In 1939 Franklin Roosevelt tried to move Thanksgiving back a week, hoping the extra time for shopping would boost holiday sales in the final year of the Great Depression. Although in 1941 Congress moved Thanksgiving back to the fourth Thursday in November, in just two years the holiday weekend had become as much about shopping as it was about gratitude or turkey.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, marks the kick off of the holiday shopping season. In recent years, retailers have offered deep discounts on certain items to get shoppers in the door and spending.
Shoppers eager to take advantage of the deals strategically plan their Black Friday expeditions months in advance. Some camp in the parking lots of big box stores to be the first through the doors when a store opens. Others queue up outside shopping malls in the wee hours of the morning. Many even postpone their Thanksgiving meals until Saturday because increasingly retailers are opening their doors on Thursday evenings.
"This is a season that is good for the economy," said Henry Timms, deputy executive director at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, "but why can't it also be about doing things that are good for the soul?"
In an effort to encourage people to make space for doing things that are good for the soul, charitable giving and volunteer work, the 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation launched #GivingTuesday.
The idea is that as Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday shopping season, and the Tuesday after Thanksgiving should mark the commencement of holiday philanthropic efforts. The organizers of #GivingTuesday are using social media to encourage families, communities and companies to participate in a season of caring for the poor. Their hope is that #GivingTuesday, along with Thanksgiving and Black Friday, will become tradition Americans celebrate year after year.
A recent Red Cross study found that four of five Americans say that giving is an important part of their holiday tradition. Approximately 10 percent of total charitable contributions are made on the last two days of the year, according to Charity Navigator, an independent not-for-profit charity evaluator.
“But why not start earlier?” asked Kathy Calvin, CEO of the United Nations Foundation. “We need a powerful opening to the giving season."
Timms agreed, adding, “The giving season has a big finish, but no start.”
Both Calvin and Timms emphasize the transformational power a formal kickoff can have. Calvin worked at AOL TimeWarner when Cyber Monday was launched.
“At the time, online shopping wasn’t all that common,” she said, “and now people are doing it all day every day.” A day devoted to a particular kind of activity, in this case online shopping, changed people's attitudes. She hopes something similar will happen with #GivingTuesday. “Once people have the experience of giving and sharing that giving, it will change philanthropy in a big way.”
Timms suggests that a kickoff to a season of giving is important because it “helps to tell a story about who we are and what our values are.” There is a lot of focus on the problems in education and caring for the poor, Timms said, but America is also the most generous nation in the world.
“Charitable giving is something we celebrate in this country,” he said. A formal kickoff is a way to shine light on this important part of American culture.
Family is where philanthropy begins, said Timms. Paul Morris, of Beaverton, Ore., and his family understand this.
The Morris family have a longstanding holiday-giving tradition. Throughout the year, Morris and his wife and daughter, sister and her family and parents collect money. On the first night of Hanukkah, the family comes together to discuss how to use its donation. Once the family reaches a consensus, an anonymous letter to the chosen organization is written explaining the family's reasoning for making that donation.
The Morrises plan to continue this tradition indefinitely. “We want to teach our children the lessons of charity,” Morris said, “to instill a sense of the importance of giving back.”
But giving as a family has done more than teach the Morris children about helping those in need. “Being community minded has become an important part of our family identity,” said Morris. “Our tradition keeps us close and connected.”
Giving money, like the Morrises do, is just one way for families to take part. Some other #GivingTuesday suggestions for families include cleaning out the closets and donating what is no longer used to programs that set up families in new homes. Families can also contribute by serving together at a local soup kitchen or by donating their favorite healthy foods to a community food pantry.
Giving as a group
#GivingTuesday would also like to encourage groups to come together in philanthropic work. Kathie Borkowski, of Ridgefield Park, N.J., puts together a big party. Borkowski gets details on needy families from local churches and community organizations. When she sends out party invitations, she asks guests to help her make a special holiday for these families by donating wrapped gifts.
On the appointed night, guests meet at Borkowski’s home for holiday cheer. “She gets over 50 people there each year,” said Bob Sienicki, a friend who has attended the party with his wife for more than seven years. “The room where we put the gifts is always overflowing.”
On Christmas Eve, Borkowski drops off the presents to the families. The Sienickis said this annual party is a great way to do good while celebrating the season, but they’ve noticed other benefits.
Most of the people who attend the party are not social friends, said Sienicki, but “they’ve become very special people to us.” The act of giving as a unit connected people who don’t have a lot in common.
“A few years ago, we ran into our neighbors from across the street,” Sienicki said. “We’d always been friendly with them but nothing more." Their shared experience of giving became the foundation for a more substantial relationship.
A suggestion for #GivingTuesday include having a community bake sale or silent auction and giving the proceeds to a designated charity. Another recommendation is to engage the community in a winter coat drive.
But raising money and giving food isn’t the only kind of service participants can offer. One of Timm’s favorite ways to get people involved in #GivingTuesday comes from the Phoenix House, a nonprofit organization that provides treatment for people with substance abuse problems in 10 states. Instead of money, Phoenix House has asked participants of #GivingTuesday to write letters to their patients, words of encouragement and hope that will help them as they struggle to overcome addictions and turn their lives around.
The most meaningful gift we can give our children, friends and loved ones is the commitment to work together to build better communities, according to Kathy Calvin of the UN Foundation.
"#GivingTuesday offers America a new narrative, challenging us to think beyond Black Friday and Cyber Monday and reminding us that the spirit of the holiday giving season should be about community and not just consumerism," she said.