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The self-made millionaire who gave his money to people who just asked for it

"America's Rich Uncle" had a newspaper column where people could write in asking for financial help. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

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What is the best way to help people in need? Some economists argue, well, just give them money.

That’s exactly what one man did. 

Once upon a time, there was a flamboyant entrepreneur named Percy Ross who made millions in plastics. In the ’80s and ’90s, Ross had a newspaper column out of Minnesota where he set himself up as “America’s Rich Uncle” and gave money to people who wrote in.

Writer Jacqui Shine, who chronicled Ross’ philanthropy in the publication Longreads, joined us to talk about some of the requests Ross fulfilled and how Americans perceive charity. Below is an edited transcript. 

 David Brancaccio: “Thanks A Million” was his newspaper column. What did he do with that?

Jacqui Shine: People would write in and ask for money for almost anything. And Percy Ross would read through the letters and by and large, if somebody requested something under $1,000 and he liked the request, he just sent them a check.

Brancaccio: So he’s a little seat-of-your-pants here. It’s in contrast to big charities today who tend to be more data-driven, and they want the recipients to demonstrate the need with statistics and then deliver metrics to show impact. This wasn’t Percy Ross.

Shine: No. American philanthropists — and everyday Americans, too — are very concerned about how that money is used and about the kind of moral values that it expresses about the people they give it to. Percy Ross was not interested in that. One of my favorites was that he gave a woman money to keep her 92-year-old grandfather in girlie magazines for the rest of his life. He paid for winter coats. Sometimes he paid people’s electric bills and property taxes. In the way that a philanthropy targets its money very specifically, Percy Ross didn’t have a kind of ethic of giving.

Brancaccio: And toward the end, the latter years of his newspaper column, he did something interesting that you found striking. It was a kind of crowdfunding?

Shine: He would print in his column particular letters from people who needed huge amounts of funding for whatever project he deemed worthy and people would send in cash. So there is a YMCA in the upper peninsula of Michigan that was funded through readers sending $50,000 in dollar bills. They funded a heart transplant for a woman in Texas. They sent 15,000 children’s books to a teacher in California.

Brancaccio: That’s interesting that’s the closest analog to these crowd funding systems that we see online now

Shine: Especially given the degree to which people now rely on crowdfunding to pay for medical costs. Absolutely.

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