Op-Ed: On #GivingTuesday, time to turn philanthropic thinking on its head


NEW YORK (JTA) – Nonprofit organizations are preparing for a new but remarkably successful philanthropy holiday, #GivingTuesday, which this year falls on Dec. 1.

Organizations are busy crafting special campaigns, creating new online giving portals and planning fundraisers for the holiday, which began in 2012 on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving as a kind of counterweight to the consumerism of the holiday shopping season.

Anyone in the nonprofit sector can already anticipate what their email inbox and social media feeds will look like on Tuesday: solicitation after solicitation from dozens if not hundreds of nonprofits.

There’s nothing wrong with fundraising. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with encouraging giving. That’s what drives us every day in our roles leading Natan, a major giving circle in New York, and Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement, Natan’s field-building arm.

But giving is also what’s keeping us up at night. We’re worried that something important is getting lost in this giving extravaganza – namely, the very people who are central to its success: the givers.

A recent Chicago Community Trust report shows that donors aren’t giving to the causes they care about, partly because they don’t know how to access the information they need about the issues and organizations they might support. Couple that finding with other reports showing that substantial numbers of donors don’t trust nonprofits or understand the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors very much, and then ask yourself: What is this onslaught of appeals actually accomplishing?

Campaigns like #GivingTuesday may well succeed in bringing in one-off donations, but they prevent sustained giving or deeper support over time. Donors are still left questioning exactly what organizations actually do and how their money is helping.

We need to flip the thinking about giving on its head. We need to focus on building the supply side of the giving equation, and not just on strengthening the capacity of organizations to demand. We need to focus on the giver.

At Natan and Amplifier, together with the dozens of partners we work with inside and outside the Jewish philanthropic sector, we’re seeking to build an ecosystem of empowered philanthropy: inspired, educated and engaged givers.

To accomplish this, we’ve focused on giving circles and the incredible value we think they can deliver. A giving circle is a group of people who pool their charitable donations and decide together how to give them away. It’s a simple yet infinitely customizable model that puts the giver in the driver’s seat. In a giving circle, members determine the values that guide their giving, discover areas that address the change they want to make in the world, and engage in deep discussions about organizations doing the work they believe in.

Giving collectively with friends, family or neighbors adds additional layers of meaning and fun to the experience and enables giving circle members to leverage each other’s money, wisdom, experience and perspectives to make a much greater impact than they might have made alone.

In the end, giving circle members emerge with a deeper knowledge of the causes they care about and the organizations addressing those causes. As research has shown, this leads giving circle members to give more dollars, give more strategically and develop a deeper sense of civic responsibility.

At Natan, we’ve engaged over 200 members in our giving circle and have given away nearly $11 million to more than 180 nonprofits, social entrepreneurs and social businesses. After seeing the transformative impact that Natan was having on its members and grantees over the years, and after hearing identical stories of impact from other giving circles (including venture philanthropy funds, women’s foundations and teen foundations both inside and outside the Jewish community), we created Amplifier to connect giving circles inspired by Jewish values to one another and provide resources that enable anyone to create their own giving circle.

What kinds of transformations happen to people in giving circles? People become enthusiastic about giving regularly and adopt the practice of giving on a regular basis. Time and again, we’ve seen giving circle members become so passionate about organizations they discover during a giving circle’s grant-making process that they join those organizations as volunteer leaders and board members. When you give someone the opportunity to actualize their vision through giving, they become active agents of change in their communities – not passive, one-time donors.

This #GivingTuesday, we need to put the needs and goals of givers first. Foundations and nonprofits alike can be major players in helping to build a broad culture of empowered philanthropy. Invest in building this culture, and the donations will follow. The world’s leaders and change-makers – and ultimately the people our organizations support – depend on it.

(Felicia Herman has been executive director of The Natan Fund since 2005. Joelle Asaro Berman is responsible for overseeing the Amplifier program, a global network of giving circles and Natan’s field-building arm.)

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