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Donors make a difference, anonymously

By Anthony Galloway, NBC News producer

The idea is so simple, the first question many people ask is "Why hasn't this been done before?" Giving Anonymously (www.givinganon.org) is a website that allows people to give money to friends and family in need.  But what makes the organization unique – different from other money transfer sites like PayPal – is that the recipient isn't told who gave them the money.  It arrives anonymously with no strings attached.  All the recipient is asked to do is leave a voicemail recording, which is then forwarded to the anonymous donor.

The "Thank You" messages were the starting point for our reports, which began airing on NBC Nightly News last month.  I've had the pleasure of traveling across the country over the past few weeks to meet a few of the families who have received anonymous donations.  In January, Jeff Kerr, of Woodridge, Illinois, was laid off from his job as a union electrician after ten years on the job.  He's been looking for work for the past nine months. 

But, like many unemployed Americans, he hasn't been successful.  When he was laid off Kerr was earning $30 an hour. The closest he's come to a job offer since then: $9 an hour. With a wife, two young daughters, and a mortgage payment,  the stress of the financial burden was evident in his voicemail message to his anonymous benefactor. Kerr cried in his message and he cried in our interview. It struck me that this former Navy man was so overwhelmed with gratitude for his family's $750 anonymous donation, he had no words to express it. He ended his message putting it simply, "I just want to say thank you very much for me and my family. We all appreciate it. Again, may God be with you and thank you very much."

                  Video: Donors make a difference online

The one thing each of the recipients I talked to had in common was that they would have had a difficult time accepting their donation if they knew who was giving it to them. Accepting money from friends and family could have changed their relationships, they said, creating a feeling of indebtedness despite their donor's best intentions. And even though they don't know who gave them the money, knowing that someone cared enough to make such an overwhelming gesture of support is often enough to alter their mental outlook.

Since our story first aired, Giving Anonymously has raised more than $54,000 in donations from people intent on helping those closest to them.  On tonight's broadcast you'll meet Michelle Millar, a single mother and small business owner in Bellingham, Washington.  Millar was facing the prospect of losing her business and her livelihood until someone sent her an anonymous check for $5,000.  The donation has allowed her to purchase new inventory, increase sales and, most importantly, it has given her new hope that she will be able to sustain her business and support her family. 

Lionel Thompson, one of the website's founders, had to visit her in person to drop off the check.  (Millar hung up on Thompson when he first called to notify her of the donation, believing he was a solicitor peddling a scam in her darkest hour.)  News of the anonymous donation was announced on the front page of the Bellingham Herald and soon local residents flocked to her shoe store to support her business.

"I just want them to know what a difference they've made," Millar said.  "It's not just the inventory that I brought in.  It's made a difference in my life and my daughter's life and it's completely—it's turned my life around."

Thompson and his wife Misha don't take credit or accept thanks for their work processing the donations.  They say the thanks lies with the hundreds of Americans who continue to flock to their website to give generously, selflessly, and anonymously.