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Jill Harness
Secrets of the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy
by Jill Harness - March 31, 2010 - 10:51 AM

The Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy gives away $100 grants to people, as long as those people promise to give away the money in a creative way. Before we get into the actual philanthropic practices of the members, let’s take a quick look at the history of the program, which was started by Courtney Martin in New York City back in 2006.

Miss Martin was an aspiring writer who had just finished her first book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, and suddenly found herself in possession of a six-figure royalty advance. Unlike most people, who would be thrilled to have this amount of cash in their pockets, Martin felt guilty that she suddenly had so much money, so she decided to give some of it away to charity. The only problem was that she didn’t know how. In the end, she decided to give nine of her friends and family members $100 and then ask them to give it away as they saw fit. She only asked that they reported back to her a month later.

And thus, the Secret Society for Creative Philanthropy was born.

[Image by Flickr user Surat Lozowick.]

The organization met together on a regular basis, but in the last year, their publicity has exploded. The no-longer-secret society was featured in the New York Times, Forbes, and San Francisco Chronicle. Aside from the San Francisco and Athens chapters that have already sprung up, Martin says there are chapters being planned for Maui, Krakow, Houston, Santa Fe, Vancouver and Los Angeles. If your city isn’t on the list, Martin encourages you to just start your own anyway.

Now what about the giveaways that have already taken place in the existing chapters? Here are 15 that definitely stand out as prime examples of creative philanthropy in motion.

  • Editor Kate Torgovnick collected the works of young New York students involved in a nonprofit literacy program and is turning their writing into a book.
  • Brett Lockspeiser broke his $100 into dollar bills and sat in a San Francisco BART station with a sign that said, “I will give you $1 for you to give to someone else.” Many people gave it to a grateful musician who was playing in the same subway station. One passerby posted a note to Lockspeiser on Craigslist later, assuring she did pass on the dollar.
  • Television writer Becky Friedman broke her $100 into 10,000 pennies and then passed them along to friends who lived throughout the country. She then asked her friends to spread them out in their cities in order to make lucky pennies easier to find.

[Image by Flickr user Cobalt123.[

  • Helen Coster, a journalist for Forbes, put $100 into a “thank you” card and then asked her friend to give it to the friendly clerk at the local drug store who always manages to brighten her day when she buys toothpaste.
  • Kamy Wicoff, the founder of SheWrites.com, offered the award to the most frequent commenter on her woman’s writing website. The winner of the $100 ended up being a former corrections officer who was looking to take up writing.
  • Alphabet City resident Michael Radparvar spent his $100 to fix a bike he found on the street, which he then gave to a person whose bike was recently stolen.
  • David Ibnale tried to give away umbrellas to passersby during a Bay Area rainstorm, only to find that many people thought it was a suspicious act.
  • Jocelyn Wyatt filled up two boxes with Reese’s peanut butter cups, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and red licorice and then sent them to college students who were doing volunteer work in Guatemala and Senegal. Since she spent the full $100 on the treats, she had to spend an extra $120 of her own money to ship the food.
  • Christina Zanfagna lived out a movie scene and offered to buy drinks for everyone in a restaurant. How many times have you wanted to yell out to everyone “the next round’s on me”?
  • Clark Kellogg put the $100 in a bank account. He has left written instructions for his great-granddaughter to distribute the money (plus all that interest!) to strangers when she retrieves it in the next century.
  • Jeremy Mende brought a stack of dollar bills to San Francisco’s Union Square and then offered to pay people $1 if they had a conversation with one another. He videotaped the results and it’s now a popular online video:

100 Dollars 50 Conversations from MendeDesign on Vimeo.

  • That’s not the only viral video showing the works of these guerrilla do-gooders. Andrew Marantz paid strangers in New York’s Bryant Park to hold his hand and share secrets while he taped the connections:

  • Joshua Krafchin walked along New York’s B train and begged people to take one dollar bills from him. Like Ibnale, he found a lot of people were surprisingly suspicious to take something from a stranger with no strings attached. The expressions of the distrustful subway riders are pretty amusing:

  • Martin’s mother broke the $100 into 400 quarters and spread them around a grammar school playground, which provided the kids with one of the most stimulating recesses they had ever had.
  • Amy Coenen wrote inspirational messages about giving on the back of $5 bills and then left them as tips throughout the city.

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