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Simple Gifts

With the sensory overload of the holidays in full swing, I was heartened by the success this week of #GivingTuesday, a national day to encourage charitable giving at the start of the holiday season. The initiative began last year when its founder, Henry Timms, Interim Executive Director of NYC’s 92nd Street Y, asked a simple question: “On the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, could we trigger a new day of giving after two days of getting?”

What struck me as refreshing about Timms’ approach was the selfless way in which he set up #GivingTuesday not to be of primary benefit to the 92nd Street Y — a nonprofit organization that relies on philanthropic contributions — but to raise consciousness generally of the societal benefits of charitable activities. The 92nd Street Y has even been careful to brand its involvement in a self-effacing way, with only a small logo at the bottom of #GivingTuesday webpages. By focusing its energies on helping others, the 92nd Street Y is “walking the walk” for the #GivingTuesday core value of giving, rather than getting.

I have often wondered whether nonprofit arts and culture organizations, in spite of inexorable pressure to generate philanthropic support, would be better served in the long run by pleading a little less often for direct contributions and a little more on behalf of others in the communities they serve. In his book Give and Take, Wharton organizational psychology professor Adam Grant contends that “most people operate as either TakersMatchers, or Givers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.” Grant’s premise is that Givers (assuming they figure out how to avoid being exploited) are invariably more successful than Takers or Matchers. According to the New York Times, Grant’s research also demonstrates that “helping is not…a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”

So, if “nice guys can finish first” by focusing on service to others, the question is whether nonprofit groups can, too.  If charitable organizations act collectively to raise awareness of the needs of others and encourage contributions that may go elsewhere, would they raise more funds than they can by pushing for end-of-year direct contributions?

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