Everybody knows what a Ponzi is – robbing Peter to pay Paul.
This pyramid system of fraud, which offers quick and often generous returns to investors using the money of other investors remains recent, both in history and memory, with Bernie Madoff’s US$50 billion Ponzi scheme and the widespread global shocks and aftershocks it generated.
The idea is not new. In 1857, Charles Dickens set out such a scheme in his novel Little Dorrit. In 1899, a Brooklyn bookkeeper William F. Miller made $1 million through a similar scam. Ponzi however, got its name from Charles Ponzi, the man who gained notoriety for the millions he made in the 1920’s through specious financial scheming.
But an Honest, Honourable Ponzi ?
Yes, it exists. Honestly and honourably.
The brainchild of Fleur Thomas in Singapore, Ponzi for a Purpose is an ironic adaptation of a criminal idea, a parody that brilliantly turns the very meaning of ‘Ponzi’ on its head. It uses a similar pyramid structure to make money, except that this money goes to a charity.
It is a gem of an idea, and its genius lies in its simplicity.
First, there is a ‘Charity of the Season’. Five people get together socially – for a cup of coffee perhaps or a walk, a film or a meal.
There is no limit to the number of people who can participate in an event (you have to be invited though) or the amount of money donated, but five people and ten dollars each is the minimum per event.
Now here’s the artistry in the idea.
The next month, each of the first five guests hosts their own Ponzi event and the five become twenty-five and their collective contribution becomes S$ 250.00.
This is replicated the next month and it grows to one hundred and twenty five people who generate S$ 1,250.00. The circles widen as it becomes a fundraising pyramid involving groups of friends, a sharing of passions or ideas or pastimes and the raising of money for a good cause.
By the sixth month – which is the end of a Ponzi season – the $50.00 and five people have become, at a minimum, 15,625 people and S$195,200. Significantly, apart from the money raised, 15,625 people have become aware of a need, have come together for a cause and have done their bit to make a difference in someone’s life, somewhere in the world.
What does an ‘Honest Ponzi’ require ?
The awareness of a need. The reputation of an established charity. The desire to help. A group of interested people. The commitment to host an event. Ideas. Energy. Enthusiasm. Trust.
All it involves is an individual doing something he or she likes, with a like-minded group, for an hour or two at the most. Those couple of hours, and ten dollars, could help build a house for a villager in Cambodia, or homes, schools and vocational centres for children living on the streets of Jaipur, India.
The Ponzi for a Purpose motto is a quote borrowed from Winston Churchill : We make a living from what we earn, we make a life by what we give. Fleur – in her words – is merely a conduit. The idea and the process are her passions and if it lights a spark in even just a few of the 15,625 people (every six months), the spirit of the endeavor will have been realized.
The Ponzi of Purpose
A German proverb goes: Charity sees the need, not the cause.
This takes on a new meaning as groups of Singaporeans and expatriates become a part of a larger movement through gatherings of their own, such as pole dancing (yes, you read that right), bird watching, organic food and farm visits, hikes, picnics for children, laksa lunches, cycling in Pulau Ubin, aqua classes, tennis, boxing, devotional music or a ‘naan’ demonstration by a chef … all individual, iconic Ponzi events.
The cheques are made out directly to the Charity. The process is transparent, enjoyable and inclusive; it is flexible and the only limitations are imagination and energy.
Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something (Author Unknown).
Time, in Singapore, is almost always at a premium, and mundane, daily preoccupations often hijack the best of intentions. The almost universal refrain is if I could, you know I would.
Ponzi for a Purpose eliminates that excuse. The best part, according to Fleur, is that nobody expects anything in return for his or her contribution, which is small in monetary terms but – on the flip side – extremely rewarding in terms of involvement and enjoyment.
Here is pragmatic philosophy put to good use. Act as if what you do makes a difference, said American philosopher William James. It does.
Photographs courtesy Fleur Thomas. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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