Tuesday, December 10, 2013

#GivingTuesday a Gimmick?

Last week, social media lit up with the hashtag #GivingTuesday. People, charities and other kinds of non-profits spilled thousands of characters talking about the various initiatives that were going on for #GivingTuesday. In my Facebook and Twitter streams, the questions tended to revolve around "What is it?"

Fair question. Unless you are directly involved in one of the participating charities, or else know someone who was involved in organizing a #GivingTuesday effort, you might not necessarily know. Honestly, though, I was a little disheartened by the most frequent response I saw to the question. It was some variation of:
"Oh, probably just a gimmick."
Hm. On the one hand, I understand where this is coming from. The World English Dictionary defines "gimmick" as follows: 
"something designed to attract extra attention, interest, or publicity."
So we had Thanksgiving with all of its trappings, followed by Pre-Black Friday Black Friday, actual Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and now #GivingTuesday? Sounds like a collective effort to ride the proverbial marketing wave to me. Capitalize on institutional 'days of something' all in a row? Use the stark contrast of consumerism to compel people into less self-centric uses of their time and money? Yes and yes.

So #GivingTuesday pretty much sounds like a gimmick to me.  And do you know what I have to say about that?
...Yes ok. And...? 
I have never understood our collective knee-jerk criticism of any effort by the non-profit world to use the vast powers of marketing, advertising, and strategic communications for good. We're perfectly willing to be manipulated into buying new cars, signing up for gym memberships, eating more chikin, trampling six other people to get a TV for 30% off. We say "well, it's their job to try to sell me."

It's the non-profit's job to try and sell you too. On helping people. On being a good neighbor. On a service-oriented worldview. On the idea of doing good for good's sake. Why are we so resistant to being coaxed into these things?

I think it's (1) partly because of selfishness and (2) partly because of a certain degree of semantics.  

(1) I don't think we really want to be sold on the idea that maybe we should be doing more to help others. We don't want to be reminded about how much more willing we are to be a consumer than a giver. We don't want to think that we might possibly be a little lazy when it comes to our fellow man. We view the "ask" as a little judgment. A little hint that we ought to be pushing ourselves further in service to others.

But it's not a judgment. It's just an ask. The judgment is the baggage we bring to the ask. We need to leave the baggage at the curb. We need to be open to being sold on doing good. Seriously. All of us. Many non-profits will tell you that their single greatest difficulty is educating the public. There are so many issues that need addressing we don't even know about--I mean, how many of you ever thought once about employment barriers for military spouses until you met one struggling? 

When we turn a reluctant ear, a deaf ear, to the "ask" as though someone is spewing profanities, we tie the hands of the people with a straightforward and important purpose: awareness. I would love for us to be willing to be pitched on charity needs just like we are willing to be pitched on a new purchase. Maybe the particular pitch is not for us, but who knows what good-doing might appeal to the others listening?

(2) And then there's semantics. And in particular, I'm talking about the non-profit elephant in the room: overhead. There are plenty of people who think that a charity's money should not be spent on things like marketing and advertising, hiring communications experts and the like. They say that the money is better spent on the non-profit's actual goals. 

I think everyone agrees that a non-profit should be a good steward of its resources, that's not in dispute. But here's the problem with being overhead-phobic: See issue (1). Awareness requires outward reach, plain and simple. The broadest possible outward reach yields the greatest possible shot at awareness (bang for your buck, anyone?). And sometimes growth necessitates a willingness to invest in infrastructure, be it people, campaigns, or events. There is actually a great Ted Talk on this point by Dan Palotta called The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong:

He said it way better than I could. My point is, so what if #GivingTuesday is a gimmick? Gimmicks catch people's attention, stick in their minds, and tend to find their way into general conversation. It seems to me gimmicks about good-doing are way better chit chat fodder than the latest commercials for cars or fast food. 

If good gimmicks result in more discussion with people new to a charitable idea: fantastic! If they result in action because some of that conversation reached the right set of ears: even better!  And especially with something like #GivingTuesday, where so many charities are reaching so many connection at once with the common aim of encouraging people to give back, the likelihood of reaching those ears and doing some real, immediate good in charities all across this great nation shoots way up. Now that's a kind of gimmick I can get behind!

Best good gimmick you've heard about lately? Let me know in the comments.

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