A Post-#GivingTuesday Reflection

#GivingTuesday, a creation of the 92nd Street Y in New York City, is intended to bring together individuals, communities and organizations to celebrate generosity and giving. Now in its fourth year, #GivingTuesday takes place on the first Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday. In the US, charities receive about one-third of their donations during the holiday season. With a focus on social media, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season. By drawing attention to the virtue of giving it may increase donations. But for charity to be effective it must consist in more than giving and good intentions.

Donors often give when asked by an organization they know or a person they like. In the US education and religion receive the most charitable funds. People give to their schools and churches. #GivingTuesday may perpetuate the inclination of donors to give to organizations with which they are familiar, but without due consideration to the organization's effectiveness. Social norms praise giving for its own sake, not for care in executing it, and #GivingTuesday does little in the way of encouraging donors to exercise due diligence with respect to giving. With its focus on social media #GivingTuesday directs the attention of donors to organizations with a social media presence.

But charities with the loudest social media presence may not be the most effective at making the world a better place. Social media and crowdfunding can foster less thoughtful giving, encouraging donors to give to charities that have a social media presence and that appeal to the donors' personal whims. In addition, many crowdfunding campaigns do not provide transparency, and when campaign goals are not met, money can be diverted to other "causes," about which the donor has no knowledge, nor any control. Unfortunately, global need is great and charitable dollars are scarce. If money is spent on personal whims or successful crowdfunding opportunities, it will not be available for malaria nets and other vital resources for the global poor.

It is also a little disconcerting that #GivingTuesday follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday, both days that encourage excessive spending and consumerism. The priorities seem skewed. In the best of all possible worlds, people would live and spend modestly so that they could give generously. With that in mind, if one day a year is designated to celebrate charity, generosity and helping others, it ought to precede Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the days for purchasing bigger and better stuff. Although the status quo is familiar, it has the unfortunate implication that charity comes after spending money on one's self, family and friends--none of whom may be in need. #GivingTuesday only begins the charitable season, and there is still time before year's end for donors to ensure that their gifts do the most good they can do.

A new giving movement called "effective altruism" argues that giving should be done on the basis of where dollars will have the greatest impact on reducing suffering. A greatest impact test may or may not coincide with charities that have a loud social media presence (in fact those charities may be wasting money on social media), those about which donors feel deeply, or those that their friends have praised. When need and suffering are great, and donors can significantly reduce it (as they did with the recent Ebola epidemic), they ought to engage in due diligence to ensure that their money is doing the most good it can do. Today, donors can turn to metacharities for guidance. Organizations such as GiveWell and The Life You Can Save conduct research on the most effective charities and use that research to make recommendations about sector choice and specific charitable organizations. Research shows, for example, that global health charities do a good job of reducing suffering and maximizing social good given the available charitable dollars. The most effective charities are not necessarily the same charities that have mastered the art of "the ask" or spend money on marketing and soliciting donations. In the remaining days of 2015, as donors continue to give, due diligence and effective altruism ought to guide their choices.