Interviewsand Articles

 

An Experiment In Generosity: Sally Anderson

by Sally Anderson, Mar 12, 2008


 

 

Note from Nipun Mehta of ServiceSpace.org: "I'm going to be in New York next week for a conference on 'Philanthropy and Intuition.' And incidentally, the day before we'll try to stir up some good trouble. Last month, I got a $7500 check from a woman I'd never met. No explanations, no strings attached. It turns out she's a philanthropist; every six months, a few of her friends sit together in a space of silence, bring in the consciousness of an everyday hero that serendipity has brought to them, and write down a number on a blank sheet of paper. They average out the numbers and write the check. I still haven't met the woman who wrote the check. When anything comes to you in such a way, it's so special that it has to be passed on."
    Mehta explained that an idea of what to do with the money emerged spontaneously during a conversation he had with Richard Rosen of Miriam's Well. They would try an experiment: five diverse friends-ranging from a Rabbi to a stockbroker to a raw foods activist to a soccer player-would bring in five people and surprise them with $500 checks to "pay it forward." They would then gather in a space of gratitude to share ideas and reflections about how to give the money away. It would be a radical, gift-economy* approach to philanthropy. No one would know what to expect. And that was exactly the point. Three weeks later, the participants would reconvene to share the stories of what happened.
     Here's the story of what happened for one of those participants, Sally Anderson...
     The plan's simple enough: Take five hundred dollars, given by an anonymous donor, and pass it on. No strings attached. Focus on small acts of generosity, expect nothing in return, serve strangers. Person to person, randomly, serendipitously.
     I left the meeting, with a soft, warm feeling. We'd brainstormed together: buy coffee for strangers, pay tolls for the guy behind you, pass it out on the street.  I've thought about projects like this, and now I would be part of one. We were asked only to take note, be transparent, and report back. 

Week One
I've managed to give away twenty dollars to a very nice paint-splattered woman who was picking white lilacs in someone else's yard. She laughed when I offered her twenty dollars. 
     "Thank you," she said, holding the twenty in the same hand with the lilacs and reaching to shake my hand with the other. I smiled, feeling great. Supporting the arts, I thought.
     She asked about the project. I told her I didn't know how hard it would be to give away money, and told her of my failed attempts the day before.
     She said, "I live just down here. Would you like to stop in?"
     "No, no," I said. 
     "I could show you my work."
     "I've got a bunch of things to do," I lied.
     "Are you sure?" she asked, for the third time.
     "I'm sure."
     As I returned to my car, I realized I'd done exactly what the people yesterday had done to me-avoid a stranger at all costs, no matter how generous the offer. The day before I'd gone to Hannaford's. My plan: To buy someone's groceries. Food for families, I thought. 
     In the check-out line a woman with three children stood ahead of me. I rallied my courage as she put the last of her food on the moving belt: "Say, I've been given some generosity money to give away randomly, and I'd love to pay cash for your groceries." She frowned, "No, thank you." She moved to the end of the counter. I sighed when she exited without looking back. 
     The checker asked, "How are you today, ma'am?" 
     "Fine."
     The man behind me said, "Looks like you eat healthy."
     "Oh, most of this is for my husband's lunch. He takes five pieces of fruit to work every day." I invoked "husband" automatically.
     The man laughed. "Have you ever tried this iced tea?" He had a twelve pack of some beverage I'd never seen.
     I shook my head no.
     "The best part is that it's alcoholic!"
     I nodded. "Hmm," I thought, maybe the first offer hadn't worked because I didn't have the stranger-friendly-connection thing. I turned to the man and said, "I'm doing a generosity project, and if you'll let me I'll buy your iced tea for you."
     The man's friendly face actually changed colors. He just said, "No."
     I pushed my cart to the parking lot, all the while wondering, Why do I feel like a criminal? And noticing I'd just intruded on other people's worlds with an offer that had raised their guard instead of lowering it.

