When you hear the phrase “holiday season,” is giving back the first thing that comes to mind? If not, you’d be forgiven. After all, food comas, mob-like shopping scenes and horror stories about airport delays have long overshadowed the giving spirit of the holidays. This didn’t sit well with Henry Timms, who as interim executive director of the 92nd Street Y was accustomed to seeing daily acts of charity. So two years ago, Timms and his team at the New York City community center began to wonder how they could scale those actions — and shift attention to the true meaning of the holiday season in the process.
They found their answer in #GivingTuesday, an experiment to create a national day of giving. Debuting on Dec. 4, 2012, and falling on the Tuesday after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday hopes to capitalize on spending momentum to rally communities around giving back and doing good. “It was important for us to have the day follow the Thanksgiving shopping days, which have sort of become markers for the start of the holiday season,” says Timms. “There were concentrated efforts for the Tuesday itself, but we really wanted the day to set a tone of giving for the entire holiday season.” The inaugural #GivingTuesday launched with 2,500 partner nonprofits, all of which committed to using donations from the day for a specific #GivingTuesday-related initiative, and ultimately raked in more than $10 million in donations. In December 2013,  #GivingTuesday returned to even greater success, with a 90 percent increase. But the figures alone don’t tell the whole story. #GivingTuesday has brought innovation to giving by:

Embracing the potential of social media from the get-go.

By rallying efforts around a common hashtag, #GivingTuesday was able to bring a sense of unity and cohesion to various, ongoing philanthropic efforts taking place across the country and around the world. The hashtag also enabled organizers to track conveniently the results of their campaign and present their success in concrete numbers.
MORE: How a Terminally Ill Man’s Plot to Steal Donuts Led to a Remarkable Day of Giving
And those figures were staggering. The second #GivingTuesday on Dec. 3, 2013, saw online giving increase 90 percent compared with the previous year’s day; the average contribution in 2013 was $142.05, up from $101.60 in 2012. On social media, #GivingTuesday reached more than 2 billion people on Twitter (a whopping 338 percent increase from 2012!) and more than 300 million on Facebook.
“We intentionally included the hashtag in the title to let people know that #GivingTuesday was an invitation to join an open-source, inclusive online community, that social media was central to the movement, and not an afterthought,” says Asha Curran, director of the center for innovation and social impact at the 92nd Street Y. “#GivingTuesday is about giving dollars, but it is also, like social media itself, about community and storytelling. #GivingTuesday invites everyone to join the conversation, to be a philanthropist, to tell a story about personal values and to make #GivingTuesday their own.”

Taking a cultural phenomenon — and turning it on its head.

Oxford Dictionaries named “selfie” as 2013’s word of the year, and the folks at #GivingTuesday embraced the decision — with a twist. Instead of celebrating the selfie, a self-portrait usually taken with a smart phone, #GivingTuesday introduced the “unselfie,” which Curran described as a selfless selfie, or a picture that showed someone giving back and helping others. The idea was hugely popular on Dec. 3 — more than 7,000 unselfies were shared on social media, while organizations from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to UNICEF incorporated the concept into their efforts.
ALSO: What If You Could Do More Than Feed the Needy? This Food Bank Is Giving the Gift of Health

Creating a personal connection through giving.

The Internet has not only made it easier for people to donate to causes, but it has also made it easier for donors to stay engaged with those organizations, too, as #GivingTuesday’s partners proved. Last December, the Massachusetts organization Limitless Good donated $1 to Feeding America for every picture of a smile shared on their Facebook page, creating an emotional connection to each dollar given. “It’s a great example of how powerful it is to tell stories with charity,” Curran says. “That’s something they can do year round and use social media to make people feel accountable.”
It’s exactly this kind of storytelling that Timms and Curran credit #GivingTuesday’s success to. “Philanthropy is becoming open-sourced in a way that it wasn’t previously, and the barriers to entry have fallen down,” Timms says. “The Web has helped people feel more connected to the organizations they’re giving to.”

Collaborating — not competing.

More than 10,000 groups were part of this year’s #GivingTuesday. Bucks County, Pa., created a Giving Tuesday Bucks page, where residents could find local organizations that needed support, from animal rights organizations to groups that champion arts and culture. Jenny Salisbury, director of public advocacy for A Woman’s Place, a Bucks County nonprofit dedicated to promoting female empowerment and ending domestic violence, says joining efforts with area organizations wasn’t just a feel-good move, but made business sense, too.
DON’T MISS: How Social Media Is Used for Social Good
“There are only so many publications in our county, and we knew if all 83 participating organizations sent in press releases, not all those groups would be covered,” she says. “By collaborating, we were able to give a snapshot of what everyone was doing and raise awareness about those efforts across the board.” Farther south, Baltimore’s “Bmore Gives More” campaign hauled in almost $5.5 million for the city and was one of Timms’ favorite initiatives. “I was so impressed with the way Baltimore came together as a city, led by the mayor, to raise more than $5 million,” he says. “And what’s really powerful about that effort isn’t the money, but the spirit — this really was a city of people rallying together to share the spirit of giving.”

Harnessing the momentum of the day — and keeping it going.

#GivingTuesday may have taken place on one day, but its efforts continue. Hands on Nashville, an organization that connects volunteers with those in need in the Middle Tennessee community, collected more than 115 donated bikes that they will repair. This spring, the group will give out the improved bikes to kids in need as part of their ReCYCLE program, which promotes exercise and mobility among elementary school students. And Camp Kesem, a national organization that runs summer camps for children who’ve had a parent affected by cancer, will spend the nearly $10,000 they earned in donations to send more kids to their 50-plus camps in 27 states this year.
“#GivingTuesday really started as a way to scale the efforts of giving back to a much bigger scale, and as I say, there’s a Tuesday every week,” Timms says, noting that they’ve seen the #GivingTuesday hashtag perform well nearly every Tuesday throughout the year. “It’s incredible to see organizations grow their donor base and find new ways of giving throughout the year, and that’s something that’s definitely to be encouraged.”
MORE: You Can Do More Than “Like” Your Favorite Charity on Facebook