It was the spring of 1991 in Urbana, Illinois and just about to graduate from the University of Illinois was an obscure Senior, Mike Hayes. A far cry from the fame and attention of his Freshman year that made him the talk of the campus.
Roughly four years earlier, the exciting news of his acceptance to the prestigious university was overshadowed by a serious problem. Mike’s parent’s couldn’t afford the tuition. If he couldn’t come up with a way to raise the money on his own, he would have no way to pay for college.
At that time, four years of tuition plus room and board would cost around $28,000. With his part-time job as a drugstore clerk he had only been able to raise a couple thousand dollars.
A short time later he took a trip to Chicago to visit his brother. While walking the busy streets and observing the crowd, Mike had an out-of-the-box idea.
Mike thought, what if I could convince everyone here to give me just one penny. Nobody cared about a penny and if you saw one on the street you don’t even bother to pick them up, he thought. If he could get enough pennies together, he knew it would add up to serious money.
Of course, this was an insanely crazy idea. Raising $28,000, one penny at a time, meant he needed to collect 2.8 million pennies.
This did not dissuade Mike. He knew his biggest problem would be how to reach enough people when no one even knew or cared who he was.
Mike reached out to a nationally syndicated columnist at the Chicago Tribune by the name of Bob Green. Bob thought the idea was a little bit crazy, but he was amused by it and decides to write about Mikes idea.
On September 6th, 1987, Bob publishes an article titled “Mr. Hayes, your penny is in the mail.”
There was no reason this should work. There was no internet, no PayPal and no one had even heard of debit cards. The only way to send the penny Mike was asking for was to pay far more than that penny on postage.
But it did work! The letters started pouring in and the pennies were accumulating rapidly. So rapidly that in the span of a month, Mike’s small town post office received over 70,000 pieces of mail. They were forced to devise a new way to sort it. At one point his stack of envelopes reached over 26 feet.
The story had made national headlines and the pennies poured in. In the end, Mike received over $29,000 for college and was even able to donate $1,000 to another student in need.
Mike became known on the University of Illinois campus as “The Penny Man.”
Today crowdfunding is common place, but Mike was a visionary. He saw that people could come together and pool their resources to fund a project. And he did it before the term crowdfunding even existed.
In 1992 I ran an add in the classifieds section of my local newspaper and found a financial partner to help me put on a music festival. I later learned that I had gotten away with something illegal at that time.
Nearly 25 years later and we have a myriad of platforms to consider for raising funds for a project. We are not limited to who we know, or the reach of our hometown newspaper (that thing we used to wrap our fish in).
For this, we all owe a debt of gratitude to Mike Hayes. Thank you for acting on your crazy idea and for planting a seed that would grow to have an everlasting impact on the entire world.
Mike Hayes graduated with a Food Sciences degree on Sunday May 12th, 1991.
Mike Hayes Learns That Tuition Is Just Common Cents People Magazine November 16, 1987
Pennies for College Snopes.com
The Kid With The Pennies by Bob Greene May 13, 1991