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Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

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A world of giving

What if generosity was the value that fueled our world?

This was the radical idea that propelled Henry Timms and Asha Curran to launch the GivingTuesday movement back in 2012. The idea, explains Asha Curran, was to launch a campaign that would encourage generosity and giving—whether money, time or one’s voice—and “make good go viral.” 

Eight years later, GivingTuesday has spread like wildfire throughout the globe and has an organized presence in over 60 countries. People participate in GivingTuesday in every single country in the world. The movement has now become a platform for collaboration, innovation and research to encourage generosity and giving all year round, transcending the initial single-day focus. Since its creation, the movement has resulted in an estimated $1 billion online for the non-profit sector in the U.S. Data has shown that GivingTuesday not only convinces new donors to give—a quarter of people who make financial contributions on that day are first-time donors— but also motivates existing ones to give more. “It was the right idea at the right time,” says Asha Curran. “There is no culture on earth that it does not speak to in some way.” 

Science of Giving GIF

Indeed, generosity is a universal human value. According to research from the John Templeton Foundation, it is deeply rooted in our biology. The fact that many animals, from vampire bats and bees to rats and chimpanzees, all exhibit generous behavior suggests that it might be an evolutionary adaptation geared to help with the survival of species—including our own. Multiple studies have confirmed that we are all to varying degrees hardwired to be giving. Making a charitable donation engages the part of our brain known as the mesolimbic reward system—the very part that also gets triggered by food, sex, drugs or receiving money. This activates the release of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, which are feel-good hormones. Being generous has also been shown to lower our blood pressure, reduce stress, lower chronic pain, and make us live longer. Studies have also shown a link between generosity and happiness. One survey of 632 Americans found that spending money on other people was associated with significantly greater happiness, regardless of income; conversely, there was no association between spending on oneself and happiness. In short, besides being good for others, generosity is also good for those who give. 

Generosity GIF

This hardwiring of generosity explains why many traditions of generosity can be traced very far back and why many still endure today (with the help of technology).  The Chinese tradition of gifting money in red envelopes—the color red is associated with good luck—on special occasions such as weddings, births, graduations or the Chinese New Year has roots that date back ancient folklore. Since 2014, virtual red envelopes can be distributed via mobile payment platforms. In February 2019, instant messaging service WeChat processed 823 million such gifts during the Chinese New Year holiday alone. Competitor Alibaba and other tech companies now offer the service as well, and this ancient tradition is quickly migrating online.

Similarly, in China’s eastern Guangdong Province, the Chaoshan Shantang charitable organization has been caring for the local poor, elderly and mentally disabled since the Qing dynasty. Ruixi Hao of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation explains how 300 or so teams of volunteers are now self-organizing, collecting donations and tracking their activities over the WeChat mobile platform. Last year, half of the organization’s fundraising was collected through crowdfunding platforms. 

Italy has seen a similar trajectory where ancient traditions have been influenced by modern technology. Napolitans anonymously gift “suspended coffees” to strangers by paying in advance for an extra espresso when ordering theirs at a corner café—a tradition now extended to pizzas, sandwiches and books. Via the internet, “suspended coffees” have now spread from Naples to the rest of Italy and around the world.  

Giving Tuesday technology banner

Over the last few years, technology has been shaping age-old generosity in several ways. First, it has made giving a lot easier and faster. The multiplication of online and mobile payment platforms around the world is giving rise to “fingertip philanthropy.” As a result, generosity is increasingly happening online. This is also facilitating giving among tech-savvy younger generations. Arnav Kapur, Program Officer, Philanthropic Partnerships Team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, estimates that, in India for example, online giving could increase five- to ten-fold within the next five years, as the country is fast becoming digital with a sharp rise in smartphone and internet penetration.

The Unified Payments Interface—an instant real-time payment system—digital money, government backed payment applications and the proliferation of payment banks have transformed daily transactions into digital ones, nudging more people to get online. Some of these platforms are now enabling more giving, especially during times of natural disasters. These tailwinds propelled the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, together with a group of other respected funders including Omidyar and ATE Chandra Foundation, to invest in GiveIndia, an online giving platform, to scale everyday giving in India. 

In addition, it doesn’t hurt that India made corporate giving mandatory in 2014—the first country in the world to do so. Large companies are now mandated by law to spend at least 2 percent of their annual profit on corporate social responsibility, which unlocked approximately $2 billion last year. 

Technology is also connecting people globally, enabling generosity far beyond donors’ immediate communities. The explosion of crowdfunding platforms in multiple countries around the world illustrates the power of direct connections between donors and recipients. DonorsChoose, started by a teacher in 2000, is an online platform on which US public school teachers can crowdfund class projects and supplies—from school trips to books. It has funded over 1.5 million projects posted by half a million teachers in over 83,000 schools across the country. In South Africa, ForGood is matching people willing to donate money, time or skills with causes that need them.    

Other crowdfunding platforms take connections much further afield. Global Giving, created in 2002, connects the non-profit sector with individual and corporate donors, while stretching every dollar by helping projects and organizations continuously improve their impact—and rewarding those that perform best. Anyone sitting in Idaho, Nairobi, Melbourne or Delhi can browse for carefully vetted projects and organizations across 170 countries and donate on the spot. So far, over 900,000 donors and more than 285 businesses have contributed close to $400 million towards some 23,000 projects—from giant pouched rats sniffing out landmines and tuberculosis in Africa to feeding street children in India and providing a virtual book club for incarcerated youngsters in Washington DC. 

Besides making contributions easier and connecting people, technological innovation is also facilitating new forms of giving and generosity. In China, the Ant Forest’s scheme, launched by Ant Financial Services on the Alipay mobile payment platform, encourages users to reduce their carbon footprint by walking, using public transport and using online payments and bookings. The virtual green energy earned can then be used towards raising a virtual tree. Once enough energy has been collected, the virtual tree is then converted into a real tree, planted in an arid area. Users can then check on their trees via satellite imaging to witness the power of collective action in real time. By August 2019, this social generosity towards environmental wellbeing had translated into 122 million trees being planted over 112,000 hectares, saving over 7 million tons of carbon emission. Over 500 million people have already participated, and the project has just been awarded the UN Champions of the Earth Award.

So plant a tree, help a school, give your time or help a stranger. Everyone has something to give.

About the Author

Caroline Lambert
Caroline Lambert was a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development. While a staff journalist for The Economist, she won several awards for her coverage of Southern Africa's politics and business from Johannesburg. Her other assignments included being deputy Asia editor, and covering post-conflict situations—and at times not so "post"—from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zimbabwe and Algeria, among others. Before becoming a journalist, she worked for the World Bank Group.

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