Leader Mary Herman asked the 150 or so congregants at the Washington Ethical Society on 16th Street NW to check their programs. Ten of them would find a randomly inserted blue card. She asked those 10 to stand up.
“I was wondering what we were being volunteered for,” said Lisa Silverberg, a Silver Spring nonprofit consultant who only recently began attending services at the society, a church-like organization centered on humanism and secular ethics instead of belief in God.
Instead, each blue card was a golden ticket of sorts. There was a collective gasp of surprise when Silverberg and nine others were each given an envelope containing a $100 bill.
The only catch? They had to give it away.
The windfall at services last month was a Thanksgiving experiment in generosity. Herman gave the winners a month to pass the money along in some way that would “make a difference in a person’s life.”
At the Ethical Society’s annual Thanksgiving “stone soup” celebration Sunday, they reported back on what turned out to be the surprisingly complex challenge of giving away someone else’s money.
“I stayed awake the first night thinking of what we do with it,” Patricia Langermann, a sociology professor at George Washington University, said after the service.
“At first it seemed like there was a million things you could do with it,” said Jill Brantley, Langermann’s partner and a fellow GWU professor. “But the amount seemed to shrink. How could we best make a difference with $100?”
They considered everything from the random-act-of-kindness approach (making the day for 10 panhandlers) to the drop-in-the-bucket donation (the Washington Animal Rescue League is a favorite charity). They even thought of giving it to a political campaign, but they decided any candidate who needed $100 in late October was probably beyond help.
Eventually, unable to decide, they added $100 of their own and split the gift between a craft cooperative for homeless women in the District and a tiny grass-roots lobbying shop working to end mountaintop coal mining.
“We decided it had to be a small enough group that $100 would make a difference,” Langermann said. “A hundred dollars may actually help them keep the lights on for a few months.”
One recipient gave his $100 as a first birthday present to the daughter of a political activist he admires, hoping the money would help pay the bills of an idealistic-but-struggling young family. Another donated $100 to D.C. Thrive, a homeless aid organization, and got a friend to donate another $100.
A visitor to the Society on that Sunday — who was surprised to be given cash — reported by e-mail that she had sent her money to Heifer International. There, $100 can provide a family in the developing world with a goat or three hives of honeybees or a fifth share of a milk cow.
Mary Bauer immediately mailed the money to her mother’s neighbor in Annapolis, an elderly retiree who is living “check to check,” she said.
“I felt so touched by this opportunity,” said Bauer, a retired Prince George’s County librarian. “I wanted to give it to someone close to me. She was just choked up when she called.”
Only one of the 10 people selected to distribute $100 has yet to report on how she made use of her gift. She was a one-time visitor who did not leave her contact information.
“She was very excited when she left, very eager to do something meaningful” with the money, Herman said. “And I believe she will. We’ll hear from her eventually.”
Herman spoke as members of the society noisily moved tables into the main hall for their annual pre-Thanksgiving lunch. The vast pot of rocks, potatoes and vegetables that the children filled during the service had miraculously become steaming kettles of “stone soup,” along the lines of the folk tale about creating shared abundance in times of want.
Society leaders decided to add the $100 giveaways to their Thanksgiving rituals this year after reading about a pastor in New York who doled out cash to his parishioners, urging them to pay it forward. Herman, drawing $1,000 from the Society coffers, challenged her recipients to make their generosity go viral.
“We’re all about deed before creed here,” Herman said. “Our members are always looking for ways to walk the walk of our values.”
For Silverberg and her partner, Cindy Hicks, who also received $100, giving away the money became a family project. With guidance from their son Jesse, 10, they bought a cartload of new toys at Target and dozens of children’s books at Value Village. Now their house is filled with bundles destined for 20 families fleeing domestic violence with help from the District Alliance for Safe Housing.
“We couldn’t find yo-yos or jump-ropes anywhere,” Jesse said. “So we ordered those from Amazon.”
Mairi Breen Rothman, a Takoma Park midwife, gave her C-note to the Polaris Project, a group that provides housing and help to victims of human trafficking. But not before she executed a minor fundraising blitz among members of her discussion group, increasing the total donation to $700. Her sister, who had also gotten a blue ticket that Sunday, added her money as well.
“I love the idea of expanding Thanksgiving beyond just stuffing yourself and watching football,” Breen Rothman said. “This was taking the idea of gratitude and turning around and giving to someone else.”