September 2010


Tomorrow starts my Month of Hundreds, and my first day of 31 to give $100 to a stranger I meet during the course of the day. I’m feeling a little weary tonight, and a bit apprehensive. I worry that my intentions will be misunderstood by some as “showing off”, or that this whole thing is just a dumb idea altogether. I hope I can let go of trying to control the outcome and remain open to whatever unfolds. I’m excited to get started! Tomorrow will be interesting.

I wonder what James would do with $100.

We first met when he started coming around before garbage pick-up to gather cans and bottles. We would chat occasionally and I knew he was living on the street and struggling with health problems. Eventually we started saving our recyclables for him and he’d ring the door once a week or so to pick them up. A couple of times he said he needed money to buy insulin and I’d give him $10 or $20. One spring he showed up on a bicycle, pulling a lawn mower and looking for work. We paid him to mow our lawn a few times, but felt awkward (and surprised) when we discovered that he was storing the lawnmower in our backyard.

One night after dark James came to the door asking for money. He’d been drinking and was not his usual pleasant self. I told him I didn’t have anything for him and he became demanding and belligerent. Feeling vulnerable and somewhat hurt, I told him not to ring the bell after dark again.

James seemed to kind of vanish soon after that incident. Other men with shopping carts took his place on garbage night, and then they were gone too. These days a worn-down middle-aged couple makes the rounds most weeks, their cart piled precariously by the time they make it to our place.

Lately I’ve started seeing James in the neighborhood again. He’s lost weight, and more than a few teeth, but he’s got a lady friend now and seems pretty cheerful most of the time. It’s been a few years since we’ve talked, and when I smile and say hello, I can’t tell if he recognizes me.

I saw the two of them twice today, once on my way to work and again on the way home. In between, I spent a day at the office and attended a luncheon showcasing the great work my employer does in the community. I went to the bank and picked up my first supply of c-notes.

Sometime over the course of the day James and his lady friend had swapped their shopping carts for a couple of bicycles. There was a young woman with them as they rode slowly down the sidewalk. I could see the three of them talking, but couldn’t tell if they were just getting to the crosswalk at the same time or if they were together. The talking became more animated and I imagined that James maybe looked angry. I found myself wanting to hear what was being said and lowered my window as they crossed the street. The young woman turned the corner by herself, while James and his lady rolled on. When they were partway down the block they turned to look back at her and the young woman gave a small wave. Then I heard her say, “Bye, Grandma!”.

Should we give till it hurts? No, I don’t think so. We want less hurting in the world, not more – that’s the whole idea. But part of me wants to ask: if it doesn’t hurt, how do I know I am doing it right?

An article in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy profiles a mathematics professor at Northern Virginia Community College who works two additional jobs so he can earn enough money to give away half of his $100,000 income each year. He can barely afford his taxes and mortgage. Watching the accompanying video, entitled “Giving Until it Hurts”, really got me thinking.

I am so fortunate to be able to give what I consider a meaningful amount without sacrificing my own financial well-being. But what if that weren’t the case? Could I still “afford” to be generous? Would I be? If I just give away what I have that’s “extra”, what does that say about my generosity? Could I give more this year? Today?

Some of the most generous people I know have nothing to spare but they give anyway. I have seen patients stuff a bill or two in the donation jar at the free clinic when I know they just lost their job. One grateful patient says he always thinks of us first whenever he earns a little money, and regularly sends us checks for $50. He lives in a rundown house on next to nothing and is one of our major donors. I don’t think it hurts. I think he feels great about it.

Maybe by saying “give till it hurts” we really mean “give till you feel it”. That’s a lot of what my Month of Hundreds is about: paying more attention to who and what is going on around me; being more present and more conscious. Starting Friday I’ll be giving away $100 a day!

Friday will be the start of my Month of Hundreds, during which I will give $100 away each day to a stranger. I’m thinking a lot about what may unfold, and expecting the unexpected. I was truly surprised, however, by what a friend of mine did today. She heard about the project, has been following the blog and today gave me an envelope with a $100 bill inside. Wait a minute: I’m supposed to be the one giving away the money here! I am not sure what to do with the $100; I may start a day early or give two $100’s on a given day. Or go a day longer. Maybe I am feeling a bit of what some of my recipients may feel: grateful and supported, as well as acutely aware of the power of the gift and the need to use it or pass it on in a meaningful way. Lots to think about! What would you do with a C-note?

Philanthropy: the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.


Every day in October I am going to give away $100 cash to someone I encounter during the course of my day. Starting October 1 I will tell the story of each day’s “giveaway”. In the meantime I am hoping these random thoughts will continue to spark discussion of issues around money and giving.

Do you have to be a millionaire to be a philanthropist? What does it mean to be generous? If you are following this blog, chances are you are generous, a giver of money and therefore a philanthropist. Right? Do you see yourself that way? There was an interesting article in our local newspaper today about the shifting demographics and priorities of philanthropists in our community and it got me thinking.

