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Facebook makes money through advertising - ads that are trying to get you to buy things. But it's also spawned hundreds of groups where the goal is to give things away. The Buy Nothing Project encourages people to share what they have with others all without money changing hands. NPR's Jeff Brady reports that in five years, the project has spread around the world with the help of more than 3,000 volunteers.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: At a townhouse in Philadelphia, Johanna Humphrey is headed upstairs to show me something.
JOHANNA HUMPHREY: Amazon sent me a ton of crayons by mistake.
BRADY: She ordered 24 boxes for her 3-year-old son's birthday party, but the company sent her twice that many and doesn't want the extras back.
HUMPHREY: Parents don't need this many crayons in their house.
BRADY: So she's going to list them on her neighborhood Buy Nothing group on Facebook and offer them to a teacher. Humphrey actually runs the group. She started it a few years ago as a volunteer.
HUMPHREY: I really primarily do it for the environmental reasons, right? If there's a way that I can stop some of my stuff from ending up in a trash heap somewhere, I feel like I've done my job.
BRADY: Humphrey's group has grown to nearly 2,000 members. That many people can get unwieldy, so soon it will split into two groups. That's one way the Buy Nothing Project has grown over the last five years - from one group outside Seattle to more than 2,000 around the world. The project has no paid staff.
LIESL CLARK: We don't want to monetize this in any way possible even as a nonprofit.
BRADY: Liesl Clark is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Buy Nothing Project.
CLARK: I wanted to try a social experiment which was to get people to literally ask themselves whether they can buy nothing. And I don't care if it's just for an hour or for a day or for a week.
BRADY: Clark says she wants people to give things away but also ask for what they need instead of going to the store. She believes relying on and helping neighbors creates healthier communities and happier people. The project does have a subversive element. A frequent question is why the project uses Facebook. Clark says that's where the people are and, quote, "we need to use the master's tools to dismantle the castle."
CLARK: And this next step is going to be backing off and trying to render ourselves obsolete by moving off of Facebook and encouraging people to share in person and do less so on their devices.
BRADY: That does not seem to be happening yet. For now, the Buy Nothing Project is still growing quickly on Facebook. Back at Johanna Humphrey's townhouse in Philadelphia, she's selected a teacher from the nearly 100 people who expressed interest in the crayons.
HUMPHREY: She posted a picture of her classroom. She said, I'm a kindergarten teacher, and we would love, love, love to have these. And so just seeing a picture of a ton of little kids' faces - that was what sold it for me.
BRADY: The next day, the two meet in person for the crayon hand-off.
LAURA SMITH: Hello.
HUMPHREY: How are you?
SMITH: Good. How are you?
HUMPHREY: Johanna - nice to meet you.
SMITH: Nice to meet you - Laura.
HUMPHREY: How are you? Very good to meet you.
BRADY: Laura Smith teaches at a nearby charter school.
SMITH: And I was so excited to get these crayons because I have 23 students who literally cry over a broken crayon (laughing). So...
BRADY: The two women chat for a few minutes, and Smith is off.
SMITH: Thank you so much.
HUMPHREY: You are very welcome.
SMITH: Thank you.
BRADY: A few days later, a cute video clip arrives in Humphrey's email showing the students in class with their crayon.
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UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Thank you.
BRADY: This is what the Buy Nothing Project founders say they want to create - new connections by sharing things and interactions that extend into the future. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.
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