Season of Giving

When the calendar flips past Thanksgiving, that means two things: leftover turkey sandwiches and a month of hyper-saturated, over-the-top Christmas commercialization.  Yesterday, CNN reported that between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, U.S. consumers generated $59 billion in revenue.

“Black Friday” may be welcomed by accountants who see their corporations climb into the black, but it has become something of a “black eye” for American culture.  In recent years, employers have been expecting even more from their employees to capitalize on profits.  This year, Walmart made headlines by demanding that their workers give up vacation time to prepare for 8pm openings on Thanksgiving night.  Employees at big-box stores are increasingly put at risk of violence by customers, as well.  In Florida, two people were shot outside a Walmart in a dispute over a parking space.  Last year, Walter Vance collapsed and later died during an early-morning rush at a Target store in West Virginia, without a single shopper stopping to check on him or offer aid.  In California, a mother of two small children doused dozens of other shoppers with pepper-spray to get an Xbox 360.  The previous year was marked by similar threats and uses of knives, guns, and pepper spray in places like Madison, WI and Indianapolis, IN.

All of this for the sake of a deal.  For the sake of more stuff.  In the season of Christmas.

Not exactly humanity at its best.

A few people are trying to change that, however.  They’re trying to ride the wave of e-commerce and social media to create “Giving Tuesday,” a day dedicated to launching the holiday charitable giving season.

It is the brainchild of the 92nd Street Y, a nonprofit cultural and community center in New York, backed by one anonymous donor who will match contributions up to $50,000.

Today’s efforts have partners as wide-ranging as the United Nations Foundation to JC Penney to social media sites like Mom it Forward.

The point is to capitalize on the excitement that shoppers feel for bargains and the trend to share on Twitter and Facebook, hoping to create a new wave of social charity.

Organizers are hoping this will be one way to counteract the dip in charitable giving caused by the persistent economic downturn and high unemployment rates; half of Americans say they will give to fewer charities or donate fewer funds this holiday season.

One survey shows that the average donor age is 65; by making “Giving Tuesday” an event on social media, nonprofits are hoping to tap into the generosity and goodwill of younger Americans – and hope that they’ll encourage their friends to join in via share buttons and newsfeed updates.

It’s hard to know what standard will make an event like this a success.  After spending $500 on new clothes or electronics, does a $5 donation to Save the Children look like generosity?  If people are quick to post pictures and comments about mundane matters like a random conversation, a good meal, or a celebrity doppelganger, will they take to their phones, tablets, and laptops to post about their charitable giving?  It’s one thing to entertain or poke fun, it’s quite another to moralize or boast.  Americans are usually loath to tout their own good deeds, which may mean that “Giving Tuesday” might fall flat.

After a day of $59 billion in sales, any amount generated might seem like chump change.  Just an afterthought.  Almost like giving away the change on a huge bill as a tip at a fancy restaurant.

Will this be a meaningless gratuity or a way to make progress toward greater social consciousness and generosity?

Is this a reason for hope or simply better than nothing at all?