The 260th Giving Tuesday of the year

What the pandemic revealed about America's misguided reliance on charity

A donation.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Today is Giving Tuesday. Or perhaps more accurately, it is roughly the 260th Giving Tuesday of the year. Between the coronavirus pandemic, the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, and the election season, Americans have been opening their wallets for months now in order to help friends, neighbors, and strangers — which, of course, makes a single day dedicated to giving seem almost comically meager. Giving Tuesday? Really, where have you been?

In previous years the day might have stood as a reminder that this season is not exclusively about the accumulation of discounted stuff; coming at the end of a chain of named shopping days (Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday), it guilted you into donating whatever you had left over from the weekend's doorbusters. This year, though, Giving Tuesday isn't so much an obligatory reminder to donate as it is a spotlight on the limits of philanthropy in the face of crisis.

America has always been notable for its charity. We are often considered the most generous nation in the world, with individuals, foundations, and corporations giving a total of $450 billion to U.S. charities in 2019. The reputation dates back more than a century, when, in 1831, Alexis Charles-Henri de Tocqueville said he had noticed "a hundred instances in which [Americans] hardly ever failed to lend a faithful support to one another." It's a legacy that has extended into this time of upheaval: 64 percent of Americans say they've sent financial aid to friends, family, or a nonprofit since the pandemic began, according to one study in late September. Among millennials, that number was as high as three in four.

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But the system had always been fundamentally flawed, and Giving Tuesday this year shines a light on those cracks. As Cambridge University Press' Business History Review explains, American lawmakers have long been friendly to philanthropists "lest the government find itself having to pay for programs philanthropy had previously funded voluntarily, out of the donors' own pockets." That is to say, encouraging a system of robust philanthropy in the U.S. — via tax breaks and other incentives — has let the government off the hook for providing major social and financial safety nets, since nonprofits and individual donors could sweep in nimbly to do the work instead.

Which might have been enough during isolated instances of crisis … but it unravels entirely in the face of a catastrophe, when it's needed most. "Previous natural disasters happened somewhere, and people somewhere else gave to them," Tim Cadogan, the chief executive of GoFundMe, told The New York Times. "[The COVID-19 pandemic] is a natural disaster that is affecting everyone."

But it's affecting everyone differently. While the pandemic has devastated low-income workers, higher earners are the likeliest donors on Tuesday due to savings accounts flush with cash that's been saved during quarantine. "A lot of the money that well-off people aren't spending right now is money that lower-paid people [in industries like hospitality, child care, and restaurants] would normally receive as income," The Atlantic reported in September, further citing a study that found that reduced outflow from the country's top 25 percent of earners potentially resulted in an overall drop-off in spending of 57 percent. In the early days of the pandemic, for example, social media was flooded with various emergency funds begging for donations to help out-of-work restaurant employees, street vendors, and theater workers — an opportunity for higher and remote wage earners to voluntarily balance out their sudden drop in spending (and one, clearly, that was not actually taken by enough people to be sufficient).

Such a system can leave individuals who aren't billionaires feeling like they're using their money to plug the holes in the bottom of the Titanic — if the Titanic had run over a gargantuan cheese grater instead of an iceberg. Local institutions and restaurants have pivoted to selling merch to loyal customers in a frantic attempt to keep themselves from going out of business. Many Americans also got involved in mutual aid networks in their neighborhoods, helping overburdened neighbors with groceries, child care, and more. Then, after the police killing of George Floyd, the need for donations grew even greater: there were calls to donate to help communities of color, and to bail out protesters. Donations got political too as November approached: ActBlue, the donation platform for Democrats and other progressive groups, saw 6.8 million donors make a total of $1.5 billion in donations, with the average of $47 per donation in the months leading up to the presidential election; the GOP's equivalent small-donor platform, WinRed, which launched last year, raised over $620 million in the third quarter.

But while it's right to feel proud of fellow Americans rising to the occasion of the pandemic and social justice, it's easy to forget this shouldn't be relied upon to be voluntary. "We can be so moved by the way people come together to overcome hardship that we lose sight of the fact that many of these hardships should not exist at all," The New Yorker put it succinctly. Rallying to support out-of-work Americans only highlights that our government has repeatedly failed to come up with a long-term strategy for unemployment, even as 40 million people potentially face eviction in the weeks following Christmas this year. The crushing number of GoFundMe campaigns to "save" restaurants, bars, fitness studios, and bookstores illustrates how completely the government has forsaken small business. And while mutual aid networks have restored my faith in humanity over the past several months, such organizations only arise from the numerous community needs that continue to go unmet by our leadership.

That's not to say you shouldn't give today because it isn't your responsibility — to the contrary, especially if you count yourself among the Americans who've seen your savings actually expand in recent months. While charities are working to help struggling Americans in lieu of real government support, they're also trying to stay afloat themselves in a careful balancing act. Some nonprofits count on upwards of 25 percent of their annual donations coming from Giving Tuesday and the adjacent weeks, too. The need is very much real, even if it's frustrating that it exists at all.

Giving Tuesday in 2020 will do more than cancel out your guilty Black Friday purchases. It very well may be what makes or breaks your local nonprofits and small businesses. But while your $5 here and $20 there might lift the load on struggling organizations, don't forget who — even in the midst of this pandemic — placed the burden there.

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