I met an interesting man the other day. His name is Marc Gold, and he travels around the world giving money away. He’s carried out his one-man mission in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, The Philippines, and elsewhere.
Mr. Gold is not wealthy, as far as I know. Most of the money he distributes is donated by friends and acquaintances. And the sums he gives away are fairly modest $20 here, $100 there. Still, there is something profound about his brand of under-the-radar, freelance philanthropy.
“You can accomplish so much with so little,” he said. “And you can do it face-to-face, one on one.”
When Marc Gold was 6 years old, he said, he vowed that his life had to be about something, that it had to have a purpose. When he was in his thirties he revisited that boyhood vow, and decided he was coming up short.
“I was forced to give myself a pretty low grade,” he said. “I really had to rethink how I was living my life, and what I was accomplishing.”
Gold went to India and volunteered with Mother Teresa. Later, in Darjeeling, he met a woman suffering with almost unbearable pain in her ears. He managed to find an ear-nose-and-throat specialist a couple of hours away, and one dollar’s worth of antibiotics cured her. For another $30 Gold was able to get the woman a hearing aid.
“She let me flip on the switch to turn the hearing aid on,” he said. “The look on her face, when she realized she could hear again, transformed me. It was a revelation. $31 had turned this woman’s life around.”
Gold returned to the U.S., compiled a list of 100 friends, wrote a letter describing the poverty he had seen, and asking them to help. That first fundraising effort netted $2,200, which he distributed in India.
“I didn’t really have a plan,” he said, “especially at first. I was like a cat following a string. Except in my case the string led to people who needed help. Maybe they needed a few chickens, or a sewing machine, some medicine, or a few dollars for building materials. Those things may not seem like a lot, but, believe me, they can change someone’s life.”
That first trip was in 1989. Since then, Gold has made 15 more trips to India, three to Afghanistan, and many more to several southeast Asian countries. This year he plans to visit Mongolia and Borneo; next year Rwanda, Malawi and Niger. His business card says he is the director of the 100 Friends Project, though he admits it is pretty much a one-man operation.
“There are many great institutions and aid organizations out there doing great work,” he said. “But I don’t want to be an institution. I don’t want to have staff meetings, and bureaucracy, and paperwork. I go where I want, and do what I want, and make decisions on the spot about where I think I can help. With me it’s simple: you give the money to me, I give it to people who need it, I report back to you.”
Each year Gold has managed to raise more money. Last year he brought in $80,000, and this year he’s shooting for $100,000. That would be a record for him. Still, he knows that, in the world of foundations and aid organizations, even that amount is pitifully small.
“But that’s not the point,” he told me. “This is not about solving the world’s problems single-handedly. It’s not as if there were only two choices: to either help every person in the world or do absolutely nothing. There’s a third choice, and that is to do whatever you can do. OXFAM can’t eliminate world poverty, and neither can the U.N., and neither can Bill Gates. But we can all do what we can do. And that’s what matters.”
Clay Scott is a veteran, well-traveled reporter who lives in Helena.