Power shift: The #GivingTuesday founder on the “new power” principles transforming philanthropy
By: Betsy Reid
Back in 2012, 92nd Street Y Executive Director Henry Timms came up with a simple but powerful idea: a day all about generosity to follow the post-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy. Together with his team, Timms created #GivingTuesday, and its now-iconic heart-shaped logo, then started sharing the idea with the Y’s network. Their approach was fully inclusive, with no rules: Participants were encouraged to rework the logo, call the campaign whatever they liked, and invent ways to involve their own networks.
Six years later, #GivingTuesday has grown into a worldwide movement, adapting and evolving with each community and nonprofit that adopts it (see our own GAgives), and growing year over year in participation, donations, and acts of generosity.
This decentralized approach is what Timms calls “new power.”
Together with Purpose CEO Jeremy Heimans, Timms introduced the concept with a 2014 article in Harvard Business Review. This past April, they released a book greatly expanding on the theory and practice called New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make It Work for You. Timms recently spoke with GCN’s Betsy Reid, detailing the potential of new power, its role in the rise of #GivingTuesday, and how nonprofits can use it to mobilize their supporters and teams.
Betsy Reid: What’s the difference between “old power” and new power?
Henry Timms: The world we all knew and loved was an “old power” world: very top-down, very leader-driven. It was about the institution setting the rules and everyone else falling in line. I think about that letter that we all wrote once a year: “Dear Mr. X, please make your annual contribution to the 92nd Street Y. Your invaluable support will help us do A, B, and C.” Mr. X would write a check, or not, and that would be the end of our engagement with him.
Contrast that with today’s world: Because of all of this connectivity, people are engaging in very different ways. For example, you're seeing [non-professional] people moving into the fundraising space, creating campaigns of their own and engaging their friends. There's been a kind of explosion in distributed, peer-to-peer activity, which has disrupted the philanthropy world in ways both positive and negative.
New power is the ability to capture the energy of the connected crowd.
You can think of that as “new power”: the dynamics of crowdfunding, of these intense moments of civic and political activation like #MeToo or #NeverAgain. To give you a simple definition, new power is the ability to capture the energy of the connected crowd. The argument we make in the book is that, to succeed in the 21st century, you need to understand how to command the power of the crowd to serve your organization and mission.
Reid: In your book, you talk about three defining principles for a new power initiative, what you call an “ACE idea.”
Timms: ACE stands for the three principles that make ideas spread in a new power world: Actionable, Connected, and Extensible.
Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge. It went so big because it was an ACE idea. It was actionable, asking people directly to do something: Pour a bucket of ice water over your head, or share this video, or make a donation. There were a lot of actions tied to that, and more than simply “admire my organization.”
It was connected in that it passed amongst a peer community. The key that unlocked the value of the Ice Bucket Challenge was how it spread, as one person nominated others, and how it tied everyone to a bigger cause in The ALS Association.
Third, it was extensible. Wherever the idea went, people could add their own twist. It spoke to a generation of people who want to engage in the world on their own terms. If you create an idea that people can make their own, it can be very, very meaningful.
As you think about your own nonprofit, think about creating ideas that people can own, share, and change. If you're doing those three things, your ideas are probably heading in a good direction.
Reid: Tell me about your inspiration for #GivingTuesday, and how it demonstrates the potential of this new power approach.
Timms: When we were thinking about #GivingTuesday, we thought a lot about new power principles like collaboration and openness, and the old power way of doing something like it. With an old power approach, we'd have called it, “The 92nd Street Y’s #GivingTuesday,” and charged everybody a fee to take part. We’d have said, "You have to do it in these three very specific ways,” and, “Make sure our logo is nice and big on your homepage."
We did none of those things. Instead, we designed it to be actionable, in that people would give; connected, in tying people to others; and extensible, in that it could evolve to reflect different cultural environments. For example, in one of the 100 countries where #GivingTuesday is active, the hashtags are #givingiscool and #givingissexy. We designed it to change, and I think that's reflective of how you build a movement in a new power world.
#GivingTuesday has been energized by nonprofits finding their own way: 75 percent of organizations taking part use it to try something new.
What's been really interesting about #GivingTuesday is that, time and again, it proves how entrepreneurial the nonprofit sector can be. #GivingTuesday has been energized by nonprofits finding their own way: 75 percent of organizations taking part use it to try something new. It’s become an opportunity to experiment, which I think is an important contribution.
