Giving Tuesday is trying to go global

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that any festival which celebrates feelings of goodwill and altruism must be accompanied by a shopping frenzy. Thus, it was decreed that Thanksgiving should be followed by Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

But when it was pointed out six years ago that three days of commercial exploitation was now heavily overbalancing a single Thanksgiving day allocated for wholesome domesticity, the 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation came up with yet another add-on: Giving Tuesday.

This Tuesday, Americans will be encouraged to give to charity a portion of the disposable income they usually throw at Thanksgiving, particularly through groups which advise and educate on sustainable giving.

Donating while you spend is an old tradition, embedded in many of the world’s major religions. If you can treat yourself on Black Friday, you can afford to buy a gift for someone less fortunate — that’s an idea with roots in the old Christian and Jewish system of tithing or the Islamic zakat.

I was recently told a story about a well-known American dynasty who traditionally raise their children with the following approach to sustainable wealth management and philanthropy: for every $3 pocket money, you should save one, spend one and give one. It’s standard throughout the world to link one’s capacity and responsibility for philanthropy directly to one’s disposable income.

This year, however, Giving Tuesday is trying to go global. Which is a tough sell, given its links to the all-American festival of Thanksgiving. Twenty-first century capitalism crosses borders; patriotism slightly less so.

Here in London, my friends and I have been bombarded with advertisements for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. (What Amazon can flog in Boston, Amazon will flog in Belgravia.) Small Business Saturday has also taken off, largely as a social media opportunity for UK politicians to be photographed enthusiastically at small businesses in their constituency. (The basics of local politics also cross borders.) Unmoored from any connection with Thanksgiving, it is marked on the first Saturday in December as a build-up to Christmas shopping.

And it’s not just the UK that’s cashing in this week. Amazon France excitedly informed its customers today: “Les ventes flash Cyber Monday sont là!” In Germany, it’s “Cyber-Monday-Woche,” with appropriate compound nouns.

What’s missing from this international extension of the Thanksgiving franchise is much of the altruistic spirit that gives an American Thanksgiving its warm and cuddly heart.

Millennial Europeans are pretty familiar with the concept of Thanksgiving, thanks to the cultural saturation of American sitcoms, but older generations see little reason in marking a festival dedicated to the American historical memory. (And why should we? The early history of the modern American nation wasn’t exactly marked by intermittent transatlantic friendship parades.) When it comes to the last week of November, we do the shopping, we do more shopping, but we don’t waste time focusing on motherhood, pecan pie or philanthropy.

That could be changing in the UK. Some UK millennials, the generation most thoroughly interlinked with American culture online, have begun to mark Thanksgiving as an opportunity for a “Friendsgiving.”

We’re a generation which invests social value heavily in our friendship circles and we find returning to our families a bit of a drag at Christmas — so we’re predisposed to fetishize a ‘pre-Christmas’ turkey alternative with the people who matter most, our peers. (Bonus: we’ve all watched enough “Friends” reruns that we secretly hope someone will invite Brad Pitt to Thanksgiving.)

Even the flaming US cultural wars over Thanksgiving don’t seem to have had too much of an impact on the young British Friendsgiving trend. It’s harder to get into a fight about the erasure of Native American peoples — rightly or wrongly — when you’re not actually eating turkey on the site of their removal.

So perhaps British millennials, too, could get on board with the concept of Giving Tuesday. Like their American counterparts, young Brits are heavily concerned with social justice, organized politically online and keen to demonstrate their moral superiority over their parents.

The only problem is that, as with voting, it can be difficult to get them to put their money where their mouth is.

Here’s hoping that when next year’s Cyber Monday goes international, the world’s online retailers have gotten smarter about tying their promotions to opportunities to give. (Amazon’s online giving scheme has been a good model, despite a major blooper.) An international festival of spending, without a social purpose, would be a poor American gift to the world.

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