On the steamy 42nd Street platform of the 4/5/6 train, a young man tries to hand money to a middle-aged woman pushing a stroller, but she won’t take it. She smiles modestly and shakes her head at him, pulling her children closer. The man boards a train and begins.
“Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to ask for money, I’m actually here to give it away,” says Jesse Speer, a blond, six-foot-tall twenty-two-year-old, to a train car full of sweaty, tired people who barely look up. His best friend of ten years, Josh Goolcharan, 25, is nearby.
“There’s no catch. We’re The Doers Network, and we’re here to spread random acts of kindness. I’m going to ask a question. If you know the answer shout it out.”
“Who was the third President of the United States?”
There’s a painful silence, until someone at the back of the car pipes up, “Thomas Jefferson.”
Speer hands him five dollars and a Doers Network card and continues as the recipient muses, “Wow, I’ll take that over panhandling any day!”
“Sir, what’s your favorite color?” Speer asks a young man with slicked back hair in a blue Lacoste polo shirt.
“Great,” says Speer, handing the young man the money.
“Oh, shit,” he says, eyes popping open in shock when he sees the $5 resting behind the Doers Network card in a small plastic sleeve; right away he pledges to give the money to “someone who needs it.”
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Fueled by his desire to do something—anything—to make the world a better place, Speer, a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, resident who recently graduated from the School of Visual Arts and works for a visual effects studio, spent a sleepless night this past April setting up a website for his brand new nonprofit, which he dubbed The Doers Network. The mission: to invoke joy through contagious acts of kindness for the average American—regardless of class or financial situation—and develop an “instinct” for kindness in people.
“Originally, Jesse wanted to get a van and stop at random places around town carrying groceries, fixing fences, then jumping back in the van and driving off, like a superhero without the mask,” says Heather Moen of her boyfriend’s philanthropic ambitions. The two met while working at the Cedar Crest retirement village in Pequannock, New Jersey, four years ago. “He initially wanted to call the Network ‘The Shining Sunshine of Peoples Days’ group,' or something.”
Turning his vision into a digital form, Speer built the Network’s website as a way to gather people to participate in walks for good causes, help out their neighbors, or work with other nonprofits in need of volunteers. Through the site, anyone can join and submit ideas for acts of kindness to carry out, as well as ask for favors.
“The idea that the average person doesn’t need help is stupid,” explains Goolcharan, Speer’s partner.
Speer created a page on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, where he raised money from friends and family to finance the printing of t-shirts and business cards, and to support the Network’s first few acts of random kindness.
Right now, the Doers are five: Speer, his brother TJ, Goolcharan, Moen, and their friend from high school, Chioma Anyanwu. The initial funds are now gone, and Speer is using his own money to fund the site’s efforts, but at the moment only has $200 left in his bank account.
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On the day of the train stunt, Speer and Goolcharan try to raise awareness of their efforts in Union Square. The heat threatens to melt the pavement while drug addicts and pierced teens lay on backpacks, Hare Krishnas dance, and men in cowboy hats blow whistles. People sitting on the steps—everyone from skateboarders with headphones still in their ears to wayward shoppers briefly stopping to enjoy entertainment and a snack—glance over at the Doers, who have posted up a bright blue sign reading “Free Favors.”
Few bother to inquire.
“If it’s doable we’ll do it for you within a five-block ra-di-us!” they rap.
Five minutes pass with no takers. They rotate the sign.
“It was nerve-wracking,” says Goolcharan. “Some people gave us dirty looks.”
Another five minutes, and they move again to meet the flow of traffic coming from the end of the greenmarket. One man, apparently mistaking them for some kind of knowledge gurus, tells his wife to go up to them and “ask them anything you want to know.” Finally, a woman asks, “Can someone drive my son to a two-week camp up in Pennsylvania every morning?” That seems like a perfect job for the Doers, a first for the day. “Send us the request on our website and we’ll try to find a way to make it happen for you,” answers Speer, handing her a card.
Things take a weird turn when Robert Elliconell, a 24-year-old with a mop of curly brown hair and brown bloodshot eyes, rolls up on his bike and asks, “Wow, anything?” as he takes off his shirt and drops the bike. “Within reason,” Speer answers. Soon Goolcharan is walking the young man to Walgreens, where he buys a giant Red Bull.
After that, Elliconell escorts more people over, instructing them to “ask them for anything.”
A young man wearing a do-rag and and carrying two plastic swords tells Speer he needs $20 because he lost it at a party the night before. “Can I have five bucks to get on the train?” pipes another man. Speer ignores the question, but he persists.
“Actually, I want a monster,” the man with the swords says, changing his mind.
The awkwardness is palpable.
