Crowdfunding seems like a fairly recent concept thanks to sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe which enable people to seek small donations from the international online community. Yet, in 1987, freshman Mike Hayes, an 18-year-old from Illinois, managed to use this method of raising funds to pay for his entire college education - by asking millions of people for a penny.
After graduating from high school in 1987 and enrolling in a science program at the University of Illinois, Hayes found that his job at the local drugstore, that paid $2,500, would not cover the funds required to further his education. Despite offers of support from his parents, he refused to let his parents go into debt after they'd already put four of his older siblings through college. This led to him coming up with the ingenious idea of approaching a popular nationally-renowned columnist called Bob Greene, who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, to help him appeal to a wide audience of millions of people for just a penny each.
With a letter outlining his plans and requesting his support, Hayes managed to woo Greene and gained his support, leading to the publication of an article on September 6, 1987, that called on his readers to send him their pennies.
“‘Just one penny,’ Hayes said. ‘A penny doesn’t mean anything to anyone. If everyone who is reading your column looks around the room right now, there will be a penny under the couch cushion, or on the corner of the desk, or on the floor. That’s all I’m asking. A penny from each of your readers.’”
Greene acknowledged that actually getting people to send pennies was going to be a challenge. In the article, he pushed hard the point that readers should support the cause by putting down their newspaper there and then and sending a letter with a penny in. To really put the point across, he even put Mike's address twice within the article.
The plan was a success, and Mike found piles of letters that contained pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, and even cheques and dollar bills coming through the mail every day. At its peak, the postmaster informed Greene that there was 26 feet of mail in one single day. As you can imagine, counting so many coins is almost unimaginable, so Hayes quantified them in feet rather than individually adding them up. In total, he received the equivalent of 2.8 million pennies, which more than covered the amount he needed for his college course.
He graudated free from student loans in 1991 with a food science degree.
"I just want to express my thanks to everyone… right now I’m feeling that the world is a pretty great place."
Mike had about a thousand dollars left over and once more approached Bob Greene to run a follow-up column offering the money to someone who needed it to attend college. After receiving around 90,000 letters, he awarded the money by selecting at random a letter from the pile.