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KAI RYSSDAL: Americans are expected to give more than $100 billion to charity this holiday time. 'Tis the season, indeed. In fact half of all charitable donations are made between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Some people, though, have the giving spirit year round. Like the woman we're about to meet. She says she has more money than she needs for herself. So she's become a guerrilla philanthropist. From KUOW in Seattle, Amy Radil reports.
AMY RADIL: I had just done a story about a welfare mother who was having trouble feeding her children, when I got a phone message. The woman in the message, let's call her the Mystery Donor, said she would like to do something, anonymously, to help the woman in my story. She ended up paying off a $1,200 light bill to keep the woman's power from being shut off. Her career as a benefactor really began after she lost her husband.
DONOR: My husband died about three years ago and I had access to more money than I needed for expenses. So it was an opportunity to start giving money away.
At age 58, the Mystery Donor lives in a pretty but not extravagant Seattle home. When her husband was alive they gave money but tended to focus on established charities. Now she acts on her own.
Altogether she donates a quarter of her income each year, and she says that amount will increase over time.
She says she often gives secretly because she's learned that money can change relationships. Her first secret donation was to a massage therapist she knew.
DONOR: She was a single mother and so this was really important work. And she broke her leg. And anybody who's been a single mother as I have knows what a catastrophe looks like on its way. And that looked awful to me. So what I did was to give her some money anonymously through having a cashier's check from the bank sent to her from another town.
These small, personal gifts often go to helping single mothers. Their experience echoes her own years ago.
DONOR: I know what that feels like to feel desperate and need to care for a child. I was poor as a single mother for a period, looking for a job with a 1-year-old. I do recall one night where I had to decide whether to buy tuna fish or diapers. And it was down to that before I got my next paycheck. Of course we got the diapers.
She describes the past three years as a learning curve in the art of philanthropy.
She contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to her cause of choice: sustainable farming. She belongs to a group, the Women Donors Network, that put her in touch with a University of Montana professor named Neva Hassanein. Hassanein had created a program to help local farmers supply the school's cafeteria food. The Mystery Donor wanted to help expand the program to other institutions. Hassanein says she then proposed having Americorp volunteers work with other colleges to replicate it.
NEVA HASSANEIN: And so we approached this donor with this idea and she loved it, was very excited. And it was in fact her prodding that got us to think outside the box."
Hassanein says working with these freelance philanthropists has its advantages. They're more flexible and responsive than big foundations, she says, who can sometimes push their own agenda. The Mystery Donor says she may create a foundation one day, but right now she enjoys the freedom that comes from giving on her own.
DONOR: I really love flying under the radar and writing checks, you know, without having a structure. I certainly consult with a lot of people around what I do to make sure my judgment is as accurate as it can be, but right now this other way is good.
Even when helping someone she knows, the Mystery Donor says she doesn't feel the need to ask whether they've received her gift. She says these gifts are more like being a secret Santa, where secrecy itself is part of the charm.
In Seattle, I'm Amy Radil for Marketplace Money.