Practicing Philanthropy: How Writers Can Contribute to the Greater Good


By Erika Dreifus

Even in healthy financial times, writers who aren’t named J.K. Rowling or James Patterson don’t often have abundant funds to spare for charitable contributions. And when the economy suffers, writers’ incomes suffer, too. But writers can help their favorite causes in many ways other than writing checks. Especially as the holiday season approaches, it seems appropriate to consider some of these possibilities.

1. The “Write-A-Thon”: Perhaps some of you have seen the short article in a recent issue of The Writer magazine in which I described my participation in the New York Writers Coalition’s past two Write-A-Thons. As I explained there, I’ve always backed my friends and family members by pledging to support their walk-a-thons, bike-a-thons, and other physically demanding charitable activities. For the NYWC’s Write-A-Thon, I asked for their sponsorship and raised hundreds of dollars that went directly to the NYWC, a nonprofit community writing organization that provides free writing workshops throughout New York City for at-risk youth, adult residents of supportive housing, formerly incarcerated people, seniors, and others who often struggle to voice their experiences. If you’d like to see the Write-A-Thon model in action right now, check out the efforts under way at Dzanc Books, a nonprofit publisher (link provided at this article’s end).

2. The Auction: Some months ago, author Tayari Jones raised over $2,500 to assist the victims of the June 2007 Dunbar Village (Florida) attacks. How did she do it? She set up an eBay auction and enlisted literary types to contribute what they could: autographed books, manuscript critiques, and even, from this practicing writer, a set of e-books. But this is far from the only example of an auction featuring writer-related goods and services for a common cause. As I draft this article, the folks at Grub Street, a literary center that was a significant part of my prior writing life in Massachusetts, are preparing for their own “literary silent auction” fundraiser. See the link at this article’s end to check out the intriguing items on Grub’s auction block and the names of participating authors.

3. The Anthology: One example that comes to mind here is Telling Tales, a 2004 anthology edited by Nadine Gordimer. All the book’s contributors (among them multiple recipients of the Nobel Prize for Literature) waived royalties/fees, so the book’s profits could benefit programs responding to the HIV-AIDS crisis. A more grass-roots case might be Stories of Strength, which emerged from the discussion boards in an effort to contribute to disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

4. The Book Donation: Countless book donation programs exist to build (or rebuild) library collections, promote literacy, and accomplish other reading-related goals. If you’re a published author, consider donating copies of your book(s). If you’re a writer who also happens to be an avid book buyer, consider donating some used texts. You can start by looking into the book donation policies at your local library. Googling “book donation” will produce thousands of links to additional book donation programs. Again, check the links at the end of this article for some suggestions.

5. The Volunteer Service: Writers have so many professional skills to share: editing, proofreading, translating, etc. For instance, I’ve voluntarily proofread a congregational history published by my synagogue. Another writer I know has edited a book whose sales benefit an alumnae association. Examples abound. You may have already done something similar. If not, think about it!

6. The Hat Tip: This one is oh-so-easy (and inexpensive!). Whether you e-mail a writer directly to tell her how much her poem or essay means to you, or you credit her market research (ahem) when you use it for your own newsletter or blog, it’s charitable to tip your hat to your fellow writers. Writers are particularly sensitive to words – and silences. This month I’d like to thank the Hayden’s Ferry Review blog for naming The Practicing Writer a “Website of the Week” and the soon-to-be MFA student who sent me an e-mail message telling me how much she appreciated the site as a “refuge.” You’ve earned yourselves some good karma!

As writers, we may not always earn lots of income to give away. But writing by no means excludes us from contributing to the greater good.

Relevant links:
New York Writers Coalition Write-A-Thon

Dzanc Books Write-a-Thon

Grub Street, Inc.,’s Literary Silent Auction

National Public Radio on Telling Tales forum section on Stories of Strength

Book Donation Programs page compiled by the American Library Association (includes links to international programs)

© 2008 Erika Dreifus. May not be reprinted without permission.

(A version of this article originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, November 2008.)

2 thoughts on “Practicing Philanthropy: How Writers Can Contribute to the Greater Good

  1. deonne kahler says:

    What a concise, inspiring list! Lately I’m thinking a lot about how to combine a writing project with some sort of larger benefit, and this list has me thinking. Thanks so much.

  2. Erika D. says:

    Thanks, Deonne!

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