I started seeing myself as a philanthropist about ten years ago when we began a yearly ritual of sitting down during Chanukah to make some family decisions about our giving for the year. Choosing a target percentage of our income (between 7% and 10%, depending on circumstances), we add up everything we have donated since the beginning of the year and what we still have to give. We always have an overinflated idea of how much we have actually given up to that point. Everyone has a chance to advocate for their “cause” and the kids always had a say in the process when they were at home (which is how it turns out we are on the mailing list of “Save the Tigers”).

Giving in this way allows me to make a statement about the kind of world I want to live in. It gives me a sense of meaning and consistency. I want to live in a world where people get the help they need when they are sick, so we give to a number of free clinics. No one goes hungry in this world, so we give to local food pantries. People should be shielded from the impact of natural disasters, so (not knowing what else to do) we write a check to Haiti Relief. I want to honor and encourage my friends and family, so I support their good work. In my dream world everyone has an equal opportunity to be healthy and prosperous, so we give in a way that I hope levels the playing field a tiny bit. I want my world to be filled with beautiful things but these days that kind of feels like a luxury. Sometimes someone I know well needs help and I realize how meaningless it would be to direct all my giving to strangers and turn away from my neighbor. But maybe I give less than I should, and maybe I do it somewhat reluctantly.

So, what am I saying with this month of hundreds about the kind of world I want to live in? I want to live in a world where wonderful and unexpected things happen and where things don’t always have to make perfect sense. In this world, a small gift can change a life. In this world, no one is invisible and my eyes are wide open.

Every day of October I will give $100 to someone I encounter during the course of my routine. I got the idea after receiving a check as beneficiary of my mother’s retirement fund. A number of people have asked me to explain more why I am doing this and, particularly, how it honors my mother.

My mother, Gina, died in May at age 89. She was born in Berlin to a wealthy Jewish couple who spoke French at home and travelled extensively. As a teenager in the late 1930’s her parents sent her to supposed safety in England, where she moved in with a family of strangers. She spent the war years in London as an enemy alien and joined the British Army’s search and rescue efforts. Because of her small size and athleticism she was teamed with a dog and sent into the rubble of bombed out buildings to locate survivors. Through a series of miracles (the details of which I could never extract from her), my mother was reunited with her parents in New York City in the 1940’s. Although her education was interrupted and she never finished high school, Gina perfected her English by reading Dickens, eventually spoke without a trace of a foreign accent, and became a nationally recognized expert on the education of gifted children.

Despite my mom’s privileged background, years of displacement and trauma resulted in a scarcity mentality that permeated our family’s emotional life and left me with scars of my own. My father was successful in the Ginsberg family gas station business and, later, as a Legal Aid attorney. That didn’t keep my mother from scrimping and saving with single-minded fervor, budgeting a single dollar for meat to feed our family of four, then holding back half of the meal as “leftovers” for the next day. Until I was old enough to recognize my mother’s shortcomings along with the trappings of middle class suburban life, I thought we were dirt poor.

My father had a heart attack and died suddenly when I was 17, a few months before I was to start my freshman year at Barnard College. Believing financial ruin was just around the corner, my mother told me I was on my own; without my dad’s income there was no money to pay for my education. A serious rupture in our relationship developed when she refused to provide information to the financial aid office, jeopardizing my ability to start school. With the help of the college I became emancipated, took out loans and started classes through a work-study program.

My mother remarried, developed a successful career and lived very comfortably. Yet, she remained convinced until she died that her future held peril and financial uncertainty. As for me – practicing many of the frugal habits she taught me, I worked hard and eventually paid off all my student loans. Some sore spots persisted in our relationship although we spoke almost every day and, finally, found genuine sweetness with each other.

I have to admit that my mother would think this a silly exercise, at best. I tried countless times to convince her that she could afford to be generous with herself, her grandchildren and in support of causes she cared about. But she was always puzzled by the notion of giving money away, and would certainly never have handed cash to a stranger. From her perspective, she had earned everything she had and there was no need to share.

So, why am I giving away a month of hundreds? In part, I want to prove to myself that I can do something a little crazy and unexpected and that life will go on (and – possibly – even improve). I want to be more conscious of the people around me and to challenge my notions of worthy-ness. I believe I honor my mother in striving to be my best self.  And I hope to honor and preserve the person she might have become (had history been more kind) by performing random acts of generosity and sweetness in her name.

Starting October 1, I will give $100 to a stranger every day for the month. I have some ideas about how I will go about this, but it is still taking shape in my mind and I hope I’ll open to shifting as I go.

I recognize we can never anticipate (and certainly not control) all the consequences of even our best-intended actions. I am bothered by the possibility that I could kill someone with my kindness. What if a heroin user overdoses as the result of a $100 windfall?

On the other hand, how many countless times have I consciously turned away from an obvious need?  How many people have I walked blindly past, when even a couple of bucks might have made all the difference?

Have you given a gift (monetary or otherwise) and found out that it did much more good than you had hoped? Or harm that you never anticipated? Keep the stories coming!

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