Growing up, my Dad owned a one-hour photo and camera store called Positive Image. And despite all the gadgetry lying around, the part of the operation that most fascinated me was the leave-a-penny, take-a-penny cup.
A lot of retailers, the mom-and-pops anyway, have some version of this: a cup or tray by the register preloaded with pennies. If you’re short a few, it makes up the difference. And if you get a few back as change, you toss them in to one day help out a fellow photo enthusiast.
In 1988, the leave-a-penny, take-a-penny cup at Positive Image began with a broken-open 50-cent roll of pennies from the bank next door. As a sneering teenager with a worldview largely shaped by Guns N’ Roses lyrics, I was openly skeptical about the cup’s prospects. “It’ll be empty by next weekend,” I told my Dad.
“Have a little faith,” my Dad replied, not looking up from price-gunning a rack of frames. “People like to help other people.” Then he flipped the sign to “Open” for the very first time.
Of course, my dad was right. Not wanting to jinx the cup, I never emptied it out for a tally, but I made a mental note of the original coin level — optimism above and pessimism below — and it refused to ever drop below optimism. Sometimes, when I looked into the cup, there were also nickels and dimes, even the occasional quarter.
As the years went on, the cup persisted in reflecting a simple balance in the universe: People gave what they could and took what they needed.
And now, I’m proud to say that the basic principles of leave-a-penny, take-a-penny have endured, with the launch of the Better Futures campaign from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
As the first-ever “stock for social change,” we’re tapping into the basic human urge to spare what you can to invest in a greater good—to balance those who have with those who need.
It’s leave-a-penny, take-a-penny on a grander scale. Instead of a modest paper cup, now it’s one of the country’s most prestigious scholarship funds: an all-in, faith-filled bet on the future, because deep down, we all believe in something far greater than the change jingling around right now in our pocket.
When my dad retired and closed the store 19 years later, he called to give me, not without a bit of earned paternal smugness, the final tally on the leave-a-penny, take-a-penny. Optimism had won by a landslide: The cup closed at $2.78.
That’s a return on humanity of 556 percent.
I can’t wait to see how well the future performs.
About Bruce Jacobson
Bruce Jacobson is a Writer and Creative Director at Young & Rubicam (NY) and one of the creators behind the Better Futures campaign for UNCF. His achievements include an Emmy Award for his work on the NHL, a Best New Short Story Award from literary quarterly Glimmer Train and two unpublished novels. He makes sure his kids stash pennies in their piggy banks every day.