Opinion
September 01, 2015

Ahead of Labor Day, Fundraisers Should Start Focusing on Giving Tuesday

In the Kingdom of American Philanthropy, Labor Day is a last blast of summer goodness. Perhaps another turn around the golf course, or an afternoon on the yacht.

But in the Republic of Development, it’s labor days indeed — as year-end planning turns into high gear and nonprofits push the calendar for those last four months of seeking dollars.

And this year, as it has increasingly in the last few, that first Tuesday after Thanksgiving looms large on the calendar that fundraisers know will flip all too quickly toward make-or-break on their annual numbers.

Giving Tuesday has become a phenomenon in the nonprofit world since 2012, a yearly moment to pause after an orgy of holiday shopping and consider the needs of the community, of those far less fortunate, and of causes ranging from protecting the environment to human rights. And as the summer wanes, nonprofits are deep into planning for Giving Tuesday’s fourth iteration, on December 1.

But is Giving Tuesday yet a real movement that has spread beyond the campaign’s central planners at New York’s 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation? Do nonprofits see Giving Tuesday as a big opportunity for engaging more donors, particularly digitally empowered millennial supporters? Does Giving Tuesday increase the total dollars raised?

We may have better answers after December, but I’m convinced that late summer is the time for fundraisers to ask whether it’s worth the time and effort to promote Giving Tuesday.

As an occasional skeptic where Giving Tuesday is concerned, I’ve come to the conclusion that more often than not, that it is.

In the past couple of years, I’ve wondered aloud about the top-down, non-organic nature of the original Giving Tuesday campaign and whether it allowed room for nonprofits (which surely understand their fundraising targets better than anyone else) to plan their own efforts. And I’ve expressed concern about whether Giving Tuesday was really adding to overall giving or merely shifting existing annual gifts into a new category, potentially damaging some nonprofit campaigns. I also thought that as a national online campaign, it would for the most part reward the big organizations with the biggest lists.

Yet it’s not the numbers that have me convinced that Giving Tuesday should be on most development calendars; in truth, the financial data is fairly modest after three years. Last year, according to analysis by the Case Foundation, Giving Tuesday raised $45.7 million, up 63 percent from the $28 million it raised in 2013 and about four times the $11.5 million committed in the effort’s first year in 2012. That’s impressive growth, but those aren’t all that significant — especially slotted against the $358 billion that Americans gave to charity last year.

Nevertheless, those numbers don’t really consider cultural impact over the longer term — and in the end, that’s why I’m moving to the yes side of the aisle.

To succeed, Giving Tuesday’s impact will always be more about culture than about finance. That’s because it’s a hybrid campaign, both planned by a central group of philanthropy big shots and adopted in many forms by thousands of nonprofits around the country.

The organizing committee sets the date, provides some tools, creates some national media buzz, and measures results. Led by the 92nd Street Y in partnership with the UN Foundation, the Giving Tuesday coalition includes a who’s who of august philanthropy organizations. That national campaign, in effect, opens a door. But it’s up to individual organizations or regional partnerships to step through.

And by doing so with local strategies and unique cultural tactics, the participating nonprofits are changing Giving Tuesday faster than any central committee ever could.

Take the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, for example. Last year, about 370 adults and children and 48 community partners (including schools, synagogues, and Jewish organizations) came together to braid and bake 800 challahs — the bread consumed on the Jewish Sabbath — for local residents in financial need. The big challah bake-off benefited kosher food pantries in the region.

Or consider the Flowering Branch Children’s Shelter in Cartersville, Ga. Last year, the organization launched its first Giving Tuesday campaign to fulfill "Santa’s wish list" items for needy children. With a Christmas theme and some free popcorn and lemonade, volunteers went more than $11,000 over their modest $20,000 goal — and brightened many a Christmas morning.

Then there’s Lakeside Chautauqua, a community organization in Ohio that has "welcomed families to the Lake Erie shore to take part in a summer Chautauqua experience dedicated to nurturing mind, body, and spirit." A minigolf contest helped key fundraising that topped $118,000 and benefited several local organizations.

Small nonprofits. Local coalition building. Distinct cultural flavors. This is not the Giving Tuesday of big national organizations with huge digital lists. And indeed as The Chronicle reported in June the rate of growth in dollars raised by large organizations fell sharply in 2014 — though the big players still raised the most money cumulatively. The data comes from a fascinating study by technology provider Blackbaud, which shows that Giving Tuesday, far from being an established and predictable fundraising moment on the calendar, is still evolving.

Steve MacLaughlin, Blackbaud’s director of analytics and author of the report, believes there’s some real volatility within the Giving Tuesday movement.

"Three years in, we’re still at the beginning of the beginning of the GivingTuesday movement," he said. "I think 2015 is the year when Giving Tuesday stops being talked about as a ‘new thing’ and it just becomes part of what happens in the nonprofit sector. The online-giving data shows some volatility, and to me that means there’s plenty of opportunity out there for nonprofits. No single type of nonprofit has cornered the market on Giving Tuesday."

Asha Curran, director of the Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y and coordinator of the national Giving Tuesday effort, says the effort this year will move into adolescence and embrace a couple of important priorities.

For one, organizers will work on expanding Giving Tuesday’s presence on the myriad of online-giving platforms used by nonprofits and try to build a relationship with each. "This helps us build out a robust and accurate picture" of what’s really happening with donations and data, said Ms. Curran.

For another, Giving Tuesday will encourage what it calls "civic campaigns," in which municipalities, counties, or regions create a coalition for fundraising that "can mobilize whole communities," according to Ms. Curran. This creates not just online momentum but offline in-person organizing that has the potential over time to substantially lift the dollars raised on December 1.

That sense of Giving Tuesday as an organizing mechanism with impact beyond the day’s fundraising is what gives the nascent movement its cultural and social rocket fuel.

And binding more donors — and potential donors — with the fabric of philanthropy is the kind of goal that gets beyond the annual numbers.

"Giving Tuesday may not be something every nonprofit believes they need to focus on," says Mr. MacLaughlin. "But it is very hard to pass up the opportunity given how much awareness is generated through traditional and digital media. This is especially true for smaller organizations that could never get top-of-mind awareness generated by TV, radio, print, social, and online."

That awareness may be the biggest dividend anxious development directors should be thinking about — and planning for — as Labor Day weekend is about to arrive.

Tom Watson is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University. He is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.