Giving Tuesday 2017: It's like Cyber Monday for charities

World Vision International is broadening the concept of what constitutes holiday festivities this year. Packing hygiene kits and carrying jerrycans filled with water will be among the activities visitors can join at its pop-up shop in the Bryant Park Holiday Market in New York City. A provider of services to poor children, World Vision designed the space as part of its Giving Tuesday campaign to be a three-dimensional window into its work for those wandering amid the market's food stall, ice-skating rink, and retail booths.

Giving Tuesday has become a philanthropic phenomenon since it was introduced six years ago as a way to encourage charitable giving just as Black Friday and Cyber Monday promote shopping. Donations increased more than 12-fold last year to $180 million. That amount only includes digital platforms involved in Giving Tuesday, an effort founded by New York's 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation. It is likely much higher considering that 90 percent of donations overall are still made by check. 

Now the issue for tens of thousands of nonprofits is how to stand out on Giving Tuesday when so many organizations are using social media and email blasts to promote themselves. GiGi's Playhouse-Down Syndrome Achievement Centers hopes to differentiate itself by using Facebook Live to conduct a virtual tour of the services it provides. The 30 locations around the U.S. and Mexico provide free help to those with the condition, including tutoring and occupational training.

"It is an opportunity for people to see their donations in action," said Nancy Gianni, who founded the organization after her daughter GiGi, now 15, was born with Down Syndrome. 

GiGi's Playhouse participated in Giving Tuesday during the first year although the results were disappointing, Gianni said. "I don't think we executed it well," she explained. Gianni opted to try again this year after students from Northwestern University conducted a successful fundraising effort on behalf of the organization in 2016. She added that Giving Tuesday's increasingly high profile encouraged her to give it another shot.

"There is so much publicity around the day, you'd be crazy not to try it," said Gianni.

Social services provider Volunteers of America-Greater New York is participating in Giving Tuesday for the first time this year.  It had avoided joining the movement because the date was close to its big December fundraiser, said Rachel Weinstein, vice president and chief development officer of the nonprofit.

The organization is focusing on raising money for just one of its programs -- Burt and Barbara's Gifts of the Heart, which provides holiday and birthday presents to adults living in Volunteers of America housing who otherwise wouldn't receive anything. That includes adults with intellectual disabilities, behavioral health issues and HIV, as well as formerly homeless veterans.

It is named after Burt and Barbara Petrone, who met in a VOA home for adults with developmental disabilities and eventually married. Burt was in the hospital on one Valentine's Day and gave $5 — the only money he had — to a nurse so she could buy a present for Barbara.

"We need more gifts for the program," said Weinstein, who noted that sometimes adults living alone are forgotten in a holiday season that emphasizes children. Last year, it had 280 gifts when it was hoping to have 640. This year, VOA will promote the program on various social channels that will have links to a video about the Petrones and an Amazon wish list so people can purchase something specific.

"People like to do something concrete," said Weinstein

World Vision hopes that providing individuals with tangible experiences will draw donors to its cause. Offering people a chance to carry a heavy jerrycan full of water — something women and children in the developing world may have to do for miles -- can crystalize the need for villages to have easy access to fresh water. Packing hygiene kits allows people to see what World Vision provides.

"We believe this [pop-up store] will really educate people about the work we do," said Peter Livingston, World Vision's brand development manager. It will only be up for a three days, including Giving Tuesday, and will offer other experiences as well as a chance to buy hand-crafted gifts.

World Vision has participated in Giving Tuesday since its inception and it has blossomed into its third most important fundraising day after Dec. 30 and Dec. 31. Last year, it raised $2 million. 

"We have always been successful on Giving Tuesday but we thought we had more room to grow," said Livingston. "Giving Tuesday is opportunity to do something big."