994 Acts of Kindness
by Autumn Thatcher (MSC ’15)
Andy Larsen (’12) didn’t mean to raise a bunch of money for Utah families. Not exactly. The Westminster Honors College alum and mathematics major is a Utah Jazz writer for The Salt Lake Tribune and, since COVID-19, he has also begun writing pieces that break down the data and statistics surrounding the virus in a way that is easily digestible for readers even if they didn’t major in math. But when there isn’t a pandemic, Andy’s journalistic focus most often centers around Jazz basketball. As such, he has established a fairly large following on social media—and that is where this story begins.
On November 24, 2020, Andy wrote a piece for the Tribune called “How I sent a Tweet that unintentionally raised $50,000 for charity.” In the article, Andy describes how between a childhood piggy bank from his mom’s house and a University of Utah cup that he drops change in at his own home he had discovered he had $165.84. Instead of using it for himself, Andy turned to Twitter. He posted the amount he had and said that he wanted to help a family in need. “I figured I have 25,000 followers so we’ll get a couple of families to DM me, and I’ll help them out and be done real quick,” Andy explains.
But Andy was surprised when his Twitter notifications began going off—each one an alert that someone wanted to help. Shocked, he retweeted the messages with exclamation points. From there, the Tweets kept coming—and so did the donations. "When people started to chime in and say, ‘hey, I’ll match this,’ I was like, ‘this is crazy,’” Andy says. “I never expected that. And then not only just one or two did, but 994 have donated, which is just crazy. I did not expect people to Venmo me money out of the blue with no promises on what I would do with it.”
In 24 hours, Andy had $49,330 of unsolicited money in his Venmo account. By early December, Andy had given a name to the group of donors who contributed to the cause: Exclamation Point Aid Brigade. The Brigade had sent over $54,000 to his Venmo account. “It was really cool to see how it took off,” he says.
The story went viral for a few days, landing a piece in Associated Press and reaching beyond the state of Utah. Andy was taken aback by the random acts of kindness of the nearly 1,000 people who sent him money, something that was much needed after a rough year on social media. “I had a Quin Snyder article go viral, where I wrote about how Quin Snyder donated to Burgess Owens, and that was something that got a lot of negative attention,” Andy says. In fact, after that piece, Andy experienced immense cyber bullying from thousands of right-wing enthusiasts in addition to dealing with COVID deniers and people going so far as to sign his email address up on spam lists. "My attitude towards social media was pretty negative,” Andy recalls. “I didn’t enjoy interacting with people as much as I did before. It was a bummer because Twitter is a really big reason why I have my job in the first place.” But the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade helped remind Andy that social media can be a place for positivity. “It was really cool to reinvigorate that faith in social media and give me a positive outlook on what people can be like,” he says.
The experience was an incredible one that left Andy feeling a bit like Spider-Man. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he says. “I do feel that a little bit. But I am doing my best in terms of vetting people and their stories as much as reasonably possible and doing the right thing with the money and helping people who really truly are in need.” Andy worked hard to distribute the money as quickly as he could, which meant that he essentially worked another full-time job as he vetted stories and figured out ways to distribute money within Venmo spending guidelines. By the time it was all said and done, Andy was exhausted, but he had successfully helped Utahns with everything from giving families money for Thanksgiving and Christmas to paying rent and buying groceries, to discovering an organization that helps eliminate medical debt.
Visit sltrib.com to read Andy’s piece on where the money went and how he and the Exclamation Point Aid Brigade helped relieve 400–-500 Utah families of medical debt. If you are considering sending money over to help further the cause, Andy suggests sending money directly to the charity you want to support rather than to his Venmo account. Of course, as a journalist would, he encourages doing some research first. “It’s a very nerdy and accounting thing to do,” Andy says. “But check the Form 990 of the charities that you’re donating to and figure out how much of your charity dollars are really going to support the people that you want it to support.”
About the Westminster Review
The Westminster Review is Westminster University’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.