Tag Archives: philanthropy

Give what you can, take what you need: A social experiment in generosity

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Rush hour, Union Station, a busy Thursday night. In the long passageway that connects the gates, a crowd is forming; a cluster of iPhones trained on the wall not far from the gold line, where I am heading. Pretty quickly I see what’s causing the fuss: A giant blackboard-sized mural with dollar bills thumb-tacked onto it.


Those who aren’t photographing the tacked-up dollar bills are fumbling for their wallets to pull out cash. A few people swoop by and sheepishly help themselves to a dollar. Two tall blonde guys, clearly brothers, seem to be behind this; I talk to one and he says, “It’s a social experiment.”

A well-dressed woman stops and peels out a $5 bill from a designer purse and says, “I’m so grateful for all I have. This is inspiring. I could be in a position one day where I have nothing.”

More photos are snapped, more dollars are tacked on the board. The other brother tells me, “We started with about $40. More people are giving than taking.” The last time they did this, he tells me, they went to Union Rescue Mission to give haircuts to homeless men.

Why is it so amazing to see people giving away money? Maybe because we don’t usually see the social equation laid out so bare: A billboard asks you to give something or take something. It all seems so simple, and yet for so many people, giving time or money is a strain or a stress or a chore. By spelling it out, the brothers made it easy to participate, and better yet, they made people think.

When I get home, I do a bit of research. Turns out these guys are filmmakers. The haircuts at the Mission got turned into a short film, “What’s the Difference?”  Meaning, what’s the difference between a homeless person and you.

This experiment I happened upon was a way to gather video for a new film, it seems. Doesn’t diminish what they’re doing. In fact, even better: their social experiment will get repeated, in video, and maybe it will inspire others. It sure inspired rush-hour crowds at Union Station on a Thursday. It’s not just the freakishly strange idea of free money. Some people need a reminder that giving is possible, and is so easy.

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Compassion Cards: An innovative way to help the hungry

Artwork by Jim Hodges

Artwork by Jim Hodges

Reader Rebecca Strong of Seattle wrote this week to share a wonderful idea she’s been enacting when she sees people on the street asking for money.  I asked if I might abridge her email for this blog, and she agreed.  This is something we practice here in Los Angeles, too.  Just as it feels great to feed someone you love, so too does it feel great to give a meal to someone you don’t know—who needs it:

“I wanted to be compassionate, but I was uneasy about giving out money because, as a petite, middle-aged woman, I was uncomfortable opening my wallet to hand out money when walking alone in the city. I wanted to help people buy food or other necessities, but I worried that money might be used to buy drugs and alcohol. At the same time, I didn’t want to judge anyone as being more or less likely to buy drugs and alcohol, or more or less worthy of receiving help from me.

I asked my favorite Real Change vendor who sells his papers outside the Walgreen’s in my neighborhood for advice. (Real Change is a newspaper and organization that exists to provide opportunity and a voice for low-income and homeless people in Seattle.) He told me about one very cold morning when he was homeless and hungry. A man he did not know offered to buy him a hot breakfast. Together they went to a supermarket. Standing before a case of hot food in the deli, the hungry man chose what he wanted to eat, and the kind stranger paid for it. The man remembered every detail of that meal, and he said it was the most delicious food he had ever eaten. His suggestion to me was to purchase gift cards for restaurants like McDonalds and give them to the people on the streets who ask for money.

Since I don’t eat in fast food restaurants myself, and since I wanted to give people who might prefer healthier options the ability to choose their own food, I came up with the idea of giving supermarket gift cards instead.

So now I regularly purchase $5.00 gift cards from local supermarkets and food co-ops, and I keep them in my jacket pocket. Whenever I encounter someone out on the street who is asking for money, I offer a card. I explain that it is a gift card worth $5.00 to buy food. Most people are surprised, delighted, and grateful to receive a card for buying food. It seems to me that these gift cards are an ideal way to be compassionate towards people who have no money to buy food.

In my own mind, I call the supermarket gift cards I give out Compassion Cards because they allow me to be compassionate towards the needy people I encounter in the city. When I give a Compassion Card to someone on the street, although it is a brief encounter, it is a meaningful experience. It is an opportunity for me to offer help and for someone to receive my help in a personal way. It is uplifting for both of us.”

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Chain Reaction: St. Joan and the Fast Food Fortune

ImageNew year, new topic: Although not that new, to me.  I’ve been immersed in my research about Joan Kroc for two years now, and am ready to ‘come out’ and talk about it, just as I delve deeply into the writing of my book about her.

ImageOn Saturday, January 18th, please join me at the beautiful Insight LA center in Santa Monica, where I’ll tell the story of this remarkable woman’s connection to an art work just blocks away–which inspired me to dig into her backstory, and how she became one of the greatest (and least-recognized) philanthropists of our time.

Details, click here


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You can’t take it with you….

….and you really should share it before you go, anyway. Today’s Drucker Business Forum at KPCC in Pasadena featured Tom Tierney and his new book GIVE SMART: Philanthropy that Gets Results, all about wise charitable giving. And of course while money is important, Tierney stressed that time is, too, and planning, so for those of you out there who say you don’t have much, know that there’s more to giving than that.

The exciting news is that more people are being philanthropic than ever before; the trend is “giving while living.” If you’ve read Radio Shangri-La, you know that’s the bug I got after first visiting Bhutan, the insatiable desire to give stuff and money and time away, for the greater good.

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