People are donating more than they ever have to charities. There’s no time when such giving is more on display than today, Giving Tuesday, a day when celebrations of generosity on social media have helped turn an idea into a global happening in just six years.
The day was created in 2012 by the community center 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation to counterbalance the glaring consumerism of Thanksgiving weekend — Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.
It has grown from a day that logged $10 million in donations in its first year to one that recorded a whopping $180 million in the United States alone in a 24-hour span last year, according to Givingtuesday.org. People participated in 98 countries across the world.
But that’s just part of the story.
What is not quantified are the countless coat drives, food pantry drop offs and towel deliveries to animal shelters inspired by Giving Tuesday. All are encouraged by the organizers.
“The easiest measure is money but that’s only one measure,” said Henry Timms, Executive Director of the 92nd Street Y and one of the creators of Giving Tuesday.
The reason Giving Tuesday has become so popular, Timms said, is because the day encourages people to give, but allows them to do it however they want. So that could be clicking “give now” for a medical research group or rolling up sleeves and donating blood, whatever connects with people and their friends. It doesn’t hurt that people are able to humble brag about it on social media.
Since the message is inclusive in terms of how to participate, people don’t feel left out if they only have small amounts to give. The average online gift was about $108 last year.
Millennials, who are less well-compensated than their parents’ generation, tend to give fewer dollars — the majority donated less than $200 annually. But at least on Giving Tuesday they give in record numbers. Of the people aged 18 to 34 who had heard of Giving Tuesday, 88 percent give that day, according to the organization, compared with 53 percent of people 55 and older. (The senior set gives more — with about half of people aged 65 and older giving more than $500 a year, according to Giving Tuesday.)
People give to help a cause and feel good about themselves, and also, it turns out, because they want to be part of something their friends are part of.
“Human beings like to be part of a social happening,” Timms said. “There’s communal peer affirmation.”
People generally do what their friends do, whether it’s sports, parties, festivals or something more intangible like Black Friday. While shopping at a physical store on Black Friday is in decline, in its heyday, people would wait in lines overnight and jump right into the madness just for the fun of it. For many, the deals were secondary.
While there’s evidence that people are philanthropic on Giving Tuesday because they genuinely want to do good, there’s also an element of peer pressure and bragging rights. About 63 percent of Giving Tuesday donors say they only give on that day, according to Giving Tuesday data.
The day has become bigger than the founders ever imagined. For example, an estimated 4.5 million people participated in the United Kingdom alone.
“No one was predicting that,” Timms said.
He said the event started because he was thinking about how the 92nd Street Y was helping the community, from hosting lectures to ceramics classes. Then he decided to go big, thinking how he could leverage the Internet.
“I thought, ‘We have all these new tools, how can we reimagine what we do?’ ” he said.
Timms also said Black Friday and Cyber Monday had been claimed. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could grab Tuesday?” he recalled telling colleagues.
The good news for the smaller givers is that studies show higher levels of happiness when someone gives away money than when they spend it on themselves, regardless of the amount. One study, published this summer in the journal Nature Communications, found a “neural link” between generosity and happiness, even when people just thought about being generous.
Research shows the generosity on Giving Tuesday and other days of the year is growing. Americans donated a total of $389 billion last year to charitable organizations, a more than 4 percent increase from 2015, according to a report by the National Philanthropic Trust. That is a huge jump from 1975, when Americans gave about $165 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. The trend lines have generally gone up since then, with some dips, including in recession years.
Last year, the vast majority, 72 percent, of giving came from individuals rather than foundations or corporations, the report said.
Will Esposito, 26, knows this firsthand. He is on his fourth year organizing a Giving Tuesday party at a cafe in his New Milford, N.J., community. The benefit is a night of food and music that encourages people to donate clothing, food and toiletries for the homeless and people affected by recent natural disasters.
The first year, he and his friends who organized it were either in college or recent grads.
“We wanted to make it a fun event. The two things we knew best were partying and social media,” Esposito said. “We invited the community to come out and donate clothing and canned food, then we made the drop off at shelters.”
He said he found enthusiastic support.
“I think sometimes people want permission, a reason to not feel like what they’re doing is corny,” Esposito said. “It’s, ‘Look, I’m doing it and so are so many other people across the globe. It’s a true a movement.’ ”
Timms said giving is a great connector of people.
“There are so many things that divide us, it’s important we reaffirm those things that reconnect us,” Timms said. “No matter where you are in the world, we are all capable of connecting together. On Giving Tuesday we celebrate that giving in concert with millions of other people.”
And, of course, we Facebook it.