In Uncategorized on February 9, 2010 at 02:03


Seeing How Far $100, and a Bit of Creative Generosity, Can Go


Published: February 8, 2010

Andrew Marantz paid strangers to walk through Bryant Park holding hands and sharing secrets. Joshua Krafchin walked up and down a B train begging people — to take his money.

Amy Coenen placed 20 $5 bills, each inscribed with quotes on the theme of giving, in places around the city — the straw container at a Starbucks, the floor of an apartment building lobby — where they might be found and inspire generosity.

And Helen Coster slipped the whole $100 into a thank-you card and asked a friend to hand it to the clerk at Duane Reade who regularly cheers her up.

As acts of philanthropy go, none of the above would rate particularly high on any measure of effectiveness. They do get points for creativity, however, which, to Courtney Martin, the 30-year-old minor-league benefactor who spawned them, is an undervalued aspect of charitable giving. “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,” she likes to say, quoting a fellow maladjust, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ms. Martin is not a civil rights leader. She’s a Brooklyn-based writer who, five years ago, was shocked to find herself in possession of a six-figure book advance. She wanted to give a chunk of it away, but was not sure how. So she decided she would make it someone else’s problem — nine other people’s problems. She chose nine thoughtful friends, gave them each $100, and told them they would be expected to account for what they had done with it at a gathering a month later.

Heart-warming high jinks have ensued ever since. Saturday night marked the fourth annual dance-crazed celebration of what Ms. Martin calls the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. Since that first year, Ms. Martin has been joined by several other small-time philanthropists, who bestow multiples of $100 on admired acquaintances. This year 16 inductees committed creative acts of kindness, some of them kooky, most of them thoughtful.

Someone is publishing the writing of New York students in a nonprofit literacy program. Someone else bought a video camera for a public high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. One recipient, who runs a Web site to encourage female writers, decided to give the money to the most frequent commenter on the site, who turned out to be a former correction officer with dreams of a life in the arts. Several people doubled down by donating $100 of their own money, part of the ripple effect that so often gives small, charmed gestures reach beyond their scope. (The ripples go as far as San Francisco and Athens, Ga., where others have started their own chapters of the Secret Society.)

There’s nothing original or YouTube-worthy about sending $100 to help in Haiti, but people did that, too, which also thrilled Ms. Martin (who said she also gave considerably more money to traditional nonprofits). “I could not argue giving away 100 flowers is as important as giving money to Paul Farmer,” Ms. Martin said of the anthropologist who helped found the medical charity Partners in Health. But, she added, there’s something to be said for “a visceral engagement with joy and spontaneity, and injecting more of that into our lives.”

It’s a great technological trick that it now takes no more than a text message to send $10 to Haiti. But with that simplicity comes a certain passivity. There is a benefit, too, to having a creative challenge built into some personal charitable giving — innovation of all kinds requires ownership, reinvention, elaborate consideration.

What if every philanthropist had to get up in front of some party of their peers and riff about how they had spent their money? All kudos to Bill Gates, but how might he surprise the world with an infinitesimal portion of his foundation dollars if he had his monologue at a Secret Society gala in mind?

Or what if every average Joe just made a pact with his five best friends that they would get together once a year and share how they donated their money? To start, they’d surely get around to actually donating that money: and yes, accountability is as much the point for Ms. Martin as celebration.

Ms. Martin does not harbor illusions of global impact. For her, there’s elation in thinking small, in considering what even the most starving writers or unemployed marketers or over-mortgaged homeowners can do.

One young teacher who used the $100 to buy notebooks and food for a writer’s group with two former students has since given each of them $50 of his own to give away. And one of the subway riders who took $25 from Mr. Krafchin told him she was going to send it on to Haiti relief.

The urge to pay it forward was in evidence Saturday night at the party, held at the Underwater Lounge in Brooklyn. Kamy Wicoff, the 37-year-old founder of that social network for female writers, high on the energy of the event, suddenly felt a surge of generosity toward the bartender.

“In times like this, we all could use a boost beyond the classic philanthropy,” she recalled thinking. So she left her a fat tip: $100 felt exactly right.


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