Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy

Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

courtney_martinNew Orleans All of the surveys indicate that regular folks…working people and even poor people are much more generous as personal philanthropists that the rich.  The rich get the tax exemption and their names on the buildings, but basically the rest of us somehow enrich life itself for real people.

A story in the Times of all places (and not by Stephanie Strom who seems to be on the celebrity giving beat now and complaining about it on Twitter, I gather) seemed right along these lines as it reported on a young woman with good values.  She is a writer and got a big “6-figure” advance and wanted to give back, so Courtney Martin founded the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy by giving $100 bucks to 9 friends to give away and then report back a month later.   She and the Society (which now has chapters springing up in places like San Francisco in another week, but also Athens, Georgia, here, here!) have now been at this for four years and it has grown.

Some of the giving is contrived and pointless like leaving lucky pennies around, but some seems plain and profound like giving $100 to a drugstore clerk who cheers up the customers at a Duane Reade store in NYC, which has to count extra as a classic example of a “random act of kindness.”  Another great example was the friend who posted a query on Twitter about how to give away $100 and ended up matching the best suggestion which was to double down and both give to an abortion rights group in Texas.  I love that!

It was also interesting to see the accountability inherent in the “report back.”  When I was on the board of the Tides Foundation, there was always a lot of talk about “giving circles,” and in a micro-philanthropy way, that seems to be exactly what the Secret Society is achieving here as well.

I also like the idea that these are micro-gifts rather than micro-loans.  There are no strings attached here.  Even if it’s all way too cutesy-cutesy, but it’s all very interesting.  How could this be anything but a good thing?

None of it is too secret, though it was all news to me.

Courtney Martin in fact has been out there promoting this in her writing and speaking.  In fact in The American Prospect she was writing a smack down on Oprah’s giving in 2008, and told a great, finishing story.  Despite the Secret Society being criticized for elitist values for privileged young people, this story epitomized working class, blue-collar philanthropy:

One of my favorite moments ever at a Secret Society event was when my friend Jasica talked about buying her friend, Larry, a winter coat. He’d had some hard luck that year and couldn’t afford one. Larry spontaneously busted out his shiny, green coat and paraded (think Priscilla, Queen of the Desert goes Alaska) around the bar with a million-dollar smile on his face. He wasn’t embarrassed because it wasn’t framed as charity. Jasica wasn’t self-congratulatory because it wasn’t about her. And the whole community wasn’t tense because it wasn’t about competition. It was about a friend, a coat, and fulfilling a real desire to share.

For those of us with no money who are just barely making ends meet, I actually think this is a great way to distribute gifts and kindness, enliven our own lives, make a small difference, and instill generosity in our friends and communities.

Courtney, sign me up to organize the New Orleans chapter of this Secret Society!

Friends, I think we need to organize a lot of these in a lot of places, so better hide from me!