Mar 9, 2010

What if we give it away?

I recently read a fascinating article about the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy. You should read the whole article yourself, but in short it's a foundation in San Francisco that gives grantees $100, on the condition that they use it to do nice things for strangers. It made me wonder about a few things:

It can be surprisingly hard to give away money.
I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked by this--after all, the film based on this premise has been made at least 4 times (1921, 1935, 1945 & 1985)--but the reasons behind it are rather sad. It's all about trust and the complete lack of it between strangers in a city. Perhaps the people turning down free umbrellas in the rain really didn't want one, but I can't think of any other explanation bar suspicion for the people turning down dollar bills that were just being handed to them. It's understandable how this happens, when we live in a society where hardly anything is ever given without hope of something in return, and where almost everyone who approaches strangers in the street does want something, whether its signatures for a petition or money for their next meal. It becomes easier to just ignore everybody and retreat into a little bubble. No-one is a bad person because they do this, but as a whole the community of the city loses something when we get so stuck in mistrust. I always appreciate attempts to break this down a little, like the free hugs people or the Creative Philanthropy group.

Could we replicate this in Seattle?
$100 at a time is not a prohibitive budget - are there people in Seattle who might want to put a counterpart of this society together? If you think this is a great idea, why not try it yourself? And if someone gave you $100 to do nice things for strangers with, what would you do? I'd love to see some creative ideas in the comments.

What can Sustainable Seattle give away?
Unfortunately we have no spare money whatsoever. In fact we're entirely volunteer run while we try to secure stable funding, so one thing that the individuals who make up our organization have been giving away is our time and skills: 1500 hours so far this year. But as an organization, we do have some resources - we have a reputation, a website, a mailing list and a network of contacts. The great thing about resources like this is that we can give of them without diminishing them in any way, so we can keep doing it (a very simple kind of sustainability) and here are some of the ways we do that:
  • Featuring other groups' work on this blog (please contact us if you'd like to be featured!)
  • Adding other groups' listings to our advertising materials; for instance the STARs program mailshot that's going out tomorrow will include links to some interesting classes at Southside Commons.
  • Referring people to the right place; for instance a prospective volunteer came to our office today, and when he described his interests it became clear that Northwest SEED are a much better fit, so we sent him their way (conveniently, up a few stories in the same building).

And finally, what can you give away?
Very few people have spare money these days, but if you think about everything you do have--time, contacts, skills, ideas--I bet every single person who reads this post has something they can give away, at almost no cost to yourself but great benefit to someone else. Take up the challenge, and let us know what you gave away in the comments.

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