September 26, 2011

First-Time Email Plea Brings Outpouring for Somalia


On Sunday night, Whitney Tilson sent an email to people he knew urging them to support aid agencies working to address the famine in Somalia. As an incentive to give, he offered to match every gift given up to $100 each.

The 44-year-old founder and managing partner of T2 Partners LLC, a New York-based hedge fund, says he sent the email to roughly 10,000 people, drawn from his professional and philanthropic contacts. He figured 20 people might respond with $100 each and “maybe a couple people more than that” would give a slightly larger gift, he says.

Since Sunday, the response to his email has been overwhelming. Mr. Tilson has personally matched the first $10,000 in gifts. In addition, 10 of Mr. Tilson’s friends have kicked in an additional $175,000 in matching dollars. Those friends include: Ciccio Azzollini, chief executive of Cattolica Partecipazioni SpA; Jeff Kaplan, a partner of Deerfield Partners; Anthony Meyer, president of Ocean Road Advisors; and Chris Stavrou, owner of Stavrou Partners.

Now, Mr. Tilson needs 1,750 people to step up to see their $100 donations matched. “Just email me,” he says, and forward on your donation receipt as verification.

So far, donations have ranged from $18 to a matching gift of $100,000, with most coming in at exactly $100. Most of the donations have been directed to the global poverty organization, CARE, with other gifts going to Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee, among others.

Provided the donation supports famine-relief work in Somalia, Mr. Tilson says that he will see the gift is matched.

Mr. Tilson’s primary philanthropic interests have mainly been in education—he’s passionate about education reform in the U.S.—and he says he’s never helped to raise money for disaster or relief work. He just decided to do something with the hope that the offer would get passed around, posted to Facebook and “go viral,” he says. “It took me half an hour to craft a compelling email and I’ve never made an offer to match philanthropically like that.”

Mr. Tilson is involved with a few nonprofits that work in Africa and has traveled to various countries. He spent some of his childhood in Tanzania, and his parents, both educators, were members of the Peace Corps. Now retired, they live in Kenya. His sister, also living in Kenya, is involved with women’s public health in Africa.

But Mr. Tilson says his email was mostly born out of reading recent news reports and seeing photos of the famine in Somalia.

“I’ve got three of my own kids and seeing parents there holding their kids while they die of starvation is pretty tough,” he says. “I suspect those pictures probably impacted the people who gave the same way they impacted me.”