The instinct to give to others in need has an eternal quality to it, but the form can easily change. The #GivingTuesday campaign, for example, which encourages people to donate after they shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, raised $116 million last year for thousands of causes – and that’s just four years after the campaign started. Another phenomenon are “giving circles,” or small groups of individuals coming together to pool small sums and then collectively deciding where to donate the money.
These new forms of grass-roots generosity reflect the democratizing of giving. They go beyond a reliance on foundations and big charities to allow individuals to connect with each other, see the results of their giving, and nurture the giving instinct for all. “If we want the train of generosity to get to our destination, we cannot expect just a few people to fuel it,” writes University of Arkansas professor Patricia Snell Herzog, coauthor of a new book, “American Generosity: Who Gives and Why.”
Young people, who are often distrustful of big institutions yet at ease with connecting online with strangers, are more likely to enjoy this participatory philanthropy. They do not want to simply write a check to a cause without knowing much about it. Giving must be more intimate and on-demand, like hailing an Uber ride or reserving a room on Airbnb.
“Social networks are beginning to transform the way that individual philanthropists collaborate with one another,” writes Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. “The matchmaking power of the Web creates networks of donors who would otherwise have no way of finding one another.” She adds that the world’s social problems are so complex and severe that the ways of giving demand innovation.
At Thanksgiving, it is worth noting how the forms of giving have changed, and continue to change. Like the holiday, giving is becoming more informal and community oriented. Givers are becoming more connected, forming bonds that reinforce an understanding of working together for the common good.
Big donors get much of the publicity, but it is the small givers who still donate the most in the United States. In this giving season, they deserve more recognition, especially as they find new ways to lift others.