What Giving Tuesday Says About Movement Building. Q&A with Asha Curran

Giving Tuesday was launched in 2012 on the Tuesday after American Thanksgiving, as an annual celebration of generosity in all its forms. It has grown rapidly into a global grass roots movement, drawing together people around the world who share a love of serving their fellow humans with their time, expertise and money. Asha Curran has been involved in Giving Tuesday from the start, helping her then boss, Henry Timms, launch the idea. Now she is the CEO. For Driving Change, Matthew Bishop – another member of the launch team – asked Asha to reflect on what lessons have been learned over the past 8 years, including about how to engage people in working for a better world. 

 

 

Driving Change (DC): Back in 2012, none of us would have believed that Giving Tuesday would have the kind of traction and generate the kind of enthusiasm that it has done. Could you give us a sense of how it has grown over the past few years? And what you are hoping for on this year’s Giving Tuesday?

 

Asha Curran (AC): Thanks for having me, Matthew, you were certainly one of those original architects. Back in those days, I don’t think any of us could possibly have expected what we’ve seen now. My very favorite thing about Giving Tuesday is that all the best things about it, or at least most of them, arose organically from the community itself. They’re not things that happened in some kind of traditional top down, we put them out into the world fashion. So that’s particularly inspiring. 

 

We launched the day with the relatively simple idea of a date to do good, to give back, following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Since then, we have grown into a global, year round generosity movement. In the beginning, we thought about it as a day, albeit with some work leading up to it, and some work after it. Now we really think about it as year-round, with one big day of celebration. So that’s what we’re looking forward to on December 1.

 

We now have official movements in 75 countries, every corner of the world, working in hundreds of local communities, along with additional hundreds of coalitions that are based on a cause or cultural identity. So many different kinds of people and so many different kinds of contexts that they’re operating in, giving in. Every year I never really know what to expect on Giving Tuesday. There are always big surprises and organic inventions: new sub movements like Giving Tuesday Kids or Giving Tuesday Military. Obviously this year is very different. The two keywords, I just learned this this week, that are most closely associated with the use of Giving Tuesday this year, unlike in previous years, are “community” and “justice”. 

 

This year a lot of people are using Giving Tuesday to forge stronger bonds in their communities. People feel like the need is very desperate for that right now. Likewise using Giving Tuesday as a platform to accelerate and uplift efforts to promote equity and justice. So I’m thrilled to see those developments. And, and, you know, the same kind of things are happening all around the world. So I I have high hopes for levels of generosity.

 

DC: For those that aren’t familiar with how Giving Tuesday works, what actually is the ask for someone who wants to be involved?

 

AC: The basic premise behind Giving Tuesday is that everyone everywhere has something to give. We want to reclaim the word philanthropy from being the province of either a kind of institution or of people who have lots and lots and lots of capital, and get back to its original meaning, love of humanity. Anybody can express generosity in that way and be a philanthropist. It’s really about grassroots giving, rather than big dollar giving, and about celebrating the capacity of each and every one of us to make a positive impact on the world.

 

DC: Some long term data suggests that giving as a mass activity has been in decline in some parts of the world, including America, in part because there’s been historically a high association with religion, and as religion has played less of a formal part in life, so the habits of giving have maybe gone into decline. Do you think that Giving Tuesday can help to turn that around at all?

 

AC: I know that Giving Tuesday is immune, if you will, from those kind of dips. On Giving Tuesday, giving spikes all the time, whether overall giving is down or up as a percentage of GDP. 

 

I think there’s also a real myth in the sector that that people get tired of giving: the infamous donor fatigue. Actually, we see no indication that they actually do get tired of giving. And I remember 2016, when there was a series of natural and unnatural disasters, school shootings, hurricanes and elections and people just gave over and over and over again. We believe that if people are not giving, it’s because there’s been a failure to engage them correctly. 

 

The pandemic is really fascinating, because giving is actually up, having been down in the first quarter. before the pandemic started. Then it experienced a huge spike after that. Now the question is going to be what happens in q3, and q4, as the weariness and the never-ending-ness of what’s happening seems to be sinking in. From our vantage point, people are just being really high energy in terms of caring for their neighbors and caring for their communities, and really trying to help those who are falling through the cracks and trying to stop that happening. 

