Wheaton Expert Dr. Jamie Aten Offers #GivingTuesday Tips

November 25, 2019

Dr. Jamie Aten, the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College, offers some tips on ways that donors can make their dollars count on #GivingTuesday.

380x253 Jamie Aten portraitAfter Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday comes #GivingTuesday, a day when consumers are encouraged to channel their expendable income to a wide variety of causes and charities. Founded in 2012 by non-profits 92nd Street Y and the United Nations Foundation in response to the commercialism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday has had an enormous impact: In 2018, online donations on #GivingTuesday exceeded a billion dollars. This year, the event takes place on December 3.

Dr. Jamie Aten, the Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College, is a big proponent of #GivingTuesday. As a disaster psychologist, Aten has seen firsthand the needs people experience when going through traumatic events—as well as the ways that donations can help. He’s also lived through some traumatic experiences, which he wrote about in his recent book A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience.

Here, he offers some tips on ways that donors can make their dollars count on #GivingTuesday:

Q: Why should people consider donating particularly on #GivingTuesday?

A: Giving is always a good thing, but research shows that donations slow down considerably once the immediate impact of the disaster is over. In other words, once the cameras leave and news coverage ends, so does the money. When tracked over 90 days, media coverage tends to peak about 15 days after a major natural disaster and then to drop off sharply. 

But the needs in those communities remain strong for months, years, and even decades after. It’s important to remember that a past disaster or mass trauma that is no longer making front-page news doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal. We also need to remember that for many affected, life may never go back to normal, and will require support for the long term.

#GivingTuesday can be a great opportunity to shine a light on survivors in communities that are still very much in need, but aren’t receiving donations because attention has moved on. It’s also a great time to consider giving to organizations that are active in preparedness work. Every dollar that is given to disaster preparedness and to building community resilience yields significant returns when catastrophe does strike.

Q: Do charitable donations on #GivingTuesday make a real difference in the lives of people coping after traumatic events?

A: Yes, donations can go a long way in helping. Disasters and mass traumas are happening more frequently and are becoming more and more costly. However, we continue to see that state and federal funds and resources for responding are struggling to keep pace—or in some cases are even shrinking. As a result, more than ever before, non-profit organizations are stepping in to help and play a significant role in addressing major gaps in unmet needs.

In addition to providing services that survivors desperately need, donations can help remind people in a community that they are not forgotten. But if you want to help, make sure your donations meet real needs. One of the best ways to do this is to give financially to trusted organizations who have a pulse on local needs.

Donating on #GivingTuesday is one small way we can make a big difference. I also want to challenge those giving to not just give and forget. Our giving should be one of the ways we help, not the only way we help. To make your donation go further, consider if there might also be other ways to get involved with the organization you are supporting. For example, might you be able to also volunteer in some way? Does the organization you are helping have online or other resources that you might be able to further your understanding of key issues? Could you become an advocate to raise awareness in your community?

Q: Should Christians be especially convicted to give?

A: Throughout Scripture we are reminded that we are to help where there is need—and where there is disaster, there is need.

As Christians, caring for the vulnerable is one of the primary ways we are called to demonstrate God’s love. Micah 6:8 reminds us that we are to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God—and giving helps us to do all three of those things. 

We see this modeled through the life and ministry of Christ. There is example after example of how Jesus helped the hurting by responding to both their spiritual and physical needs. Though disasters and mass traumas may reveal injustices and brokenness in this world, a holistic Christian response reminds those who are suffering of God’s grace and mercy.

When we give to people who are experiencing trauma, specifically, we are recognizing that our money is not our own, but something we can use to help usher in God’s kingdom values here on earth.

Q: Does it matter when I give? For instance, is it better to donate money to a certain charity during events like the upcoming #GivingTuesday or is it better to donate in the middle of a disaster when the need seems the most acute?

A: If at all possible, I’d encourage people to do both. Use #GivingTuesday as an opportunity to set aside time to research and find the right organization or organizations to support in the now.

Earlier I mentioned that we have to be cautious to not let our good intentions become reduced to a mere transaction for those we seek to help. For example, there’s the idea that because we did one thing to help, we can end up feeling like we’ve done our part, and now it’s all up to someone else going forward. If we aren’t mindful, our giving can follow a similar path. To push back against this tendency, I’d challenge those who are able to consider approaching their giving with a relational mindset.

When disasters strike, not only do the communities impacted need others to walk alongside them, the aid organizations do as well. In other words, making a donation on #GivingTuesday not only allows you to make an immediate difference, but you’ll also be more informed about how to best give when disaster does strike. 

Q: How do I know if a charity is legitimate?

A: This is an important question for anyone looking to give—doing your homework is a must—and I’m not just saying to do your homework because I’m a professor and a researcher.

Unfortunately, wherever there are vulnerable people, there are also people who are trying to take advantage of them. This is especially true in disaster zones. The good news is there are lots of charities and organizations doing excellent work and it’s not too difficult to find them. A great place to start is Charity Navigator, as it’s the largest evaluator of charities in the U.S.

Recently, we held our annual Humanitarian Disaster Institute lecture on campus. We were privileged to host renowned economist and author Dr. Bruce Wydick to share insights from his new book Shrewd Samaritan: Faith, Economics, and the Road to Loving Our Global Neighbor.

At one point during his talk, he challenged everyone in attendance to consider how much time they gave to researching a recent purchase they made for themselves. He then challenged everyone to reflect on how much time they had spent researching a donation they had made to help someone else. His point was that we need to spend, not just as much, but even more time to considering how to use our money and resources to help others.

Q: If someone wants to donate to a charity, but doesn’t know where to start, do you have any tips for finding the best charity to support on #GivingTuesday and beyond?

A: Maybe this is the first time you’ve considered participating or maybe it’s the first time you can participate in #GivingTuesday and aren’t sure where to start. If this is the case, here are some questions that I often ask myself that I hope might be useful to you:

  • Who are the vulnerable and marginalized in my own community?
  • Who are the vulnerable and marginalized in parts of the world that are in need of support?
  • What are the issues and needs that I am most naturally drawn toward?
  • How will the group or groups I’m giving to use my donation?
  • Is the organization I’m considering supporting appear transparent in how funds from #GivingTuesday will be utilized?
  • How much of my gift will go to direct (e.g., services) versus indirect (e.g., overhead costs) needs?
  • Or could designating my gift to indirect costs or making my gift unrestricted possibly be the way I could help the most? That is, could making a donation toward indirect costs actually amplify other giving efforts by strengthening their capacity to carry out services?
  • What has the experience been like for others I know and trust that may have given to the organization I’m considering supporting?
  • Could I use this opportunity to involve family or friends?
  • Are the ways I’m considering giving truly about the needs of others? Or am I letting my own needs get in the way?

Asking yourself these questions are a good place to start. But remember that though effective giving starts with you—it’s not about you. Donating that makes an impact comes from matching our resources with real needs, not our need to feel “warm and fuzzy.”