Speer knows that they are being taken advantage of, but wants to stick to what the sign says.
“We also didn’t want to cause a scene,” he says in hindsight. “I didn’t want to turn them away in case they didn’t go away—it would reflect badly on the Network if we had to go get the cops or start yelling.”
Goolcharan jumps in with a compromise. “We’ll buy you anything you want to drink from Walgreens,” he offers. The guys try to get him to buy them cigarettes, which he declines to do.
The Doers decide for a change of strategy. They try to “mysteriously” buy coffee for strangers, but the Starbucks on 14th Street doesn’t let them: they can’t participate in such a stunt unless it’s an official business partnership. Speer offers to buy a can of Pepsi for a woman from a hot dog cart, but she repeatedly refuses.
Then comes more inspiration: they give $15 to an ice cream truck driver and tell him to cover the next five people’s cones. “Most people will refuse it unless you basically force it upon them, which is what we did,” observes Goolcharan.
“It’s weird, you don’t really see things like this in New York, says 22-year-old Steven Medina, walking away with a free slushy. "It makes me want to do something nice. I have too many pairs of sneakers. I think I’ll give them away." He contacts the Network later that day to ask how he can become involved with the project.
Eventually, Speer and Goolcharan end up handing out money again, which makes for an eerie coincidence when, four days later, Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream stands in the same square handing out dollar bills as part of a campaign to stop corporate financing of politics.
But even giving out money in New York isn’t as simple as one would imagine. This time they try a more complicated tack. They use a tag flyer—the same kind of tear-away sheets people stick on lampposts offering services, but with a plastic sleeve holding their business card and a few dollars in each slot instead of the phone number. They place it right by a rack of Citibikes, and people walk by, in droves, without taking or noticing anything. Finally, a little girl sees it. “Oh my god, there’s money!” she screams when she takes one down, looking at her stunned mother. Without missing a beat, she rips off the rest and runs away, disappearing into the crowd, while her mother tries to tell her to somehow “put them back.”
“The cash tags went as I expected,” says Goolcharan. “The same thing happened the first time Jesse and I did a trial with it.” That was in a park in New Jersey, and the Doers were dumbfounded that over the course of two hours, not one person took the money.
“Most people would look at it and keep going, and you will always have that one person who, rather than just take one, snatches all of them,” says Goolcharan. “You can’t control what people do with an act of kindness.”
But they have also discovered that handing out money is the fastest, simplest way to get attention. Speer chimes in, “It seems like a stupid and horrible idea, and I think people will talk about it because of that.”
The son of a pastor, Speer was a precocious giver. His mother remembers one day fifteen years ago when Speer and his family were leaving church and he saw a man who looked sad. As the man was leaving, Speer went up to his car, knocked on the window, and gave him a dandelion.
“That man just contacted him through the Doers Facebook page and said he’s not one bit surprised that he was making this initiative happen fifteen years later,” says his mother.
Speer met Goolcharan on a mission trip to a safe house for women in Montana in 2003. Goolcharan works in finance, and Speer says it seems like he’s not too happy at that job. “I think he’s still going through that, ‘What am I going to do in life?’ thing, and I think this is something that feels like it could be it for him, answering this thing inside him that wants to help other people.”
The Doers Network, with its lack of a detailed program, seems to be a reflection of that: there is the need and desire to do something, but what and how are still in the making. Goolcharan is aware of this, and acknowledges that the network benefits him first. “This is kind of selfish because it makes me feel good to help others. It makes me feel like a better person and validates me,” he says.
Like many startups, the Doers Network still seems more vision than reality. In Speer’s mind, the Network will one day be nationwide, possibly worldwide, with people in cities everywhere making positive changes in the lives of random strangers or beloved neighbors, shocking people with random acts of kindness, from cups of coffee to free Wi-fi.
“I eventually want this to be my legacy, something I can do full time,” says Speer. “I’ve always felt like I wanted to accomplish one big thing. If I die when I’m 30 or 60 or 90, I want this to be the thing I leave behind. I told Josh, it might be slow to happen, and it might not take off 'til right before I die or ten years after, but I want to start something,” he says.
“I feel like everyone has a desire to help, but they don’t have the channels to do it through,” says Goolcharan. “I think people want to see other people taking the first step. It’s like waiting for two people to get on the dance floor at the school dance. Then, slowly, more people join.”
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Helaina Hovitz is a born and raised New Yorker who has written for The New York Times, Teen Vogue and Salon.com, among other publications. She is currently writing her first book and has the unshakable notion that she can help save the world.
Jika González is a freelance journalist, photographer and multimedia producer from Mexico City. She is currently a Digital Media fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City. Follow her @JikaGlez.