A few months ago, a complete stranger gave me $10,000. Here’s what I did with it.

When I worked in magazines, almost twenty years ago, something we always held true was that sales went up twenty per cent when the words “secret” or “mystery” were on the cover. It taps into basic human psychology; we want to know something others don’t.

It’s for this reason more than any other that, idly scrolling Twitter one day during a pandemic winter, I filled out a form to take part in something TED called “Mystery experiment”. I don’t follow TED on Twitter. I don’t remember if the form was short and sweet (who are you?) or detailed and revealing (would you pocket a tenner you found on the street?). All I know is that I completed and forgot about it.

So I was quite surprised to get an email months later saying I’d been selected. Even more surprised to click through and find Chris Anderson on video telling me what for; a mysterious duo were conducting an experiment and, through TED, were gifting me $10,000. All I had to do was a) not put it into savings or retirement funds b) fill out a survey saying what I’d done with it.

Oh, and c) not tell anyone about it.

In my excitement, I decided to overlook c) and sent an enthusiastic “yes”.

The next day, this appeared in my inbox

It seemed cool to echo the trust that had been placed in me by passing that trust on, so I decided immediately to give the money to others.

The next day, I got a giant and unexpected tax bill. Mid five figures. I wobbled.

But then I thought about that winter and what I’d learnt. In the late autumn, we’d made an unexpected move back home to Walthamstow, East London, from Oakland in California; in Oakland, I’d fallen in love with the sheer community spirit; the organizing muscle, the community gardens, the free libraries. But released from my commute and the crushing long hours at office, I realised how much I’d missed over the years. Creator and activist William Morris is from E17, after all. The local college of art, now sadly closed, was known for the waves of working class talent — Celia Birtwell, Peter Blake, Ian Dury — that came through its doors. Every day, on those long third lockdown walks, I kept observing people maintaining mini-parks in overlooked overland stations and keeping the local mutual aid chapters strong.

These people were spreading joy and care at a time we needed it most.

That’s how this money became a microgranting project — twenty grants of $500 or £363-focused on E17 and designed to help those working for their community do more but also be celebrated. More below on who benefitted but, first, what I learnt running this on my own the last few months.

Promoting something anonymously is hard

This is where the “tell nobody” stuff got tough. I cracked and told my partner, best friend and another friend who I knew had a lot of experience with microgrants (under the rules, you could tell a few close friends but NOT more — and certainly your name shouldn’t be connected with any public effort).

I built a not-cute website (with a project name that I realised, right after the first poster went up, that I hated for being too academic and remote — Experiments in Joy and Care. I’m sure someone smarter would have spotted this sooner!)and designed not-cute posters.

Grateful to Canva but wow. Don’t quit the day job.

The application process happened during the third lockdown. Many people were working from home, but it was hard to know how to reach them. Facebook was one option I passed on quickly; it felt spammy, and was also impossible to do this without tying my name to the project. I put up posters in supermarkets and lampposts. I sent them to a few local parks for the noticeboard through an anonymous email account and had to laugh when, without exception, the replies back confirmed I already knew every single park noticeboard maintainer.

And we’re depressingly used to being scammed online

Emails and applications started but often would-be applicants wanted to know: who was I? Where did this moneu come from? Was there an Instagram they could check? I knew what they meant; the website contained an intro, a short form and a contact email. The photos were from a stock site. It looked spammy.

It’s probably due to the raging economic crisis (it’s free money, after all) that over a thousand people applied but many didn’t, likely because they didn’t trust it was real. Big thanks to Anna Jones for including it in her newsletter and Walthamstow Central Mosque for helping me get it out to their community of helpers.

Reading applications reminded me how great people are

Because I was handling those 1200 applications alongside a day job, a toddler and a pandemic, I tried to keep the review process light; this money was for people who already had spread joy and care, and wanted to do more. Again, I’m sure if I’d have been able to share the load with more people, it might have de-biased the group who got chosen. I’m always going to lean into certain phrases and perspectives.

It was hard to choose only twenty. My area is full of incredible people. Here are the twenty people and projects that got a microgrant:

  1. Monwara Ali at Waltham Forest Community Hub to run a pensioner’s picnic in the summer

Genuinely, as I said to my favourite fifty that I didn’t have the money to fund, I wish we’d had ten times the grant amount in Walthamstow alone; there are helpers everywhere who just need a little cash to do their thing.

Going back to how much we as humans love secrets, something I hadn’t predicted was the sheer interest in who was behind this. I’ve been able to defer the kind interest from journalists so far but, knowing several now have my identity and the microgranters want to be able to speak about this funding, I’m choosing to break the TED rules and go public before my “cover is blown”.

Reflecting on the last few months, I’m deeply grateful for the level of trust and freedom that TED showed in running this broader experiment.

In general, and despite where I work, I do not believe we should rely on the generosity of remote benefactors to make our communities thrive… but, if governments cannot step in where they should, there are leaders in every community already doing the work. Those of us in funding roles need to come back to freedom and trust as essential values in helping these leaders get the cash they need.

Director @OmidyarNetwork's Beneficial Tech. Ex-head Google's @campuslondon. Into communities, London, looks and books.