New Orleans Parade magazine is still an insert feature in my hometown paper. Last Sunday a copy was shoved my way marking a story about a “shoestring philanthropist.” I like that term. I’m a huge sucker for these stories, because while billionaires get the features in big newspapers and magazines, surveys and real analysis regularly reveal that a higher percentage of income is given and more philanthropy is extended from regular citizens and much lower income families helping neighbors, relatives, and strangers with the little they have on a daily basis. An economist correctly pointed out in a recent piece in the New York Times, that not surprisingly charitable deductions were weighted heavily towards contributions from the rich, rather than benefiting citizens of average income, adding another nail in what I would hope to be the coffin of charitable tax deductions.
So I may like the term “shoestring philanthropist,” but I’m even a bigger fan of the “everyday philanthropist” understanding the value and importance of their contributions to community and cause. This year I touted a group of friends who came together originally in New York and then elsewhere, including a group of us in New Orleans, to create chapters of the Secret Society of Creative Philanthropy. In New Orleans we divided up a gift of $1000 (my unexpected royalty check from writing Citizen Wealth which seemed to be destined to seek a way to multiply citizen wealth of course) among a group of organizers, family, and friends to see what people would make happen with $100. This kind of freelance activity turned out to be harder than you might imagine for many people, because the small sum of money had to be matched by a greater total of work, initiative, and effort to actually make something happen. It’s not over until it’s over, but people who simply passed the money on during this first year of our chapter, may actually end up multiplying the benefit of the money, more than those that hoped to make the “money work” in a real project. I don’t think that’s unusual in general, though it is kind of surprising for this highly motivated group. We’ll see.
The Parade article propped a retired San Francisco teacher named Marc Gold living in a hotel room in Bangkok most of the year on savings and a union pension (not old enough yet for Social Security) who gives away a couple of grand a year of his own and sums raised in coffee klatches with friends and others in the United States. Another story told of a family on the Virginia coast that gives out about $3000 per year solicited from emails on “philanthropic” travels to Thailand, Panama, and elsewhere. Some of these small efforts can grow from such seeds to something more serious. I know of no better example than that of Mary Whelan, the mother of a former ACORN staff member and friend, who started small scale community development projects in Uganda and Kenya from such personal spirit and commitment and constructed a nonprofit (Give Us Wings) that raises more than a $100,000 a year from friends and others in the Twin Cities.
As organizers we scoff at much of this as nothing more than small scale social work applying band aids in a hopeless triage requiring major surgery. Surely a contribution to ACORN International with a wider scope and impact on tens of thousands creating power and permanent change might arguably be better, but I’m a “lift all boats” guy, too. The more we start enabling the spirit and commitment of people who give a ten, twenty, or more every month, and connect them to the wider vision of their communities, countries, and the world, the better chance we have that that more will flow to social change and the organizational agents of change, and that a culture of shoestring and grassroots philanthropy will supplant the worship of the rich and the default agenda bias of millionaires, billionaires, and zillionaires often simply siphoning off ill gotten gains.
In this season it seems a good time to celebrate and support the community of small donors and the power of their dollars rather than the big buckaroos and their demands for concessions and press notices. Let a thousand of these flowers bloom and the harvest be one of plenty.