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Philanthropy

What, Exactly, Is Giving Tuesday’s Theory of Change?

Giving Tuesday seems poised to be a permanent fixture in the philanthropic landscape. So what’s the theory of change behind it?

Giving Tuesday seemingly gained momentum this year, in its second go-round. When the project launched, it was unclear whether it would be a one-time phenomenon or a permanent addition to the “giving season” (itself a relatively new term) landscape. It seems it will be the latter (though I eagerly await comparisons of both social media mentions and giving totals for this year) given the renewed push this year for Giving Tuesday.

One example is this post from Bill and Melinda Gates on the Giving Tuesday site. They write, “… as we talked about #GivingTuesday, the hardest question we faced was, ‘Which groups should we highlight?’ After a lot of discussion about all the great choices out there, we picked four.”

Those four picks are Donors Choose, Heifer International, Save the Children, and World Vision.

I questioned the benefit of Giving Tuesday last year, and the Gates’ post made me wonder again about the goals and theory of change behind Giving Tuesday, the banal answers on the Giving Tuesday site notwithstanding.

The four charities picked by the Gates are well-known and relatively large charities with sophisticated marketing. These are not charities struggling for attention; nor do any charity rating efforts rank them clearly higher than alternatives.

Through their foundation, the Gates almost certainly invest more than any other couple in finding, monitoring, and evaluating charities. They have resources to find unknown but needy charities. Effective use of philanthropic funds is also very much on the Gates’ agenda outside of Giving Tuesday—the Gates Foundation invests in a variety of efforts to improve the functioning of the sector (#mkts4good on Twitter, for instance). They also have no problems working to change people’s behavior—convincing the world’s richest individuals to give away half of their wealth is nothing if not an ambitious attempt at behavior change. (By the way, Phil Buchanan from CEP has some terrific ideas on how foundations in general could use Giving Tuesday to advance either of these goals—ideas not in evidence on the Giving Tuesday site.)

I can only conclude that the Gates chose these charities because they are well-known and popular. That leaves me with two possibilities for the implicit goal/theory of change:

1) To increase total charitable giving: People give less than they want to because they either forget or are unable to identify “safe” giving opportunities—providing social media reminders and emphasizing brand-name competent charities unlikely to be caught in scandal can do this (metric of success: an increase in the giving rate over historical trend).

2) To buttress the giving culture in the United States: Creeping commercialization and consumerism is undermining people’s willingness to give—creating a social norm of giving and emphasizing charities with easy-to-grasp “feel good” stories that support the “warm glow” of giving can change this (metric of success: maintenance of current giving rate).

These are both worthy goals that I support, but as I wrote last year, I am skeptical of the theory of change behind the first. And my attempts to get one prominent advocate of Giving Tuesday to put a stake in the ground against which to measure Giving Tuesday’s effect on total giving were met with deafening silence. Regardless, there is plenty of good research on what drives charitable giving, the barriers to giving, and how to overcome those barriers. None of the research (or Buchanan’s ideas) seem to be have been applied to this second go-round of Giving Tuesday. Until it is, my skepticism that Giving Tuesday can increase giving will only grow.

The second scenario above seems more plausible to me—especially as Thanksgiving seems to be disappearing into the maw of Black Friday. While apparently fewer people are going out to shop on Black Friday, that might not be a good thing. The soul-atrophying effects of hand-to-hand combat to grab a “doorbuster” may only be exceeded by sitting alone in front of a computer ferociously googling for bargains. My worry about the erosion of giving culture in the United States is the reason that I again participated in Giving Tuesday by providing an anonymous matching grant to a charity I support. If this is really the thinking behind Giving Tuesday, I can understand not making it explicit. In the United States, taking on consumerist culture directly has a long history of abject failure.

One side note: Last year I expressed concerns about the potentially negative effects of public giving. I’m encouraged that the norm for Giving Tuesday tweets seems to be simply naming a charity a person supports rather than focusing on amounts. Of course, since I can find a dark cloud behind every silver lining, I still worry about the potential for “slacktivism,” where announcing support replaces actual giving.

I’d love to hear from anyone, whether directly connected to Giving Tuesday or not, about what they believe the goal and theory of change behind Giving Tuesday is.

A few disclosures: I serve on the board of GiveWell, a charity evaluation group with the explicit goal of better allocating charitable dollars. I am also the managing director of the Financial Access Initiative, which is funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Read more stories by Timothy Ogden.

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