Experiments in Literary Charity

During the month of April, I used Nanoism to run a little experiment in subsidized charity, the 2010 Nanofiction Contest (For Haiti). Perhaps “subsidized” isn’t quite correct—as not all donors received compensation—but I think it sounds better than raffle-backed charity or contest charity. Oh, how about incentivized. Yes, perfect.

Either way, writing contests, as a money-making scheme, are as common as companies that only care about profit and hurting the environment. I’m kidding; contests help fund some really great publications. But a quick look at the number of new “genres” Narrative Magazine has “invented” (iStory, iPoem, Six Word Story) to pull in the dough is enough to make me ill. Actually, so is the name iStory. Clearly one of their interns graduated from the “cheap plastic crap from 2004” school of advertising. Incidentally, the term iStory was actually created in 2004 during the first iCan’tThinkofaBetterNameforThis product wave, so someone should have Googled it and read the Wikipedia article. Ahem.

Anyway, how is an honest writer to know what contests to enter? More importantly, why bother paying for them in the first place? The odds of winning might be better than the lotto, but unless you’re getting a subscription or something good out of the deal automatically, it’s still a terrible financial decision for most writers, and probably a dubious one for many publications as well. But for the purpose of raising money for an excellent charity…well you get a platform, and then you leverage it.

So, instead of taking contest fees to raise money for Nanoism itself (which I fully believe wouldn’t have even covered the cost of the prize money), the money went straight to a great organization. As a function of this set-up, people also made a tax-deductible donations by entering. So the money is not simply flushed down the drain, so to speak.

And, as an added lure, donating entrants also received “raffle” tickets which gave them a chance to randomly win prizes from the independent publishing community. I went around soliciting publications I like and/or respect, and to their collective credit, most provided materials for the giveaway. People are good people.

Interestingly, the number of non-donating entries was lower than I would have expected based on our previous contests and Nanoism’s growth over the past year. My explanation is two-fold: 1) A lingering sense of guilt about not-donating that caused some people to feel uncomfortable entering. 2) The decreased odds of winning with only 1 story entry (versus the 6, 11 or more that some writers submitted). I thought that might happen, but I was surprised nonetheless.

The end result is that a lot of writers were excited to enter the contest, felt strongly about the cause (which is good), and felt inspired by it. Because in the end, they weren’t really entering a contest. I gave them an excuse to support Partners in Health, and so they did. We raised $650, which is 6.5x what my wife and I would have given if we’d just sent the prize money directly to PIH, and over 30 people are getting literature in their mailboxes as we speak. A small experimental success.


kathleen a. ryan 05.15.10 Reply

Congratulations, Ben, on a job well done. I was happy to participate and donate. It was fun! I’m happy to be a random winner, too!

Thanks for giving us feedback on the experiment ~ interesting to know.

Congrats to the winners, honorable mentions, and other random winners, too.

Edward 05.21.10 Reply

Nice work, Ben. It’s encouraging to see this kind of fundraising and motivation. Let’s hope some other literary and arts organizations follow your lead on this. It’s a great idea.

Ben 05.25.10 Reply

Thanks Kathleen and Edward. I would love for this to become a trend.

Mike 05.31.10 Reply

Ben, you were able to raise money for a good cause (Haiti), you boosted Nanoism’s profile and you motivated people to be creative!

I thought it was a total win-win-win, although I appreciate that it must have taken up a fair
chunk of your time and a great deal of effort.

Congratulations on a project well done!!!

Amazing Alex 07.29.12 Reply

Good day! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

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