OMAHA WORLD-HERALD – PUBLISHED FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2013
UNO vice chancellor sees power of giving away $50 a week
By Erin Grace
Bill Conley spent the day before his 50th birthday at the doctor’s office.
He’d blown out his knee, but it was too soon to replace it surgically. He’d have to get by. Quit running. Take it easy.
Bill spent his last day at age 49 feeling sorry for himself.
On his first day at age 50, he decided to put into action an idea.
It was one he’d kicked around for a while. One that would require some money — $50 a week — and a little chutzpah, which, for a buttoned-down finance guy like Bill, would be the bigger investment.
He decided to spend his 51st year on this planet being more generous. In a very personal way. He decided that each week, he would hand out $50 to someone — mostly strangers — who happened into his path.
He’d keep himself to this promise for a year. His 21-year-old daughter set up a blog so he could record this journey. The blog, he reasoned, would hold him accountable.
But really, he didn’t think his plan was that big of a deal.
Others give more. And Bill wasn’t out for glory.
He just wanted to learn more about the people he encountered daily and, perhaps, learn more about himself. This was about doing something more than simply writing a check to his church, the United Way and his pet causes.
This was about getting out of his car and leaving his comfort zone. This was about walking up to strangers or approaching acquaintances, like the waitress at Buffalo Wild Wings or the clerk at his gas station or the sax player on the Old Market street corner, and asking if they would take his money.
To make the proposition seem less weird, he printed business cards with his name, email and blog addresses and the name of his project: Giving 50 X 52.
“52 weeks of giving $50,” reads the tiny print on a card that shows an empty highway ending at a blue-sky horizon. “A celebration of 50 years of life.”
The idea had percolated for a while. Bill, vice chancellor for business and finance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, had tuned in to high-profile inspirational talks on YouTube that all shared the same theme: Think beyond yourself.
He heard a Canadian leadership expert who said we need to “get over our fear of how extraordinarily powerful we can be in our life.”
He listened to a global venture capital fund CEO who asked, what is the cost of not daring?
And he really keyed into the Harvard Business School prof. who said money can buy happiness, if you spend it on others.
So began Bill’s personal philanthropic journey.
He turned 50 in August and planned to hand out his first $50 on Sept. 6.
But he was nervous. Whom should he choose? He had seen a couple of people that day who looked needy, but he couldn’t bring himself to follow through. He realized, suddenly, this venture would not be easy.
What if the would-be recipients didn’t want to talk? What if the person were offended?
He waited a day and then took the plunge. He asked a 26-year-old Iowan at the Kum & Go where he stops three times a week if he would take the $50.
“I probably shouldn’t,” the young man said. But he did.
He had just gotten married, he told Bill, but couldn’t afford a honeymoon. Bill told him to consider the $50 a wedding gift. Bill wrote on his blog that the clerk represented the strangers we know but are too busy to make a connection with.
After that, giving got easier.
Week 2: Bill walked into a fire station at 80th and Dodge to give to a first responders foundation, in memory of 9/11.
Week 3: He introduced himself to two homeless vets he saw panhandling.
“I’ve never spoken with a homeless person,” Bill wrote later, “let alone shaken their hand.”
As the weeks went on, Bill found individuals and causes.
One recipient was a waitress so tattooed and pierced he called her “Lisbeth” in his blog because she reminded him of the protagonist from the best-selling novel “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” She was a recovering drug addict with a terminally ill mother.
He gave to David, who couldn’t pay a tab at Clancy’s, so Bill paid it for him — and then the two spent two hours talking.
He gave to Randal, who plays sax on an Old Market street corner.
And Dustin, a Marine Corps vet and UNO freshman.
And Mrs. Purviance, a teacher at Pawnee Elementary, and Dhiraj, a clerk at a BP station in Sarpy County.
Bill also gave $50 — and sometimes more — to groups such as the Urban League of Nebraska, the Food Bank of the Heartland and the Goodfellows charity at The World-Herald, where he worked for 17 years.
He faithfully reported it all in his blog, including sometimes humbling experiences. Like the time he asked a waitress to guess his age, and she confidently replied: “Sixty-one!”
A mechanic at the dealership where Bill takes his car has been the only person who politely refused the gesture.
Like when he stopped after work at the Goodwill WearHouse at 72nd and F. He drives by this building every day and has always wondered what goes on inside. On Feb. 10, he found out.
This Goodwill is the landing spot for all the stuff that doesn’t sell at other Goodwill stores. Clothes cost $1.37 a pound if you buy less than 20 pounds.
Bill approached a woman and her son sorting through a bin. He apologized for bothering them. Then he made his pitch.
Would she be his Week 25?
The woman didn’t speak much English, but her fifth-grade son did.
“I learned,” Bill wrote, “that Mari is from Guatemala and has been in the U.S. for about nine years. They have a family of five.”
Bill made his pitch and she accepted his gift.
Even though he’s on the giving end, Bill says what he’s doing is a bit selfish.
“I’m not doing this for the thank-yous,” he said.
“When Mari smiled at the very end, that’s all I needed. And I was out the door.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH