An unexpected journey: Offhand comment inspires prankster philanthropy

Professor John Kessel of the CHASS Department of English
Professor John Kessel of the CHASS Department of English

Some of the most creative fundraising starts with an offhand remark, perhaps even a sarcastic jab, followed by a classic light bulb moment.

For example, one person – for the sake of argument, let’s say he’s a distinguished professor at NC State – might comment via social media that he considers ecstatic anticipation about The Hobbit : An Unexpected Journey so off-putting that “nobody could pay me enough money to see that movie.” Bemused friends joke that the challenge should be posted on eBay or Kickstarter.

That’s when things clicked for Sam Montgomery-Blinn, who quickly organized an online drive on Bull Spec, a Raleigh-based magazine of speculative fiction. He persuaded his friend, Professor John Kessel, winner of a Nebula Award for science fiction/fantasy writing and a member of the CHASS Department of English, to turn the joke into a serious fundraiser.

If people really are willing to donate to one of his favorite charities just to see him suffer through a big-screen spectacle, Kessel thought, so be it.

“Basically, we indicted him with his own words,” jokes Montgomery-Blinn, who, with Kessel’s blessing, posted an amusing menu of funding options.  All proceeds
will benefit the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund (SFWA).

“I’ve taught The Hobbit many times in my fantasy class, but I’m thinking the movie probably isn’t very good,” Kessel says of the project’s genesis. “I’m kind of a curmudgeon about some things and people are aware of that, but I also have a sense of humor and a commitment to help out when I can.”

Kessel says he chose SFWA because “a lot of freelance writers can’t get medical insurance because they’re self-employed. This fund helps people who need medical care.”

While such one-off fundraisers typically do not cultivate a community of givers, this type of “prankster philanthropy” could develop into a meaningful giving model, says Iavor Ivanov, vice president of digital at Fenton, a public interest communications firm.

“He’s concocted the perfect guerilla operation,” Ivanov says with a laugh. “The connection between what he’s doing and how it links back to an issue that’s important to him is fabulous. Hopefully that will connect with the people who are giving and they’ll continue to support the cause.”

While a you-can’t-pay-me-enough campaign may not be a good fit for the sober efforts of a major organization, Ivanov says it is a good way to engage young givers.

“Think about the student who gave $5 just to be part of it,” he says. “The thing we see across clients and campaigns is that people are more likely to engage with something if it’s fun, instead of a house-is-burning situation. It could be the start of something bigger.”

While most pledges were under $25, all givers enjoyed benefits that increased dramatically as the cumulative total grew. By Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the campaign concluded, 64 donors had given a total of $1,410. That guaranteed Kessel not only would see The Hobbit dressed as the wizened Gandalf, but also write a 500-word essay about the film and consume a calorie-bomb Hobbit-themed burger at a chain restaurant.

Montgomery-Blinn says that a last-minute anonymous gift lifted the project to its $2,500 goal. Kessel ultimately thanked supporters with the grand prize of him dressing as Galadriel, the luminous elf and ring protector portrayed by Cate Blanchett.

“I’ve never dressed in drag in my life so I can’t imagine what it will be like when we walk into the theater,” muses Kessel, promising that photos will be posted to his Facebook page, where he left this message after finding the perfect costume:

I need to thank all of the people who pledged to the SFWA Emergency Medical Fund in order to make this humiliation possible. You have done some real good for a worthy cause, and you should be proud of yourselves when you are not feeling ashamed for putting me through this. There will be photos and videos, I am told, and I must say with all due modesty that I am stunning in white.

The good-humored project has generated many playful comments online. “I’ll live-tweet the whole thing,” offered one supporter.  “Kudos to JK for being such a good sport,” wrote another.

Another friend expressed appreciation for the clever marketing of the fundraiser: “If every charity offered such enticements, we’d have the world’s problems licked by the time (Director Peter) Jackson finished the third film.”

“I guess,” Kessel himself wrote, “I ought to start shaving my legs.”

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