Here’s a thought experiment: suppose your church was given $10,000 to distribute to the poor. How would the church spend it?

Most churches probably would have an organized program to aid worthy charities. Due diligence would be taken to ensure that the charities would put the money to productive use and that the money went to qualified 501 (c)(3)’s. A responsible amount for overhead would be taken out by the church and by the grant recipients. Some fraction of the grant would eventually reach the poor.

That isn’t what happened at the Severna Park United Methodist Church in Severna Park, Maryland. As Washington Post religion reporter Julie Zauzmer[1] recounts, that is because the church received the money as an anonymous donation—on the condition that a hundred members of the congregation each get a hundred-dollar bill, and decide how to give it away to help the poor.

The anonymous donor said she made the gift after the death of Heather Heyer in the riot that took place last August in Charlottesville, Virginia over Confederate monuments. She eased her pain by buying a gift card at a Starbucks and telling the cashier that everyone behind her get free coffee. The donor had recently moved to Severna Park, and proposed her gift to the church’s pastor, Rev. Ron Foster, who enthusiastically accepted the offer.

It turns out that getting a hundred $100 bills isn’t easy. It took three banks to come up with the bills. But the transactions took place, and on the first Sunday of December, congregants who went to one of the church’s three services were able to pick up a hundred-dollar bill, as long as they promised to help the poor.

Now there’s a lot of academic research suggesting that the best way to help the poor is to give them money, either through nonprofits like Give Directly or by handing them cash. That may be true when it comes to donations in the millions or billions. But the congregants of Severna Park United Methodist had a lot of variety in their giving.

Zauzmer doesn’t, of course, describe what happened to all hundred donations. Some donors, it seemed, did indeed pass on cash, such as giving servers hundred-dollar tips. But others put a lot of thought into their gifts. Among the ways the hundred dollars was used:

A cancer patient got “ginger ale and soup and warm socks.”

A “needy fourth grader” was taken shopping so he could buy socks, shoes, and underwear, and could buy a gift for his parents. The boy, says Zauzmer, “said it was the best day of his life.”

A couple worked with their seven-year-old to create bags filled with McDonald’s gift cards, socks, and hand warmers. Whenever anyone asked them for money, they gave the beggar a gift bag.

At least two donors decided to match the hundred-dollar gift. One woman went to a local pet supply store and loaded a shopping cart with $275 of pet food, which she donated to a local animal shelter. Another donor added a hundred dollars to the kitty, and went to a K-Mart to spend the $200 paying off layaways for strangers.

The gift that gave the anonymous donor the most pleasure was done by Dave Doss, who bought ten pizzas and some Orange Crush and went to a building where he knew homeless people congregated. Then he spent the afternoon treating the poor to a pizza party and spending time talking to them about their problems.

Rev. Foster told Zauzmer that many congregants told him that they spent a good deal of time thinking how to give, “perhaps even more than they would have had they been handing out their own funds.”

The process of handing out the money, Rev. Foster said, was “good theology” because “it’s a good way to think about your life, that you’ve been entrusted with great gifts. And how do you turn around and use them?”

But what the Severna Park story shows is that giving shouldn’t be limited to organized charities. It is something everyone can—and should—do. The lesson we all can learn from this experiment is that the best way to give is to spend more time thinking about how to give—and then make sure your gift is something the recipient truly needs.


[1] I wrote about Zauzmer’s reporting once before, in this story about a Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll that asked people their opinions about why people were poor.




Image rights: featured image was designed by Philanthropy Daily, with the use of the file of of flying bills, posted  used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International Public License.