 

When there is a time of high uncertainty, when people feel very precarious, whether it’s socially or economically, whether it’s caused by fear or anxiety, all of which are in very much in play right now, giving is actually a coping mechanism for anxiety, a coping mechanism for uncertainty. People want to be generous because it gives them a sense of agency and control. It gives them a sense of being able to address some of the things that are happening. 

 

So I think while there’s sort of a misconception that it might be rude or insensitive to ask somebody for support, because they might be feeling economically uncertain. It’s actually a generous act to give somebody the opportunity to be generous. We always go into Giving Tuesday thinking people are looking for ways to be generous, looking for ideas; our job is just to help them find those ways and connect those dots. I don’t think that’s any less true now. In fact, it’s probably more true.

 

DC: There’s a lot of conversation about rebuilding after COVID and whether this is an opportunity to get people more engaged in the kind of activities that you’re helping. A lot of people have become quite disillusioned about getting involved in politics, getting involved in public service, in general. Does giving offer a different track? Is the progress of Giving Tuesday telling us anything about how we could get people more involved in public service, in politics and some of those other social justice causes that you alluded to earlier? 

 

AC: I don’t think that is the case with politics – but more broadly, civic participation and civic engagement, absolutely. Giving is as important a metric of civic participation as voting is, and it doesn’t get any attention for being that. And there seems to be zero discussion of generosity and justice. In my mind, you can’t have one without the other. Generosity is not a substitute for justice. But I don’t think you can have a just society that does not have generosity as a foundational value. 

 

When I think about this idea of building back, or rebuilding, I do think that we have a huge opportunity. In the situation we are in now, things are breaking down, becoming broken right in front of our eyes. Or there is a revealing of what was broken already. Because those things were broken, the minute disaster struck, people just fell right into the chasm. I think we do have an opportunity to build back, seizing on this idea that generosity should be the bedrock of whatever we’re building back toward. If we do that then we have a chance of thriving and healthy and resilient and just society.

 

DC: Giving Tuesday began as an American focused initiative. Yet it has caught on, to varying degrees, around the world. You mentioned 70 countries. What explains this? Is this an American idea catching on everywhere, and is it taking on local features as it spreads around the world?

 

AC: I feel a little sheepish about it, you know. I feel like we should have understood right in the beginning that generosity is a universal value. It is expressed in different ways in every culture, by every person on the face of the earth – or at least, the opportunity is there to express it. So the fact that Giving Tuesday started crossing borders was a big turning point for me, a big revelation. We stopped using the Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday messaging years ago, because it just doesn’t resonate with so many of the countries that Giving Tuesday is in now. 

 

And it is emphatically not an American export. Other countries don’t want to just adopt an American idea. They want an idea that they can fully co own and manifest in a completely authentic way to that place, that region, that identity. That’s why it’s worked, right? Because it’s not franchise. We didn’t create this thing and then say, “Okay, Portugal, Tanzania, Russia, Spain, Chile, you can use Giving Tuesday. here’s the brand guidelines and here’s the messaging, don’t stray from this.”

 

It wasn’t that model at all. We said, “Take it, change it, change the name, change the logo.” All of that. That’s what explains the universality of it, and why countries have taken it and made it their own. Yet at the same time, it’s so amazing that there is a really unified vision to it. Everybody feels like they’re working toward the same goal, but in their own completely unique ways.

 

DC: A couple of organizational and personal questions, because one of the aims of Driving Change is to inspire public service by highlighting what drives people to do good work and the organizations they work in. Give us a sense of what the Giving Tuesday organization that you are CEO of is like? Is it a cast of thousands, or still a small operation, like I remember it?

 

AC: So we were born at the 92nd St Y, which is a big cultural institution in New York. Big, big budget, very, very prestigious, very well known. Over the years that I was there, I worked on Giving Tuesday and a number of other projects. In the last few years, it became obvious that Giving Tuesday had become its own very large ecosystem, and that it needed to be resourced and staffed full time, as its own thing. With the collaboration of the 92nd St Y’s board of directors and executive team, we managed to spin it out into its own independent entity. We are now a independent 501c3 with a staff of 25. 

