingTuesday began informally, there is no definitive total of the dollars it’s raised for charity since 2012. Estimates from each drive, however, show that the campaign has grown substantially year-over-year for the past decade. In 2019, the campaign topped $1 billion for the first time, according to estimates of online and offline donations released by GivingTuesday, the nonprofit formed that year to administer the giving day. In May 2020 it organized its first flash fundraising event to respond to the outbreak of Covid-19 and raised roughly $503 million online. Last year’s GivingTuesday was the biggest yet, driving $2.7 billion in online and offline gifts to U.S. nonprofits. Its 2021 strategic plan announced a goal to inspire $10 billion in charitable giving each year.
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“Everyone recognizes it’s a really important day, but it is pretty busy and pretty noisy for people,” Kestrel Linder, chief executive of GiveCampus, a company that provides fundraising technology to schools and colleges, says of GivingTuesday. In recent years, some schools have started using the day to thank past donors instead of asking for new gifts. Often they’ll wait for a quieter day in April or March to launch their own giving day, he says.
Most schools still recognize the day — even if they don’t ask for a donation. “We see very few schools who don’t want to be on the menu on GivingTuesday,” he says.
Fundraisers’ approach to GivingTuesday has been evolving ever since the campaign began. It was possible in 2012 for nonprofits to skate by without a digital fundraising strategy. Just 7 percent of overall giving occurred online in 2012, according to data collected by the Blackbaud Institute, the research division of fundraising technology provider Blackbaud. But online revenue has grown consistently over the past decade. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it grew 3 percent, according to fundraising consultancy M+R. And in 2021, 12 percent of all fundraising revenue came from online gifts, per the Blackbaud Institute’s research.
“It was only 10 years ago, but then also 10 years is a long time in digital time,” says Woodrow Rosenbaum, chief data officer at GivingTuesday, the nonprofit. Even hashtags were unfamiliar to many people back then, he says.
During its first five years, GivingTuesday powered that growth in online giving, according to Rosenbaum. “It was the biggest day for online; it was the biggest day for crowdfunding — by donations, by donors, by fundraisers, by dollars,” he says. “For a lot of organizations, GivingTuesday was this onramp to digital.”
In 2016 — GivingTuesday’s fifth year — Facebook waded into the giving frenzy. The social-media company enabled widespread use of its fundraising tool that June; by November, 750,000 nonprofits had signed up to collect donations through the site. On GivingTuesday, Facebook covered $500,000 in gift-processing fees and arranged for a matching gift of the same value from the Gates Foundation. It took just a few hours for Facebook users to reach that goal, so the Gates Foundation upped the match to $900,000. In total, the social-media company said it processed $6.79 million in donations on the fifth GivingTuesday.
Giving Expands, but So Does Work
GivingTuesday helped popularize the strategy of a giving day, says Linder of GiveCampus. His company recommends schools use the day to test a 24-hour event.
“GivingTuesday has training wheels associated with it,” he says, pointing to the branding, research, and tips distributed by the nonprofit that orchestrates the annual event. “There’s almost an out-of-the-box way to execute GivingTuesday if you have very limited resources.”
Ten years on, Linder says the share of schools that have never orchestrated a giving day is growing smaller and smaller. Familiarity with GivingTuesday is at an all-time high among the more than 1,000 schools and colleges GiveCampus serves, and within the past two years, Linder notes “a super-majority of schools are doing it.”
Fundraisers complain that planning and carrying out a campaign on the day is extremely time-intensive, even with all the help from GivingTuesday’s eponymous nonprofit. The burden is heaviest on organizations with only a few fundraisers on staff.
“It takes so much work,” says Alex Cesario, chief development officer at Breakthrough, a social-service nonprofit in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood. She leads a team of six fundraisers.
Chief Development Officer Erin Hall is half of a two-person fundraising team at Hopeful Horizons, a South Carolina domestic-violence nonprofit. She also finds preparing for GivingTuesday — and the stewardship efforts that follow it — exhausting. “It’s hours,” she says of the work. “It’s hours and hours.”
Breakthrough had its most successful GivingTuesday last year, raising $80,000. Typically, the nonprofit brings in $5,000 to $6,000 on the day. Much of last year’s success was thanks to a corporate matching gift, but it didn’t come easy. Cesario says her team spent the month before GivingTuesday contacting major donors to secure enough gifts on the day to unlock the matching gift.
In general, bigger nonprofits with better name recognition have an easier time pulling off a successful GivingTuesday, says Danielle Vance-McMullen, an assistant professor at DePaul University who studies nonprofit competition and donor behavior.
In a 700-person experiment that modeled giving at year-end and during a giving day, participants told Vance-McMullen that they made their giving-day donations based on how familiar they were with a nonprofit rather than the impact the group made.
Because donors receive so many solicitations from nonprofits on GivingTuesday, she says, “it’s easy for them to focus on the biggest name and the flashiest marketing.” Small nonprofits, therefore, may instead opt to mount a big fundraising effort outside of GivingTuesday.
Mardi Moore is executive director of Out Boulder County, a regional LGBTQ group with three full-time fundraisers. This year, she had to choose between planning a GivingTuesday campaign and soliciting gifts for Colorado Gives Day, a statewide fundraising push. Since it began in 2010, Colorado Gives Day has occurred on the first Tuesday in December. But this year it was extended from one day to four weeks, and Moore knew her team couldn’t plan two simultaneous campaigns.
“With a small staff, we haven’t even really dropped into GivingTuesday,” she says. Out Boulder County chose to focus instead on Colorado Gives Day because that effort generally brings in more revenue.
A Place to Give
Despite the work it takes to pull off a successful GivingTuesday campaign, fundraisers say they can’t afford to sit it out. Even though Moore says most of her group’s efforts will focus on Colorado Gives Day, on GivingTuesday, they will solicit donations on social media and mention the day in the weekly newsletter. “You can’t be silent during it or it’s like, Is the development team asleep at the wheel?” she says.
Ten years on, GivingTuesday has created a social norm, according Vance-McMullen. “Especially when year-end giving is not necessarily as tied to religion for everybody, the social norm aspect of it is likely to be important,” she says.
Hopeful Horizons, the domestic-violence nonprofit, generally attracts less than $10,000 in GivingTuesday gifts, but Hall still says it’s worth participating to raise awareness alone.
“We might get more followers on Facebook on GivingTuesday, and then the next month those folks are going to see the work that we do on our social-media posts,” Hall says. “Or maybe somebody who needs our services is more likely to see us on GivingTuesday and make that call for help.”
Cesario at Breakthrough says she knows any contributions made on GivingTuesday will only be a drop in the bucket compared with the $4.5 million Breakthrough raises in individual donations each year. Still, her team decided it couldn’t afford to skip GivingTuesday. “People are going to give,” she says. “If you don’t give them a place to give, they’re going to go somewhere else.”