Creative Micro-Philanthropy in New Orleans

P1010002New Orleans Normally, I would keep quiet about something like this since it is still so half-baked and almost pre-organizational, but our little first committee meeting to organize the New Orleans chapter of the so-called Secret Society of Creative Philanthropy got some interesting queries when I posted about the meeting on Facebook that I feel compelled to offer a little something something here about the our first tentative steps into what I’m calling “micro-philanthropy,” or philanthropy by the poor.

Some weeks ago I posted about an interesting experiment begun by Courtney Martin in New York in 2006 when she came into an author’s advance and thought she should share some of her small ship coming in with both a group of friends and her community. She gather ten of them together, staked them with a $100, and in a process that was both innovative and collaborative, watched and enjoyed the very diverse ways that they all practiced a creative philanthropy with this small amount of money, and have done so annually ever since then. There was an article about the annual celebration and reporting of their “secret society” in the Times. Short story is that I read it, blogged that we should all get on this bandwagon and that I was ready, and tracked down Courtney Martin through the magic of Google and the internet. I told her I was ready to organize the New Orleans chapter of the Society of Creative Philanthropy. A week or so later, she replied essentially, “right on!” and away we went.

I was especially happy once I located their web site (www.creativephilanthropy.org) to see that our New Orleans chapter would be the 4th after New York, San Francisco, and Munich, Germany, I believe. We are just barely getting on the round ahead of Seattle.

Here’s what I like about all of this. First, with all appropriate apologies to the rich and hip, I am heartened by the recent studies and surveys that exhaustively document the fact that poor and working families are wildly more generous with their relatively minimal incomes compared to the well-to-do and well born. Secondly, I think there are hugely positive values in the exercise of sharing resources and tremendous benefits of doing so collectively. I still don’t understand the “organizing model” for the “society,” but have become comfortable with the recognition that the model is not to have a model and to advance the “creative” side, and that works. Finally, I think the whole practice of micro-philanthropy and maximizing small donations is likely the future of support for a lot of social change work whether we call in membership dues or monthly pledges or annual gifts, and this is particularly true on the international level where an organizer can be totally supported on $300 per month. I want to learn more about how people think about all of this!

As an old school organizer, I wanted an organizing committee meeting first so eight of us had cupcakes, coffee, and water on Burgundy Street in the Bywater to kick it around for 90 minutes. I had sent out the website, the Times article, a slam by Courtney Martin on the Oprah giveaway shtick, and whatever. All good.

Here in this very urban crowd in the New Orleans 9th Ward it was fascinating to hear the first thoughts that so many of the organizers had about maximizing resources. It was farm-and-garden time in the city! One was thinking about giving away chickens. Another wanted to giveaway goats to keep the grass down in the lower 9 with a “movable pen.” Did you know that in New Orleans it is legal for home dwellers to keep three chickens and one goat per household. Yeehaw! I had no idea. A teacher wanted to build a community garden at her school with the money. She also had an uncle living outside of Little Rock who gave away free goats. Someone had in mind two compost piles. I was almost relieved to hear one person talk about international work and another about using the money to help organize workers – at least I understood that stuff better.

But, it was exciting to listen to the ideas and to hear how even in the discussion people were already leveraging the C-note by fertilizing it with great ideas, community values, and, let’s be honest, adding to it with huge sweat equity that would be worth thousands.

We need to figure out how to add other people past the ones signed up for the first meeting, because we need to find room for the other folks in New Orleans who now want in. We may not have much money, but we’ve got good spirit, creativity to burn, and a well grounded community.

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