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Vol. 42, No. 4

Executive at nonprofit that launched Giving Tuesday offers inside look at a global phenomenon

by Lowell Brown

“It’s kind of a big behemoth that’s accomplishing a lot of different things right now.” That’s how Asha Curran described Giving Tuesday, the annual global day of giving that raised more than $274 million across 150 countries in 2017.

A quick Google search confirms that many state and local bar foundations participate in Giving Tuesday, and it seems likely that, even at those foundations that don’t participate, leaders have heard of the event. Just how it grew to be such a phenomenon—and the role played by social media—was the subject of a breakout session at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Foundations.

Giving Tuesday succeeds, in part, by encouraging social sharing and allowing people to adapt it to causes that matter most to them, said Curran, chief innovation officer for the 92nd Street Y.

“If Giving Tuesday is anything, it’s a license to innovate,” she said.

The 92nd Street Y, or 92Y, a nonprofit community and cultural center in New York, created Giving Tuesday in 2012 as a way for people to “give back” on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, after two days of consumption on Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

“All of that money [being spent after Thanksgiving] is coming from the same wallet,” Curran said. “We wanted to appropriate a little bit of that money for the nonprofit world.”

Building a project—and letting it go

The 92Y team was composed of mid- to senior-level staff members who built the program from the ground up, without a lot of institutional support, Curran said. That meant using an “act first, tell the board later” strategy and a small budget. “We adopted a ‘lean startup’ approach,” she noted.

The team called other nonprofits and asked them to be partners in exchange for a listing on the project’s website. In the first year, they were expecting 100 partners but got 2,500, Curran said. That grew to 40,000 nonprofit partners in 2013.

“Now, we literally can’t count the partners,” she added. “It’s global.”

Many partners don’t even sign up with the 92Y now. In some cases, Curran said she only finds out a group is involved if it shows up on a Google news alert. “That’s the nature of the movement,” she said. “My boss says you know it’s a movement when it’s moving by itself.”

Several of the team’s early decisions allowed Giving Tuesday to thrive, Curran said. One was being “agnostic” to the particular causes people are giving to. That way, no one owns the movement, she explained.

Another key decision was resisting the urge to brand Giving Tuesday as a 92Y initiative. “People feel accountable for it, in a way, because of that lack of branding,” Curran said. “It was a hard decision, but it turned out to be one of the most important ones.

Different organizations, different priorities

Variations on Giving Tuesday abound. The nonprofit Dress for Success, which provides work attire and other support to women, turned Giving Tuesday into “Giving Shoes Day” and asked people to share pictures of themselves in the shoes they first returned to work in.

Many cities have also joined the movement. Baltimore holds a citywide campaign to benefit local nonprofits that was so successful, it went statewide. There was even a campaign in Bethel, Alaska, population 6,000, where volunteers took to the streets in negative-20-degree weather and held out stockings to receive donations from passersby. That campaign raised $25,000 for a dozen area nonprofits, Curran noted.

“There’s a real sense of [Giving Tuesday] reflecting the priorities, the spirit, the ethos of those local communities, which is very important,” she said.

Not all campaigns are based on monetary donations. Some focus on giving time, talents, or resources. For example, legal organizations have joined the movement with campaigns that encourage lawyers to provide pro bono services to those who can’t afford legal representation.

Planning for this year? Here’s how to build excitement

The social reach of Giving Tuesday continues to grow. In 2017, the campaign boasted more than a million total social media mentions and 21.7 billion total impressions.

Increasingly, the focus is on images over just text, Curran said. For example, the United Nations Foundation has a “Give a GIF” campaign, which encourages people to select and share an animated image that offers a compelling statistic about the UN Foundation’s work. Also, the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s “unselfie” campaign encourages users to post pictures of people who inspired them to give.

Curran closed the session with three takeaways for people planning their own Giving Tuesday campaigns:

  1. Experiment. “If you feel nervous, you’re probably on the right track.”
  2. Reach out. Collaborations take your campaign to the next level.
  3. Celebrate. “Whatever you’re going to do, be joyful about it.”


Lowell Brown

Lowell Brown is Communications Division director at the State Bar of Texas and a member of the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Council.