Do We Need Consumerism to Have Philanthropy?


A recent piece in The Atlantic, Is For-Profit the Future of Non-Profit?, initially caught my eye because of its provocative title. As I started reading, it kept my attention with its message of individuals criticizing and downplaying the importance of the nonprofit sector.

The piece profiles a few people who believe that philanthropy is most effective when folded into consumerism. People behind companies like PRODUCT (RED) and FEED believe that human nature is to want to shop, not to donate. So if we want to get the most amount of money from people, we must go to the source of what they do the most often – shop.

What this piece illustrates, and I agree with, is that this argument and point of view cheapens the importance of philanthropy. The third sector, just like the for-profit sector or the government sector, has a place in our society and has its own successes and challenges. Just because it doesn’t look like the traditional big business money exchange doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have an important role in the lives of many. I can’t help but wonder if these people have ever made a large gift to a nonprofit or even understand what fundraising means. By making these sort of bold statements, they are undermining the value that philanthropy has – not just for the nonprofit or the people served by the nonprofit, but also for the donors themselves.

“Philanthropy should imply a categorically different relationship with money than the one we have a consumers: something we embark on because we want to participate in a larger goal of improving the world and linking our values, histories, and resources with the needs of other people.” 

The feeling a donor gets when they give a donation is a completely different one than when a consumer buys a good. The donor gets to be part of the greater good and she gets to know she is making a difference in the lives of others who need her. That kind of feeling can’t be replicated by buying a shirt. That kind of feeling is because of the ripple effect that her money will make, ultimately changing the world.


Why #GivingTuesday Is Important


Since you’re reading my blog, you probably already know what #GivingTuesday is. But in case you live under a rock (or are new here – welcome!), #GivingTuesday is a response to the consumerism of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday – a way to launch the upcoming giving season and celebrate the nonprofit organizations that make the world go ’round. You can learn more at the #GivingTuesday website here.

There have been a crop of critics to the #GivingTuesday movement, and they are actually coming from inside the philanthropic sector. This one, an opinion piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, is what finally caused me to write this post. The author’s post argues that there is no concrete evidence that #GivingTuesday actually increases giving. In actuality, although it might spur people to give, it might mean that they won’t give their gift another time of year. He believes that because of this, #GivingTuesday won’t “work.”

The author is being too short-sighted in determining what success would look like for #GivingTuesday. You can even look to the mission of #GivingTuesday to explain this:

#GivingTuesday™ is a campaign to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support nonprofit organizations.

While of course it would be good, I see nothing in that statement about increasing donations.

In fact, I would argue that the best part about #GivingTuesday is that the day’s conversation is about nonprofits, donations, and the change we wish to see in the world. While I whole heartedly believe in the nonprofit sector, I don’t believe that it has the respect it deserves amongst general society. The words philanthropy and donation simply aren’t uttered enough in the public eye. #GivingTuesday starts a global conversation about these important topics – it brings nonprofit organizations and philanthropy to the forefront – something that doesn’t happen often enough. The fact that we are talking about it at all is a win.

The author of that post said it himself:

I don’t think it will work. That’s not to say that I don’t think the idea will catch on. I think we’ll see a huge number of tweets and
Instagrams on Giving Tuesday. And I expect that the effort will grow each year. What I don’t think it will do is materially affect giving in any positive way.

I’d challenge him to think outside the box of what “affect giving” might mean.


Treading Water in a Sea of Smarties

This past Saturday I participated in NGen: Moving Nonprofit Leaders from Next to Now, the pre-conference session to the Independent Sector conference. The NGen program’s goal is to “enhance the visibility, leadership capacity and professional networks of emerging leaders under age 40.”

If you don’t know what Independent Sector is, I strongly encourage you to visit their website and learn more. It’s an amazing organization that’s working to bridge the conversations that nonprofit organizations and philanthropic entities are having. We must have a larger, more inclusive conversation about what’s going on in the charitable sector.

I signed up to go because the conference was in San Francisco this year and I’m interested in what Independent Sector is doing. What I didn’t expect was how many amazing, intelligent, insightful people I would meet there. There were nonprofit rockstars from around the country sitting at each table discussing sector wide issues, potential solutions, and having incredibly provocative conversations around these issues.

I have to admit I was caught off guard. I’ve always admired this high level thinking, and have thought about it once in a while, but to be able to work for an organization that is advancing these ideals has never been something that’s within my reach. And while I consider myself to be a relatively well versed nonprofit staffer, being surrounded by all these smarty pants was intimidating!

As I listened to what all of them had to say, I soaked up their knowledge and passion, and didn’t pressure myself to have the perfect response or even the need to keep the conversation going. I have much to learn in my time in this sector, and there’s no rush. I just feel fortunate I was able to be in the company of such inspiring people – and one day, I hope to become one of them.