BELLINGHAM - When Michelle Millar was told over the phone that her business was being given $5,000 with no strings attached, she hung up, figuring she was being scammed.
It turns it wasn't a con game, but instead generosity in its purest form.
Millar, who owns Mi Shoes on Railroad Avenue, received the donation through Bellingham-based Giving Anonymously, a nonprofit organization that assists people in helping others without revealing their identity. Through that organization, the recipient of the gift is able to send a thank-you message to the donor.
In Millar's case, her business had been struggling as many others have during this recession. She was thinking about seeking an outside investor and told a few people. But earlier this month, she got that phone call from Lionel Thompson, who founded Giving Anonymously with his wife, Misha.
"I thought it was some sort of sales pitch, so I hung up," said Millar. "But Lionel left a couple of messages explaining what his organization does and asked me to check out his Web site."
Once she verified the organization was legit, she called Thompson back and he brought over the check that had a message from the donor. The note said, "A friend said you were having trouble filling inventory. I love your store, and Bellingham needs your shoes."
Millar was stunned, and shed more than a few tears as she tried to understand the gift.
"Someone had heard about my situation, and loves my store as much as I do," said Millar, who spent "every penny" she had on inventory for the fall season. "I want the person to know that it was more than just the inventory they gave me. They also gave me hope and inspiration to keep it up and I'm truly grateful for that. Karmically, I feel like I should pay it forward, and I will."
She already has started using the donation to re-stock her store.
As for Thompson, he didn't mind being hung up on by Millar; the organization has assisted in giving $215,000 through 400 gifts nationally since 2007, and he's been hung up on many times. In fact, the organization doesn't run a credit card payment through the machine until they are sure the recipient will receive the gift.
"Many are suspicious, especially if they are going through financial difficulties; some think they are being tricked by bill collectors," Thompson said. "It can be hard to convince people we're authentic."
The Thompsons came up with the Giving Anonymously after experiencing generosity from their neighbors and friends following their move to Sudden Valley in 2002. Soon after they moved, a family health issue developed and Lionel Thompson had to spend a lot of time at home. It was a "dark, difficult" time and they were having trouble making ends meet, but neighbors provided money and food until the family was able to get back on its feet.
The Thompsons were extremely grateful and once they got through that period, they wanted to find their own way to help others. Something they noticed during this tough period was the slight awkwardness of accepting gifts from people they knew; the Thompsons understood the gifts were from the heart, but there was still that underlying sense of obligation. In 2004, they came up with the Web site idea and by April 2007 it was up and running.
"We originally wanted to use it ourselves, and if others did too, that would be fantastic," said Thompson adding that they didn't do any formal marketing to let people know about the Web site.
When the recession hit last year, people started finding the Web site on their own. Recently, The New York Times found the site and mentioned it in article that was picked up by other national media. On Sunday, Aug. 23 the group was featured on NBC Nightly News.
While Giving Anonymously charges a 3 percent fee on gifts over $500 to help pay for overhead costs, much of the work is done on a volunteer basis. Thompson said he puts in about 24 hours a week on the site and gets help from local volunteers, including other companies such as Bellingham-based Big Fresh Media, which manages the site. He's also in the Master of Business Administration program at Western Washington University and also works in the financial industry.
The site keeps them busy, but he and Misha get a lot of satisfaction from the Giving Anonymously program.
"We get to see people's lives being touched, and hearing about it brings tears to my eyes," Thompson said. "What's been interesting is the reaction of the recipient. Since they don't know where the donation came from, many times they are nice to everybody."
That's been Millar's reaction since receiving the $5,000 to help buy inventory for her store.
"It's a great program because the recipient doesn't feel they have to owe a person, it's just a pure gift," Millar said. "But it does make me wonder when someone comes in the store whether they made the donation. It's a great feeling, because I feel even more grateful for every customer that comes in."
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To find out more about the Giving Anonymously organization, visit givinganon.org.