 

Well, a paid staff of 25, plus a network of leadership around the world that numbers in the hundreds. So I never know quite how to describe the size of our team. We call ourselves the “nucleus organization”. I think that is actually a really compelling and, as far as I can tell, unique way of structuring an organization-slash-movement. A nucleus is the center, that holds the DNA of an organism, but has many other associated component parts that make it what it is. So we at the center exist to set a broader vision, to support the network of leaders, to facilitate and connect, to set a culture for the movement that is very open and transparent, and interconnected, and interdependent – which is why the network shares ideas and innovations, and then replicates them globally. 

 

So it’s certainly not a traditional organization. But we do have our own little nonprofit. We were always virtual, because we have a globally distributed staff.

 

DC: You might be described in a way as a WhatsApp organization?

 

AC: Literally that. People ask me how these global leaders are connected – and they are literally connected on WhatsApp. The global movement is right here on my phone – and they talk all day, every day, especially this time of year, sharing a lot of ideas. But it’s really a year-round enterprise: many of them would describe Giving Tuesday as the strategy by which they pursue more generosity in their communities.

 

DC: What motivated you to get involved in this work and what drives you now?

 

AC: Well, I wasn’t really motivated: I was more ordered by Henry [Timms] to get involved in the work. He was my boss, and he told me to get involved in it. So I did. 

 

But after Henry became CEO of 92Y and had to step largely away from the day to day work of Giving Tuesday, that’s when I took the reins. But in those early years, we did imagine that Giving Tuesday might be like Cyber Monday, created by a group of people inside an institution and then let go to be a free floating idea that is usable by people for whatever purposes they feel like – in that example, making money. And that’s fine. But Cyber Monday will never be more nor less than it is.

 

What we found is that having this core, the center of this movement, and really being very intentional about building the network, the Leadership Network, as a community, not as just a few hundred actors acting alone in their silos, was having particularly impactful effects. For the foreseeable future, there is a case for it having a center of gravity and not floating away into the ether as just a hashtag, though that would live on, for sure, and people would do amazing things with it. This structure felt like it would do the most good for the world.

 

DC: One lesson from Giving Tuesday is that you can’t peer very far into the future and predict how things will turn out. But I’m going to ask you to look forward five years, and tell us what success for Giving Tuesday look like.

 

AC: I think Giving Tuesday is already successful in the sense that $2 billion being donated is a big deal. That’s great. But I think that it is a success, more than that, because it has helped to bring forward and cultivate leaders – the leaders of social change of the next few years are being honed by being part of this community and learning from each other. As a sector, and even beyond the non-profit sector, we need models of collaboration and peer learning, and openness and transparency. In that regard, I think that Giving Tuesday already is a big success. 

 

When I look forward to the next few years, I really hope that we can begin to intersect more with other movements. I’m fascinated by movements and about the characteristics that they share, and the things that they don’t share, and what makes a movement. And what gives it sustainability and what doesn’t make a movement last but fells it from the inside. The more that movements can share learnings with each other, in the same way our leaders share learnings with each other, the better, more sustainable, more impactful movements there will be. 

 

We also need to learn how to integrate the work of movements and institutions, since neither of those things is going away. I don’t know that we’ve found a way to make them exist in complete harmony yet.

 

DC: So what is the biggest challenge that you face?

 

AC: The biggest challenge I face is in articulating why I think distributed leadership and distributed models are so powerful, and people really should be paying a lot more attention to them.

 

DC: This is a model of leadership that could be applied in a lot of other places?

 

AC: In almost every type of cause sector, in global development – in so many ways, yes. And this belief that we have that people in communities know what those communities need: all of our leadership is hyper local. It’s a global network and a global community. But every region, every place is being led by somebody there – somebody who knows and loves that community, and knows how generosity needs to manifest there. 

 

That’s a very different model than coming in from the outside knowing how the work should be done, trying to replicate it in every single place in a way that is very centralized in its decision making. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned there, too.

 

DC: That’s not the obvious message for a day that’s all about giving. But it is a powerful message, especially at a time when the world is facing a lot of challenges from leaders whose models are anything but distributed and shared and co-creative. Thank you very much for talking with Driving Change.

 

NB: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

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