Week Two
Gave $60 to a woman starting her own business. She accepted, then hugged me.
     Later: Bought two cups of coffee for strangers at Bread Alone, where I met C. She came up with the idea of putting $5 bills in envelopes and just handing them out and saying, "Thank you!" combining generosity and gratitude. She was so excited she said she'd try it herself with her own money, just for the fun of it. 
     Later: Roleplayed giving $5 in envelopes to two other friends. They suggested that $5 would be insulting and that I should give at least $20. I asked if they'd like to join me in giving away money. They both declined.
     Jade's Bakery: Paid for my coffee and said, "And his too," indicating a young man nearby who had a head set on, listening to music, while something was being grilled for him. "$4.75," the server said. The young man came to the counter and reached into his pocket as I was leaving. He and the woman spoke in Spanish, and he turned to look at me. I waved and left, got into my car quickly and drove away, like a guilty Robin Hood. 
     Hooker Avenue: I saw an older man with a shopping cart full of bottles. I stopped and said, "Thank you for picking up all these bottles. Will you let me give you this?" (I had $20 in my hand.) He took it.  "I'll send it to my grandson. He needs school clothes." 
     He told me about his son, his grandson, about the Shriners, who do free medical care for children. He told me he earns $70 to $80 a week with bottles and cans. He kept thanking me and wanted me to hear more and more of his story. My listening seemed more valuable to him than money. My car wasn't parked well and I left him with a handshake after about ten minutes, feeling like I didn't give enough of anything: time or money. 

Week Three
Gave $20 dollars to a happy server at Omega Cafe. I told her it was part of a generosity project. She said, "Then I'll be generous and share it with the other servers!" As I sat with my iced coffee, a man and woman walked by and smiled. I went to their table and told them I was passing out money and gave them each $5. They laughed and said, "We'll pass it on." The woman said, "I love that you're doing this; in fact, I love you!" 
     Oh, Omega. I could give it all away there.
     Took the train to the city. Walked to Bryant Park. Went to the park bathroom, which was immaculate because of the bathroom attendant's work. I'm so grateful for clean bathrooms, I would've tipped her in any case. In this case, I gave her $20. She looked me right in my eye, nodded and said, "Thank you." I looked her right in the eyes, nodded and said, "Thank You!" 
     I gave a dollar to a blind man with a cup in the subway. Sometimes I'm not sure about that fine line: Am I giving my money or the project's money? In fact, I think the project is inspiring me to be on the lookout for giving opportunities: A dollar at CVS for Lou Gehrig's Disease, $5 to the salvation army person, a bigger tip. 
     Later: My husband suggested Good Will. He said, "Why not give some money to a family? It should be easy." So we stopped at Good Will. I saw a young man buying T-shirts and said, "I'm part of a generosity project. I'd like to give you $20." He said, "Wow, thanks, that's great! Are there more people like you out there?" We laughed and talked for a few minutes. I was feeling very successful, so as I passed by a man, woman and child with a cart looking like they were going to do some serious shopping, I offered again, much as I had with the young man. This man looked horrified, said, "No!" and walked away. 
     There I was again with that awful feeling of embarrassment and awkwardness. I went over to where my husband was looking for jeans and said, "Let's go."  We walked to the parking lot. "Why do I feel like crying?" I said. He shook his head and shrugged, "Look, I'm not even gutsy enough to try it. Don't ask me." 

Week Four
Talking to my friend S in California. She said, "Hmm, I'll bet it would be easy-peasy here in San Francisco." I said, "Let's check it out. I'll send you $20 and you give it away. The only requirement is that you tell me the story." She also commented, "I think everyone can be bought. If you'd offered the guy at Good Will a hundred dollars, I bet he'd've taken it."
     Two friends suggested I set up a table full of $5 bills with a sign that says FREE! I wondered where I could do that without getting arrested. I'll try it and let you know what happens.

Follow Up
My friend in California decided to send the $20 back to me...

*What is a Gift Economy? It's an economic system in which goods and services are given freely. In a gift economy, the circulation of gifts within the community leads to increase-increase in connections, increase in relationship strength increase in the circulation of wealth.
 
 

About the Author

Sally Anderson was one of 25 people who were given $500 and the task of giving the money away as part of a spontaneous experiment in generosity. This is her account of that experience.

 

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