NEEDHAM, Mass. Ethan Thrum has dreamed of saving the world ever since he was very young, urging his classmates at Rico Petrocelli Elementary School here to donate the “Halloween candy they didn’t want like Bit-o-Honey and Almond Joys” to him for shipment to children in Burkina Faso. “Those kids would kill for a Mounds bar that an American child would throw in the garbage,” he says as he shakes his head in disgust at the memory.
But even Mother Theresa has to eat, as Thrum discovered once he’d graduated with a degree in social work and enough student debt, as he recalls ruefully, “to buy a gas-guzzling luxury car.” The first charity he worked for “tried to raise funds to save gay baby whales, but the Sierra Club and Code Pink had pretty much soaked up all the cash in that sector,” he says. He then caught on with “Hola Zamboni!”–a non-profit that teaches hockey to Latino youth–but found he lacked both the Spanish and the skating chops he needed to succeed.
His “Eureka” moment came one night as he forked over his last twenty-dollar bill at an all-night convenience store to buy some rahmen and saw the face of Andrew Jackson–a slave-holding President of the United States–staring up at him. “I thought ‘My God–I shouldn’t have to dirty myself by contact with this jerk just to buy the food I eat.'”
And so was born “Wallets Without Hate,” an attempt to get Americans to rid themselves of paper money bearing the images of former presidents with tainted backgrounds. “Jackson’s the worst, but Jefferson had slaves too,” Thrum says. “Washington had the most slaves, but he’s only on the $1 bill, so I suppose I should cut him some slack.”
Thrum’s program, promoted through free “public service” ads on billboards, ads and television, urges Americans to take “bills of hate” out of their wallets and send them to him. “We pay postage,” he says. “If we can get just one $5,000 bill with James Madison on it, it’s worth the forty-nine cent stamp and #10 return envelope, which aren’t cheap.”
The charity is on course to raise over $80,000 this year, mainly from the sort of donors who use vicarious guilt for past wrongs as a means of blocking out their present-day misdeeds. “I cut off a woman in a Prius the other day, but I was in a hurry to get to Pilates and needed her parking space,” says Marci Eversharp, a pen-and-pencil heiress. “I made up for it by sending a $2 bill with Jefferson on it to Wallets-Without-Hate–they’re doing such great work.”
As executive director of the newly-successful non-profit, Thrum finds himself in the enviable position of being able to pay himself a salary that is at or above those typically earned by heads of start-up charities, but he is unapologetic as he looks in the mirror at Mr. Sid’s, an upscale men’s clothing store here, and checks out the cut of a new sport coat he’s considering to replace the patched corduroy model he’s had since college. “I always wanted to do good,” he says as he nods to a sales clerk to close the sale, “but it’s nice to do well as well.”