Aaron Sherinian: How To Make Social Giving Go Viral

Aaron Sherinian: How To Make Social Giving Go Viral

Success of the #GivingTuesday campaign underlines importance of Social Media for charities and nonprofits.

Aaron Sherinian, United Nations Foundation
  • 12 may 2013

In the United States, the Thanksgiving Holiday is followed by two days dedicated to shopping – Black Friday and Cyber Monday (and a cynic might add, every other day leading up to December 25).

But during a time that is supposed to be dedicated to peace and goodwill to men, we wanted to know, could social media create a day dedicated to giving? So last year, a group of people at the 92nd Street Y, the United Nations Foundation, Mashable, Stanford University, Groupon, and leading organizations around the country launched the inaugural #GivingTuesday, dedicating the Tuesday after Thanksgiving to promote charitable giving, volunteerism, and a new national conversation about philanthropy in the new media age.

#GivingTuesday invited people to leverage their social media networks to spark a new conversation about what giving means in our society today.  We asked people, corporations and organizations to ask the question, “What will you give this season?” It allowed people to share openly how they donate their time and money and what causes inspire them to give.  More than simply create positive peer pressure, it helped bring together a community of people who shared advice, experiences, tips and stories about how giving affects their life and how they want engage with retailers, church groups and non-profits as part of that experience.

The response was overwhelming. #GivingTuesday created a digital dialogue with more than 50 million people worldwide; inspired participation from more than 2,500 charities, volunteer organizations, corporations, community centers and foundations; and increased donations for many nonprofits. Most importantly, Blackbaud, which processes online donations for thousands of charities, reported a 53 percent increase in charitable donations compared with the Tuesday from the year prior.


As the team gets ready for 2013’s #GivingTuesday on December 3, we are taking a hard look at some of the lessons that emerged from this experiment that can be applied to other social good initiatives.


  1. Put Digital at the Center.  Social media was at the heart of the first #GivingTuesday movement, allowing a broad group of people and groups to get involved and to engage their networks.  It wasn’t an afterthought or an accessory, but was a key part of the way to talk about giving.  The hashtag in #GivingTuesday’s name was more than a nod to social media; it was a call to help people think about something with an age-old history in a new age way of defining communities.
  2. Social Media Drives Offline Actions.  Findings from the recent study, Digital Persuasion: How Social Media Motivates Action and Drives Support for Causes, found that when individuals engage with a cause via social media, 68 percent donated money, 52 percent gave personal items or food, and 43 percent attended or participated in an event.  We saw this connection and correlation during #GivingTuesday 2012 and expect a similar, even bigger, connection between online and in-person activation this year.
  3. Social Media Empowers People to Personalize and Own a Movement.  People want to get involved with causes on their terms. While organizations don’t always want to adopt a new brand, they are open to connecting their brand to a broader movement. #GivingTuesday organizers didn’t set out to control the message or dictate how to participate. We worked to create platforms – for example, a website with information and resources – that allowed partners to talk about their interests and to participate in a way that made sense for them.  When they put social media tools about giving on their individual websites or blogs, it was a way for them to personalize not only their giving, but the ways they interacted with the brands and the organizations themselves.
  4. Influencers Matter.  Most (65 percent) individuals who support causes online, hear about them from their friends and family on social media. (source: Digital Persuasion)  #GivingTuesday gave toolkits to people who wanted to be “Social Media Ambassadors,” empowering them to spread the word to their networks. Early on, we also recruited well-respected voices to join and promote the movement.
  5. Incentives make a difference.  People like incentives. #GivingTuesday provides a platform for organizations, whether nonprofit or corporate, to highlight the good they do.  Last year, #GivingTuesday also started a community page that provides points to groups and individuals for sharing content with their social media networks.

The take-away message that we continue to embrace: #GivingTuesday, like other movements that have social media at their core, don’t rely on strength that comes come from the top, but from the grassroots movement that fuels it, and that it moves forward.

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