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Falling into philanthropy

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By Leslie Williams

Teddy Gross never intended to devote 15 years of his life to a nonprofit organization.

But the founder and executive director of Common Cents, a New York City-based organization that empowers children to be philanthropists, says his perseverance with the program is one of his proudest accomplishments.

“It wasn’t like I got into the nonprofit world at all,” he says. “The nonprofit world got into me.”

Gross, who considers himself a writer by trade, says he was never meant for his current line of work, although he nurtured the organization from its days as a fledgling nonprofit into one that has worked with three million children over the years.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he says. “But it changed me. The activities themselves actually transformed me.”

The group’s main effort is the Penny Harvest, an annual event involving 800 New York City elementary and middle schools that begins with half-a-million children collecting pennies door-to-door.

Once the pennies have been collected, the children decide which nonprofits will receive the funds.

Gross likes to say the pennies have been “recycled and reanimated,” rather than merely collected.

The most recent penny harvest, completed in fall 2005, brought in $656,000, and this year’s grant recipients include a handful of organizations working to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Teddy Gross

Job: Executive director, Common Cents

Born: 1949, Arlington, Va.

Family: Wife, Ruth Nass; daughter, Norah Gross

Education: B.A., English and classics, Brandeis University

Hobbies: Writing, jogging

Currently reading: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals,” by Michael Pollan; “Fat Girl: A True Story,” by Judith Moore

Inspiration: “I think I take inspiration from everywhere. I take it a lot from my own childhood and memories of my own childhood.  I felt like a real person [capable of making important decisions], like an adult in a child’s body.”

And since its inception in 1991, Penny Harvest children have raised and given away a total of about $5 million.With a staff of 16 people and the help of a handful of local foundations, corporate donors and roughly 30 individual donors, the organization operates on about $1 million a year while a new national expansion effort operates on another $1 million a year.An additional $1 million in donations and grants from the Department of Education, among others, annually support the teachers who devote extra time as Penny Harvest “coaches,” and pay for the trucks that carry millions of pennies to be counted.Seth Cohen, program director for Common Cents, says Gross’s sense of idealism is a guiding light for the organization.“In a way he’s like the anti-executive director, always thinking big picture, blue sky,” he says.

“Teddy is all about tomorrow and pushing the envelope, which I think is incredibly refreshing,” unlike many executive directors whose attentions are focused solely on budget and the bottom line, says Cohen.

Gross says he realized the need for such a program 16 years ago when his daughter, then 4 years old, pointed out a cold, homeless man near their Brooklyn home.

She asked her father if they could take the man home, and her desire to help awakened something in Gross.

“I was devastated that I had been so out of sync with her needs,” he says. “It led me to wonder, how I was going to help her become a conscious and connected human being.”

His initial response was to write a story about children collecting pennies to help the homeless.

“Then one day I just jumped out of the place where I was working and I went over to my wife and said, ‘I think this could actually work,’” he says.

The first Penny Harvest, organized by Gross and his daughter in 1991, collected $98,000, all of which went to the Coalition for the Homeless.

He says the overwhelming sense of gratitude that resulted from handing over the first check was one that he wanted the children who collect the pennies to share.

The program now is on the verge of a national expansion, fueled by a $1.5 million grant from the Ford Foundation and “some talented young whippersnappers” from Common Cents, says Gross, adding that the group is working to increase its sustainability by courting more donors.

The organization aims to reach the children who still have a sense of empathy and an overarching desire to help people, says Gross, and he believes the outcome of that is clear.

“It shows children how to become givers,” he says.

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