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Sarah K. Nathan, Published December 02 2013

Letter: A day to give, not to shop

Today is Giving Tuesday, a philanthropic movement initiated last year by a coalition of national nonprofit organizations. Just five days after our national holiday of giving thanks, Giving Tuesday combats the consumerism that follows. Now in its second year, Giving Tuesday is gaining momentum as nonprofits large and small employ social media to generate charitable contributions.

But as a national movement, the day risks co-option by the very mass consumerism it’s designed to contest. Nonprofits will use the same kinds of clever marketing, largely through social networking tools, that retail uses to sell its products. By tying Giving Tuesday to the shopping season, philanthropy becomes a new avenue for impulsive consumerism. It reduces giving to just another transaction, in a long line of transactions that begins on Black Friday and continues through Cyber Monday.

Giving Tuesday need not become a day of philanthropic consumption. Giving today, or any day, can transform the lives of both givers and receivers. Transformational giving requires careful consideration beyond the simple click of a button. Donors interested in transformational giving must engage in reflection, must resist the urge to “buy” the resulting “warm glow.”

Throughout human history, society’s thought leaders have presented various approaches to such reflective giving. For example, Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher, argued that the highest level of giving was to form a partnership with or give someone a loan. In this kind of giving, he believed, the giver and recipient would be in relationship with each other and the lives of both would be improved. No intermediary nonprofit organization necessary.

Seven centuries later, capitalist Andrew Carnegie put forward what he believed to be the best uses of philanthropy in his now famous treatise “The Gospel of Wealth.” In the essay, Carnegie reasoned that founding a university and funding free public libraries were the best forms of philanthropy, reflecting the important role education played in his own life.

One does not need to publish an epistle on the best philanthropy. The beauty of the nonprofit sector today is the sheer variety of organizations that enhance individuals and build community life. Upon thoughtful contemplation, everyone can find an organization to support that matches one’s values.

Before clicking the “give now” button today, take a few minutes to reflect and answer the questions posed by Aristotle: Is your donation the right gift, at the right time, given in the right way and for the right reason? The answers to these questions differentiate a gift that is simply transactional from a gift that transforms the giver and receiver.

Nathan is assistant professor of nonprofit management and philanthropy at Bay Path College in Longmeadow, Mass. She grew up in Fargo and is a graduate of Shanley High School and Concordia College.