On November 28, you can expect a deluge of unsolicited emails. That might not seem out of the ordinary, but this particular day will bring a batch of messages that all have two things in common: nonprofits will send them and they will all use the same phrase in the subject line, “Giving Tuesday.” Social media, too, will be awash in the hashtag version, #GivingTuesday. Expect to see it all over Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Threads, and X (r.i.p Twitter).
First launched in 2012—as a collective endeavor by the 92d Street Y and the UN Foundation—#GivingTuesday has become a global campaign to invite more charity and volunteering. Last year, in its tenth iteration, the event accounted for $3.1 billion in charitable giving in the US alone.
I wouldn’t blame anyone for being impressed by this accomplishment. I’d also caution that Giving Tuesday might not be as impressive as it seems.
To be clear, I’m focusing on the day, #GivingTuesday, and not the nonprofit, GivingTuesday.org. A few years ago, the movement garnered enough support from major givers like the Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott, that it spun out into its own entity focused on enhancing radical generosity around the world. They now have multiple programs focused on youth and adults in a variety of regions. The programs reflect novel ways to inspire more generosity.
The day of #GivingTuesday, however, probably isn’t doing as much as we think. Maybe there’s value in having everyone celebrate a day of giving. But if there is, then it’s not clear what that value is.
The question I keep asking is this: If we want more charitable giving, is #GivingTuesday the answer?
Considering the Counterfactual
This question is an invitation to use counterfactual thinking, a core paradigm of all impact measurement. In evaluating everything from medical treatments to government programs, we don’t really know whether a well-intended effort is working unless we understand what the world would be like without it. The key is to measure causal inference—does A cause B?—using tools like randomized control trials.
In this context, the question is: What if #GivingTuesday never existed?
You might be surprised to learn that scholars haven’t answered the counterfactual question for #GivingTuesday. Despite ten years of data, including that offered by the Giving Tuesday Data Commons, there are no published studies assessing the giving day’s impact using a counterfactual approach.
In fairness, a randomized control trial for #GivingTuesday would be quite difficult because there are so many variables to control. This is a common challenge for advocacy programs. The impact of a worldwide effort like #GivingTuesday is difficult to measure.
There is an annual #GivingTuesday report, but a broader context actually dampens the otherwise impressive numbers. Take the top-line number for example: $3.1 billion in US donations last year. That amounts to 0.06% of the total charitable giving—$499.3 billion—in 2022, or roughly two days worth of giving if you divide the total over the year. (Of course, charitable giving isn’t spread evenly over the year and the most popular days for giving continue to be at the end of December to capture tax deductions for the 10% of Americans who still itemize.)
More importantly, there’s little evidence that #GivingTuesday actually increases the total charitable giving much at all. The event claims a larger share of giving each year—up by 15% compared to 2021. But this doesn’t mean total giving increased. The more likely result is that #GivingTuesday changes the timing of a person’s giving instead of increasing the amount that person gives.
Although charitable giving in the US does shift up or down from one year to the next, the defining trait is how little it changes over time compared to the overall economy. For as long as we have reliable data, measures show that Americans give around 2% of GDP. Even massive things like tax policy only change when people give and not how much. Academics and fundraising professionals have long wrestled with this stubborn statistic, and there’s no counterfactual evidence that #GivingTuesday has moved the needle to greater giving, even if it’s claiming an increasing share of the giving that does happen.
Making Things Worse
Like any major endeavor, #GivingTuesday has its critics. Common complaints include favoring large organizations over small ones, disfavoring minority causes, and adding stress to an already busy time of year for nonprofits.
There are two criticisms, though, that are especially important. The first is the intensity of competition for donors on #GivingTuesday, and the second is the consumerist approach to the cause.
As more nonprofits participate, the competition for donors gets even sharper on #GivingTuesday. For this reason, you won’t be surprised to hear nonprofit managers complain about the day. If you search Google for the term, you mostly get pitches by fundraising consultants offering to help you raise more money.
But the problem could be even greater. Research shows that as competition for donors increases, fundraising becomes less efficient. In other words, the bigger #GivingTuesday gets, the more wasteful fundraising becomes as nonprofits fight for their share of the 2%.
The other concern is how #GivingTuesday campaigns behave. They rarely focus on building enduring relationships with donors, but instead are designed to be shareable on social media. Charitable giving is treated like an impulse buy instead of a thoughtful strategy.
The original idea of #GivingTuesday was to be a counterbalance to the consumerism of Black Friday, but nonprofits instead campaign in an especially consumerist way: offering donor matches that give the sense of a great deal, using urgent offers that expire on the day, and deploying social proof marketing through shares and likes. Compared to something more meaningful like a monthly donation to a carefully chosen charity, #GivingTuesday feels like Black Friday deal shopping. It encourages the opposite behavior that we need from donors who ought to be more impact-oriented and strategic in their generosity
What Would Actually Increase Giving
Even though the relative share of charitable giving is stubbornly stuck at 2% of GDP, there are more recent trends changing philanthropy in larger ways than #GivingTuesday can handle.
Most recently, inflation and other economic pressures led to a real decline in charitable giving, something that’s happened only a few other times in the last four decades. These are not permanent conditions, however, so the pattern isn’t likely to be long-term.
There are two other changes to American charity, though, that are worrisome. The first is the increasing concentration of wealth in the United States. A larger share of the economy in the hands of a smaller few will inevitably change the landscape of philanthropy, including the total amount giving, the timing of giving, and the kinds of causes receiving support. Donations by the wealthy, for example, favor large organizations over small ones, even if the small ones have higher relative impact. It’s simply easier to write one big check than many small ones.
The second big change is a decline in religious activity. Regular participation in religious worship has long been one of the strongest predictors of charitable giving, even if you remove donations made to churches. Community connections that bring us proximate to the needs of others simply induce more giving. People give more when they are asked in personal ways, and most religious worship involves a call to share with others.
Both of these—concentration of wealth and declining religiosity—would predict less charity by everyday households, and that’s exactly what’s been happening. Less than 50% of Americans are engaging in philanthropy for the first time ever measured. Thus far, large donors have made up the difference, but we don’t yet know what will come as the trend continues.
To induce more charitable giving, the needed changes are obvious. People need more money to give and community connections that encourage giving on a regular basis. Obvious though they may be, these problems are not going to change much on any given Tuesday.
Of course, none of this means that people shouldn’t give, or even that they should skip #GivingTuesday. What all donors should do, though, is give thoughtfully and strategically, focused on how their gifts and time can have a lasting impact. That kind of giving is a very good deal.
Successfully Navigating #GivingTuesday
So what does this all mean for someone who does want to participate in the day of giving? I recommend these three things:
- Find an organization that measures outcomes, not just outputs. (ex. In education, pick an organization that reports improved grades, not just the number of students enrolled.)
- Instead of a one-time donation, choose an organization that you’ll support in the long-term. Set up a recurring monthly donation that automatically comes out of your bank account.
- Spend some of your giving budget on a book written by an expert. You can’t learn everything about every topic, so invest some time getting deeper knowledge of the impact area that most interests you. It will make you a better giver.