Andy Larsen: How I sent a tweet that unintentionally raised $50,000 for charity

Look, this was all an accident.

But somehow, people have sent me $49,330.66 over the past 24 hours... because they trust me to do good things with it. Seriously. That’s a crazy sum of money, not too far off my Tribune salary, actually.

Here’s the story.

This weekend, my sweet mom in Riverton told me she had found a Spongebob Squarepants box in my childhood bedroom filled with change. Out of what I assume was pandemic-induced boredom, she counted the money inside and found there was $70 in coins, along with some rocks, a Utah Jazz pin, and a battery. Sweet! I picked up the box.

I also have a slightly-more-adult-but-not-much-more commemorative University of Utah cup that I toss change into regularly. I took all of these coins to my bank. The result? I had a veritable treasure trove on my hands: $165.84.

The two coin "jars" that started it all. (Photo by Andy Larsen, at his home.)

What was I going to do with this unexpected sum? As I drove home, I realized that I didn’t have a good answer. Frankly, if I wanted something, I would have bought it already. So I figured, “Well, someone else could use it, right?”

One of the unique aspects of being a sportswriter is having thousands of avid fans follow you on social media, eagerly waiting for the latest updates on their favorite players and teams. I thought that one of those fans would need the money for something more than I did. So I tweeted: “Rather than keeping it, I want to give that (money) out to a few people who could use the help for their household’s Thanksgiving dinner or for Christmas presents. My DMs/replies are open.”

I got a couple of direct messages from some people who needed help. Cool. Job done.

But five minutes later, I got a message from a follower, Jeff Jones, on Twitter. I don’t know Jeff, but he said he wanted to add $150.

I retweeted the tweet in legitimate shock. The legitimate shock came out only as exclamation points: “!!!!!!!!!!!!” But then came another person who wanted to help. And another. And in about 20 minutes, six people had sent me $1,000 through Venmo.

It was at this point I knew I needed to start a spreadsheet.

It was also at this point that things started to spiral. Upward.

In the next half hour, I was up to $3,000. Another half hour meant $7,000. Then $12,000. At about 7:30 p.m., Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox retweeted my first message, asking people to send me money. That really blew things up. We had a total of $21,000 an hour later, $30,000 an hour after that. It took two whole hours to get to $40,000 as people started to sleep — by this time it was 11:30 at night. And today, we’re at nearly $50K.

Yep, in 24 hours, people sent me $49,330. I never asked for a single penny — Utahns just saw a good thing and were inspired to get in on it.

Every one of those tweets led to more and more exclamation points symbolizing my shock at how big this was getting. Eventually, I suggested a name for the group of hundreds who have donated: the “Exclamation Point Aid Brigade.” Is it a great name? It is not. But it is a bad name for a great group of people.

This crazy experience has honestly given me a re-brightened outlook on social media. Look, my readers have sent me some really nice messages, and I appreciate every single one of them. But I have also received a lot of hate on Twitter after articles I’ve written. There are the COVID-deniers, of course, but things got really out of control after I wrote an article reporting the public information that Jazz head coach Quin Snyder had donated to Rep.-elect Burgess Owens. That garnered me some name-calling from Alex Jones types. Someone registered my email to various spam lists, which are really annoying to repeatedly unsubscribe from.

Even for non-writers, social media can be a dreary place. And that might be because it’s a window into the world around us. We’re in a pandemic! And the pandemic has led to a recession! Political turmoil is rampant! It’s an objectively bad time out there for a lot of people, and the news and social media reflect that. It makes sense.

That’s part of why I wanted to help people with all of the change I accumulated: they need it. I’ve received hundreds of messages from people nominating their friends, neighbors, or family members for help. Medical bills are the ones with the biggest sticker shock. Frankly, it’s amazing how many people told me about hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical debt with no realistic shot of getting out of it. Our $50K would hardly make a dent — I wish I could do more for these people, but I can’t. The government needs to address the system.

But those who have lost their jobs due to the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic will get our support, as will people experiencing financial trauma in other ways. Some need help with Thanksgiving, some would appreciate some money to get their child a Christmas present. Some need help with a water bill, or keeping the gas flowing in the winter. Some are broke college students who need gas money, others would use it to fix something they already have.

In the coming days, we’re figuring out a plan to distribute the money, both among the families who have requested it and some local charities. I’ll write another article about how it all works out. There is a little bit of a process, but I’m working around the clock to make the distributions happen.

So yeah, I’ve learned something this week. While it’s a discouraging world at times, there are a whole lot of good people out there.

Yes, even on the internet. The Exclamation Point Aid Brigade is proof of that.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.