One Million Smile Cards and A Surprise!

Jun 30, 2011

A group in New York gave lemonade to strangers in Central Park, a woman secretly left hand-made muffins for her neighbors at a senior center, a management consultant traded his first class seat with someone in economy, a fellow helped a woman whose car had broken down, a fifth-grader found a lost dog and returned it to its owners miles away, a bunch of college students paid for someone else's meal anonymously ...

What all these acts of kindness have in common is Smile Cards.  When folks did these acts, they also left their recipients with a Smile Card that encouraged them to pay it forward to someone else.  Each one of those little pieces of paper served as a reminder to keep goodness rippling in our world.

Recently, we crossed our million-Smile-Card mark.

When we printed our first 100 cards, in 2003, we didn't know if we'd ever do another print run but we did know that 100 ripples of kindness is a pretty powerful thing.  Lo and behold, compassion is contagious and people really took to the idea, and it spread like wildfire.  56,411 orders from 145 countries, all shipped by volunteers and supported by a 2 dollar donation here and 25 bucks there.  And that was just what we could measure.  All our graphic files are online, so people reprinted locally, remixed it and spread all kinds of ripples.  Peter and Marty Hagerty, for instance, made hand-drawn Smile Card and randomly tagged customers with free wool.  Vinod used it as a response to violence in Bombay.  Tens of thousands of stories were posted on our site, and each of those created ripples too -- like Chad Harper who created a hip-hop song after being so moved by a grandmother's act at the pharmacy.  Almost every week, we would get notes from people who say that their faith in humanity in restored by simply having discovered the website.

Earlier this month, two 14-year-olds started their summer intership with CharityFocus, came up with their own website and a mission: spreading kindness.  In their youthful exuberance, they also came up with their own business cards.  Kids being kids these days, their card had a funky looking graphic on it.  "What's that?"  "Oh, that's a QR code.  You can scan it into your mobile and it'll automatically take you to our website."  "Oh." :)  

Now, both of these kids were quite familiar with Smile Cards.  On his 10th birthday, Neil remembers doing free car washes and on his 11th birthday, he tagged an entire plane.  Similarly, Dillan screened the Smile Card film for his entire freshman class and ignited a movement in his school.  Over the summer, they both wanted to "step it up."  So we wondered, "What if we put a QR code on each one of our Smile Cards?  Then, each card would be like a live trail of kindness stories!"  They loved the idea.  And working at the pace of today's 14-year-olds, :) they got 100 unique cards printed within a week!  We flexed some of our technology muscles to create a website and a mobile app, and lo and behold, we had trackable Smile Cards!

The idea is this -- you do an act of kindness, leave a Smile Card behind and log the act online.  The person who receives the card will do the same, and that will create a trail.  Just as tracks dollar bills just for fun, this will track acts of kindness.  Those who have a QR code scanner on their smartphone can just scan the code and enter the story online; others can just visit and enter the code online to share the story and see what others have said.

We've had this idea before, but it seemed a bit too complicated and intensive.  All of a sudden, all the right pieces are in place and within just a 3 days, we even launched it!  Card number one-million-and-one goes to Philip, who has been the biggest champion of this for a while.  When we leaked the news to him, he responded with this note to the interns:

WELL DONE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  I can't wait to get my hands on some and start sparking ripples.  The funny thing is that this really inspires me to raise my game, on the (mis?) perception that *normal* acts of kindness are fine for *normal* smile cards, but now that cards are trackable, I want to make sure that my acts of kindness really STAND OUT.  AND, I want to have some of the earliest tracks in the system so that 50 years from now, when a battered, taped together, mangled smile card is handed to me with a tracking number in the 000001 range, I will have come full circle :-)  LOVE IT.  Thanks for making my month with this delightful surprise.

Yesterday, at the Wednesday gathering of about 60 people, we informally launched the first 100 cards.  Below is the short audio clip of Dillan explaining it in his own words:

That's just the informal inauguration. :)  By next week, they plan to have a video and a few other things.  I'm sure the stories will continue to bloom.

The real impact of all this work remains intangible, especially when its done in the CF way.  Just a while back, an editor from Wikipedia informed us that was being kicked out of the 'Random Acts of Kindness' page since there's no proof that we're an authentic website.  Our first response was: "Is this a joke?"  They asked for media mentions and fortunately, they found a mention of us on CNN -- which incidentally was a ripple of another tag.  In the process, though, we realized that we couldn't really blame them, considering that our about-us page says, "We are you!" :)

That's how this distributed revolution is unfolding -- but its certainly unfolding.  A while back, Jane was sharing a story at Karma Kitchen of how someone in the car in front of her paid her toll; it turned out that the person sitting next to her at Karma Kitchen was the one who had paid the toll.  That's mind blowing serendipity.  But when Pancho was paying toll for the car behind him, on San Francisco's Bay Bridge, the attendant tells him: "You know, I've seen a lot of these going around.  Where can I get some?"  So perhaps Smile Cards are making the rounds. :)

With trackable Smile Cards, maybe we'll find out just how many rounds!

Bookmark and Share


Projects I'm Involved With

"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."