A chance meeting almost 20 years ago changed Marc Gold's life. It was 1989, and the college psychology lecturer was visiting India, a place he had wanted to see since he was a child. While he loved taking in the country's sights, experiencing its culture, and making new friends, he was shocked and saddened by the grinding poverty and misery he witnessed.
When one of his new friends took him home to Darjeeling to meet his wife, Gold's pain became personal. The family was too poor to go to a doctor about her life-threatening ear infection.
Gold took it upon himself to find a specialist who prescribed a course of antibiotics, which cost only one U.S. dollar. "That's when it first hit me how powerful a small amount of American money could be," he recalls. "Now it's not always a dollar a life, but often it is."
By the time Marc Gold returned home, he was determined to do something to harness the power of the dollar to help the world's poor. That's when he started his 100 Friends Project. He went through his address book, came up with 100 names of business contacts, friends and relatives, and sent out letters asking them to donate whatever they could.
"I expected about $300 or $400, and I got $2,200," he marvels. "Now it's 18 years later, and this year I raised $80,000. So, of course, in one way, I can do more."
Gold calls what he does philanthropic travel. "Because I want to travel, personally, and I want to do some good at the same time, I found a way that really works."
And, he adds, what he does is practical. "It's blankets, education, small businesses, loans, wheelchairs… food, clothing. And I discovered that I had the power with a small amount of money to impact a lot of people. Now it's thousands."
Instead of aiding the local economy by being just a tourist, Gold seeks out the area's poor to help directly. Each mission, he says, takes a lot of work and research beforehand.
"I've gone into many slums, prisons, hospitals, villages, disaster zones, tsunamis, earthquakes, AIDS, and I do a lot of reading, and I meet a lot of people." He always works through a local contact. "I put the money to work as wisely as I can, as appropriately as I can, and then I report back with documents and reports and figures and photographs."
Over the past 18 years, Marc Gold has traveled to more than 40 countries, spreading his good will and his money.
In Cambodia, for instance, he works closely with the Center for Children's Happiness. The boarding school takes in children rescued from a trash dump on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where hundreds of youngsters still scavenge through rotting garbage for a meager subsistence.
About 130 children are now being cared for at the center, at an annual cost of $600 per child. Gold's 100 Friends Project sponsors 11 of them.
In Afghanistan, a country that fires up his imagination, Gold's 100 Friends Project helps maintain an orphanage. It is also building a school, and supporting a grassroots Afghani project that helps orphans, war widows, and women incarcerated in prison.
But Marc Gold doesn't just give away money. He makes loans to help people set up businesses so they can earn a living, and when the loan is paid back, he recycles it to help others. Marc Gold also insists that recipients do what he calls, 'paying it forward.'
He gives an example of a rickshaw driver he met in Calcutta. "The rickshaw literally collapsed while I was on it because the axle broke. And the old man on the rickshaw, it was a bicycle rickshaw, started to weep. And I found out through a translator on the street right there, he was weeping because that was his business and his home, and he didn't have the money, which was all of $40, to fix it."
Gold made a deal with him. "I said, 'I will fix it for you, but you have to promise once a month to go to Mother Teresa's 'Mother House' and for a half a day take the sisters on their appointed rounds in the neighborhood.'" Gold recalls the man was delighted to do that.
Marc Gold was set on the path he now travels when he was just a child, when his father, photographer Albert Gold, explained "the meaning of life."
He took the 8-year-old into the bathroom and had him look in the mirror. Gold recounts the conversation:
Albert: ''What do you see?'
Marc: 'I see myself.'
Albert: 'Okay. How old will you be in 70 years?'
Albert: 'Okay, when you are 78 years old, look in the mirror again and ask yourself one question, because by then your life will be almost over: 'Did you live a life that made this a better world or not? Very simple. If the answer is yes, I am proud of you, and if not, I am disappointed.'
Marc: 'But how am I going to make this a better world?'
Albert: 'That's your job. You figure it out.'
Gold's supporters, like physician Peter Joseph and his wife, Marcy Levine, would say he's done his job well. The couple got a taste of philanthropic travel while visiting Laos a few years back.
When they heard about the 100 Friends Project, they decided to help by sponsoring fund-raising parties. That's one way Marc Gold raises money for his work.
Joseph calls Gold "a great ambassador" for the United States. "He represents the best of America and Americans in the world. And we appreciate the efficiency with which he does it. There's no middleman. There's no big organization with its overhead and its offices. He's a one-man show. And we also think he's something of a saint." Levine adds, "And he does it because he wants to, because he cares."
Marc Gold's next destination is Africa, but until he heads off again, he'll be advising other altruistic travelers on how to start their own projects.