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Prof Pays a Precious Price for Prank

English professor John Kessel  took an unexpected journey of his own when he criticized the much-ballyhooed release of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” last month.

“Nobody could pay me enough money to see that movie,” he wrote on a social media site.

Well, almost nobody. Bemused friends took the comment as a challenge. One of them, Sam Montgomery-Blinn, organized an online fundraising drive on Bull Spec, a Raleigh-based magazine of speculative fiction.

The trick to enticing the reticent prof to see the movie, it turns out, was tying the whole thing to a good cause.

Philanthropy Journal, published by the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State, picks up the story from there:

If people really were willing to donate to one of his favorite charities just to see him suffer through a big-screen spectacle, Kessel thought, so be it.

“Basically, we indicted him with his own words,” jokes Montgomery-Blinn, who, with Kessel’s blessing, posted an amusing menu of funding options.  Proceeds benefited the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Emergency Medical Fund.

John Kessel dressed as a character from "The Hobbit."

John Kessel prepares to enjoy “The Hobbit” with the dignity only a tenured professor can maintain.

“I’ve taught The Hobbit many times in my fantasy class, but I’m thinking the movie probably isn’t very good,” Kessel says of the project’s genesis. “I’m kind of a curmudgeon about some things and people are aware of that, but I also have a sense of humor and a commitment to help out when I can.”

Kessel says he chose SFWA because “a lot of freelance writers can’t get medical insurance because they’re self-employed. This fund helps people who need medical care.”

Prankster Philanthropy

While such one-off fundraisers typically do not cultivate a community of givers, this type of “prankster philanthropy” could develop into a meaningful giving model, says Iavor Ivanov, vice president of digital at Fenton, a public interest communications firm.

“He’s concocted the perfect guerrilla operation,” Ivanov says with a laugh. “The connection between what he’s doing and how it links back to an issue that’s important to him is fabulous. Hopefully that will connect with the people who are giving and they’ll continue to support the cause.”

While a you-can’t-pay-me-enough campaign may not be a good fit for the sober efforts of a major organization, Ivanov says it is a good way to engage young givers.

“Think about the student who gave $5 just to be part of it,” he says. “The thing we see across clients and campaigns is that people are more likely to engage with something if it’s fun, instead of a house-is-burning situation. It could be the start of something bigger.”

Donations Add Up

While most pledges were under $25, all givers enjoyed benefits that increased dramatically as the cumulative total grew. By Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the campaign concluded, 64 donors had given a total of $1,410. That guaranteed Kessel not only would see The Hobbit dressed as the wizened Gandalf, but also write a 500-word essay about the film and consume a calorie-bomb Hobbit-themed burger at a chain restaurant.

Montgomery-Blinn says that a last-minute anonymous gift lifted the project to its $2,500 goal. Kessel ultimately thanked supporters by fulfilling the terms of the grand prize: dressing as Galadriel, the luminous elf and ring protector portrayed by Cate Blanchett.

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