Reid: The growth over its first six years is proof how potent that experiment has been. I’m energized by the diversity and creativity of the campaigns you’ve sparked around the world: how they’re anchored in the spirit of the day while being uniquely their own. Standouts for me are Memphis’s Grit. Grind. Give. and the GivingShoesDay campaign from Dress for Success. Do other examples come to mind?
Timms: Singapore turned #GivingTuesday into giving week, centered around volunteering. The tiny village of Bethel, Alaska has this amazing campaign where people wait at the three-way stop in the middle of town, collect donations, and bring them to local nonprofits.
There are some very big numbers tied to #GivingTuesday now, but it's always been the small gestures that matter most. We make the point that giving matters in all its forms, whether it’s giving blood, giving a million dollars, or sitting down with your kids to talk about your giving priorities. Giving matters every day, but it's particularly special on #GivingTuesday, when the world's attention is focused on giving. I think we have to ask ourselves a question as a sector: What do we do with that attention? How do we use it?
Giving matters every day, but it's particularly special on #GivingTuesday, when the world's attention is focused on giving. I think we have to ask ourselves a question as a sector: What do we do with that attention?
What I see us doing is using it to tell a story about our part of the world, and the generosity and humanity that lives in it. I think that's very meaningful, not just on #GivingTuesday but throughout the year: The choice to spend time bolstering the bonds of humanity, in whatever form that takes.
Reid: The potential of the #GivingTuesday movement is much bigger than gathering donations: As you say, it’s about making “donors into owners.” How can nonprofits use #GivingTuesday to strengthen relationships and build new ones?
Timms: Sophisticated campaigners recognize that #GivingTuesday is one part of a 365-day relationship, and they plan toward it. We see some interesting statistics that show a lot of new donors coming on board, but also a lot of existing donors being refreshed and engaged.
#GivingTuesday is, primarily, an opportunity to share your mission, rather than simply to fund it. The people who do best in fundraising terms are always, in my mind, those who have done best demonstrating their mission. The campaigns that stand out are those doing this in creative ways.
Reid: What would you say to nonprofits who are concerned that bringing everyone together on one day is exhausting donors?
Timms: Obviously there's a danger of people being asked a lot, but that isn't something which dissuades the corporate world. The messages you get from corporations are constant, and they do it that way because it works.
If we get it right, movements like #GivingTuesday can be a tide that lifts all boats. There are clearly going to be campaigns that don't work, just as there are campaigns that don't work every other day of the year, but #GivingTuesday is good for people who are very collaborative, and who are going to make some little bets on this. That’s the right way: Not to bet the farm on #GivingTuesday, but to learn some new ways to do things and try some experiments. This new power world we are entering rewards the experimental and the ambitious.
I think there's a real danger, in our sector particularly, of clinging to the old power rules because they’re familiar, and because a new approach has risk attached to it. The real risk isn't the occasional failed experiment, but the slow, steady decline into irrelevance.
Reid: Your book suggests some opportunities to rethink our approach to leadership at all levels. What are the qualities or characteristics of folks who are best prepared to leverage new power?
Timms: Asha Curran, who runs #GivingTuesday and has built the global campaign, always talks about three characteristics of good #GivingTuesday leaders. I think they stand more broadly for the kind of leaders we need in our sector.
One, they're super entrepreneurial: Their approach is to try something new. Two, they're low-ego: If you want to build movements and collaborations, it really can't be all about you. And most of all, they’re collaborative: the kind of people who are genuinely prepared to work with others. That means much more than agreeing to put your logo on a page with someone else: it's more about how well you work with others towards a shared goal.
Reid: Those skills also apply to building the kind of workplace where people want to be. We've just completed research, via GCN’s Work for Good job board, which shows that those in the mission-driven sector care deeply about workplace culture and values, and crave a more participatory and supportive work experience. I think the kinds of leaders who are going to be open and inclusive and check their ego at the door is the new paradigm.
Timms: I really agree with that. There’s a generation of people who were raised to participate and engage, who expect to have their say. As institutional leaders, we have two options: We can keep them out because that's not “their role,” or we can find small ways to welcome them in. This is the great opportunity for us, as mission-driven organizations. Our job is to work out how to create that route for them.
Betsy Reid is vice president, marketing and communications at GCN.