Putting Jewish Values Back into GivingTuesday

By Karen Radkowsky

Last week saw the most profitable GivingTuesday to date, with over $2.47 billion raised in a single day in the United States alone – a 25% increase over 2019, according to the GivingTuesday Data Commons.

This is particularly notable given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the current U.S. unemployment rate to be nearly twice as high as a year ago (6.7% vs. 3.5%). Moreover, this was the first year in which GivingTuesday actually held two campaigns. GivingTuesdayNow, held on May 5th as an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis, raised more than $503 million in just the United States.

While applauding this financial success, I would contend that GivingTuesday has lost a good deal of its original purpose and meaning – as an expression of gratitude (hodaya) and lovingkindness (chesed) – in the American Jewish community. And what could be more fitting than for our community to lead the charge to return GivingTuesday to its original essence and expand the timeframe to encompass Thanksgiving?

Gratitude is perhaps the most elemental Jewish value. The Hebrew word for Jew, Yehudi, shares the same etymological root as the word for thanksgiving, hodaya. Moreover, many observant Jews begin their day with the prayer, Modeh Ani, which literally means “I give thanks” in Hebrew.

As we learn in the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 1:2, chesed is a foundational pillar of Judaism: “On three things the world stands: on the Torah, on the service and on acts of lovingkindness.” Jewish communities were historically organized around the provision of chesed. As the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explained in his essay, The Kindness of Strangers, “shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, assistance to the poor, visiting the sick, comforting mourners and providing a dignified burial for all – became constitutive of Jewish life.”

GivingTuesday was created in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y – an organization with Jewish roots – in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, as “a day that encourages people to do good.” Today it is run as an independent organization and is “a global movement that inspires hundreds of millions of people to give, collaborate, and celebrate generosity.”

Interestingly, GivingTuesday’s purpose statement clearly espouses the core Jewish values of gratitude and lovingkindness: “Whether it’s making someone smile, helping a neighbor or stranger out, showing up for an issue or people we care about, or giving some of what we have to those who need our help, every act of generosity counts, and everyone has something to give.”

Yet, over the years, in the American Jewish community, GivingTuesday has largely gone from being a day for giving thanks and doing good to rote requests for funds. Like many of you, I awoke last Tuesday morning to an overwhelming number of requests for GivingTuesday donations in my inbox. While GivingTuesday offers organizations an opportunity to raise unrestricted funds, only a small portion of the solicitations received provided me with a motivating reason to give beyond just helping their organization meet its fundraising goal.

What stood out – and motivated me to give – were the solicitations from friends and colleagues who spoke with passion about why a particular organization and its mission was personally meaningful to them. They expressed gratitude for the important work its professional and volunteers do, and then asked me to consider joining them in lending support.

Also largely missing from my inbox and Facebook feed were opportunities from American Jewish organizations to do good on GivingTuesday itself – by taking on a simple act of lovingkindness or service, like giving blood, delivering meals, donating canned goods to a food pantry, or calling individuals who are isolated due to COVID-19. With few exceptions, most of the service programs I found that were run by Jewish organizations were scheduled to take place on Thanksgiving or Chanukah, rather than GivingTuesday.

Imagine how much more meaningful and impactful GivingTuesday could be if the opportunities to express our appreciation for the organizations and individuals doing holy work in our communities, and to support those in need, were spread across an entire week – rather than being compressed into a single day. And kicking off a Giving Week on the eve of Thanksgiving, a holiday that also celebrates the values of gratitude and lovingkindness, would be most appropriate.

While the official timing of GivingTuesday is unlikely to change, there is no reason why the Jewish community can’t get a head start giving thanks and doing good, spreading the values of gratitude (hodaya) and lovingkindness (chesed) beginning on Thanksgiving eve.

Karen Radkowsky is the founder and CEO of Impact:NPO, specializing in research, measurement and brand positioning designed to help nonprofits achieve greater impact.