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#GivingTuesday: Global giving born online

In part one of a two-part series, Bernholz shares her thoughts on #GivingTuesday, data, and giving in the digital age.

Rob Reich and Henry Timms revel in their differences. Rob is a self-described “egghead professor,” who regularly wins teaching awards for his classes on justice and democratic theory at Stanford University. Henry, an Englishman relocated to New York who leads the 92nd Street Y (one of the city’s most illustrious cultural venues), considers himself a marketing hack.

Yet somehow these two genial opposites, along with colleagues from the UN Foundation, Mashable, and several other online influencers, took a simple idea for a national day of giving and turned it into a global generosity phenomenon.

In October of 2012, a mere month before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, a small group announced the idea. Riffing off the shopping frenzies that have become part and parcel of the November repast, Mashable’s first post about Giving Tuesday announced:

“You know the post-Thanksgiving drill: Black Friday then Cyber Monday. This year, be sure to mark the first #GivingTuesday on your calendar Tuesday, Nov. 27. Unlike the days leading up to it, this new annual celebration is less about buying gifts and more about giving back.”

The idea was giving back – by anyone, to any cause they chose. It was not a fundraiser, but an awareness-raiser. With five weeks from announcement to event, the group’s goal was to make it easy. Named partners included big companies like Cisco and Skype and known nonprofits like Heifer International and the Case Foundation.

But the real excitement came from watching communities and groups not part of the planning circle run with the idea. Twitter came alive with the hashtag #GivingTuesday. Organizations joined in, signed up on the website, and ran with the concept – adapting and morphing the activities to fit their own needs.

One year later, the idea was familiar and partners signed on well in advance. Big foundations started providing matching grants and fund development strategists started working with nonprofits to “get ready.” In Giving Tuesday’s second year, the City of Baltimore set and beat a goal of raising $5 million in one day for community groups. One year after launch the idea had slipped the bounds of the American Thanksgiving holiday as international partners signed on.

By the ripe-old age of three, #GivingTuesday had become part of the fundraising landscape. The Knight Foundation and others started developing and distributing toolkits for nonprofits to maximize their reach. Media coverage expanded. More and more online transaction processing platforms started analyzing their traffic to help calculate the total dollars raised. More sophisticated analysis of social media – at both the aggregate level and by individual campaigns – was done.

This December, #GivingTuesday turns four. A central repository of logos, guidebooks, webinars, and best practices is available, contributed by successful campaign managers around the world and curated by the 92nd Street Y. Over the years a loosely-knit group of coordinating individuals have met on the Stanford campus to brainstorm better evaluation methods, think about governance options, and imagine the next iteration of this movement. The language to describe the phenomenon has changed a bit in four years, as Henry Timms now describes the day as one “enabled by technology, driven by humanity,” shifting the earlier focus on social media tools somewhat to the background.

How did #GivingTuesday grow so quickly? Part of the success no doubt redounds to the simplicity of the idea – making giving a cool and social thing to do. Early planners understood the power of social media and collaboration, and made it as easy as possible for others to join in. The focus was on the idea and allowing anyone anywhere to brand themselves part of the movement. One of the key resources the coordinating partners have provided is branding collateral – then they have mostly gotten out of the way. As communities created tools or succeeded with certain practices the coordinators made it easy to share those ideas too.

This approach reflects a commitment to “what works” in platform marketing. Making it easy for people to use your ideas and tools, build their own, and share them is how the hashtag came to matter and emojis came into widespread use. #GivingTuesday makes it easy for individuals and organizations to use their brand, while relying on a distributed network to do the work of organizing campaigns and expanding reach.

As an awareness campaign, #GivingTuesday first faced resistance from organizations that already had end-of-year fund development plans in place. In just four years, it’s fair to assume many (and it would be great to know how many) organizations now shape those end-of-year plans to include a #GivingTuesday component.

#GivingTuesday is a global example of a distributed, networked, digital campaign. As such, it offers lessons about building and governing and growing such an effort. It’s a “born digital” awareness campaign. It also affords us an unfolding test case of how to measure such an effort, what data matter, and where do efforts like #GivingTuesday fit in the landscape of digital civil society . I’ll pick up on those questions in Part Two of this two-part series.