The season has arrived when businesses dazzle Americans with enticing ads designed to goad us into buying lots of merchandise we don’t need, won’t use in six months, and (in the case of clothes) probably won’t wear (if we even still fit into them) at this time next year. First up is Black Friday. This is followed immediately by the “warm and fuzzies”-inducing Small Business Saturday, when we seek to support local artists and merchants so we can keep our hard-earned dollars in our respective communities. Then comes Cyber Monday when, yet again, we’re lured into buying more dreck, suddenly finding ourselves in need of items that didn’t even make the Black Friday cut.
And finally, when we’re dizzy from all the overspending and with our credit cards maxed out, we’ve reached Giving Tuesday, that holiday when the nonprofits come out of the woodwork, seeking donations, tugging on our heartstrings with sad stories – and miraculous feel-good tales of conversion – which “your support helps make possible.”
As the founder of a nonprofit that depends on the goodwill and generosity of individuals and corporate sponsors, I have a secret: most nonprofits bristle when it comes to Giving Tuesday. Yes, it may be a day designated during the holiday season for people to give to nonprofits, but perhaps surprising to many of us, is that it can actually hurt, not help, your favorite causes.
Pausing here for a moment, what does this sequence of “special days” really say about our society’s values and us? Our first priority is to spend at the big stores. We do the same thing the next day, but this time at small independently owned businesses. Then we wait a day and buy even more junk online, a trend that increases with each year. Only after this shop-a-thon, with whatever leftover nickels and dimes we can scrounge from our couch’s cushions, do we remember the nonprofit or cause of our choice.
Most nonprofits won’t admit – at least publicly – that Giving Tuesday puts tremendous pressure on them (especially small, hyper-local ones) to spend time, money, and precious resources they simply don’t have, in hopes of some ephemeral visibility, and if they’re lucky, a donation. Although well-intentioned, Giving Tuesday inadvertently creates a destructive popularity contest among nonprofits, pitting the billion-dollar brand name behemoths (with their big marketing teams and fundraising consultants, and all manner of departments — and thus more overhead to eat away at our donations) against the smaller, leaner nonprofits with no marketing budget — but often outsized impact — that are doing good right in our own backyard. It forces small nonprofits to divert time to marketing and fundraising, only to inevitably be outspent, outseen, and out-donated to by larger institutional counterparts. Instead of putting energy toward fulfilling their respective missions, and thus increasing impact in the community, nonprofits are busy vying for eyeballs and greenbacks.
This year, in light of the pandemic (which has prompted many of us to recalibrate the nature of our relationships – to our family, friends, and society), let’s consider taking a slightly different approach, and reflect on the order and nature of these Days of Spending, the meaning of giving, and the role of our community’s nonprofits in our lives. Perhaps, we can spend a little less on things this Black Friday through Cyber Monday, and instead think about how we can impact our community.
Small nonprofits often make a disproportionately large impact relative to their budget. You may or may not know them, but they’re entrenched in the community, sleeves rolled up, doing more with less. Instead of giving to large institutions – that no doubt do good – but are already flush with resources, let’s consider how we can support our hyper-local nonprofits. Let’s help advance the causes we care about by making regular, meaningful contributions to (and perhaps even volunteering with) our local nonprofits, and spending less on material items this year. Let’s enable them to spend less on marketing and fundraising, and more time, effort, and resources aiding the community in a way that resonates with us. Our hearts, our bank accounts, and our communities will all be better off.
Aaron Fisher is the Founder and CEO of Atlanta Rescue Dog Cafe, a humane education nonprofit based in Atlanta, GA.