A modern-day Gold Rush has been mining its way through the hills of West Marin, thanks to the oddball brilliance of one very smart iconoclast named Richard Kirschman.
I mention the Gold Rush because the key to Kirschman’s unique project is a gorgeous $3 coin that looks like gold, has the heft of a silver dollar and bears the knockout design of wildlife artist Keith Hansen.
An Experiment Hits the Jackpot
Kirschman introduced the coin in 2010 when he asked retailers and restaurant owners to include it in the change they gave to customers. The coin is so stunning that most people asked about it, as they do today.
“They’re told it’s both a collector’s item and real money you can spend in West Marin,” Kirschman says. “We love it when they keep the coin as a souvenir, because that simple act of removing it from circulation will transfer its value of $2 (over cost) to local nonprofits.
Three bucks seems like a paltry amount, but Kirschman notes that 2.5 million tourists visit West Marin every year, and many do take it home — tens of thousands, in fact.
And no wonder: Etched into the brass are long-admired symbols of West Marin — the famous Point Reyes lighthouse, tule elk, California poppy, osprey, sand dollar, dairy cow, and more of the sightings one discovers along the famous rolling California hills.
From Zero to $50,000
From the beginning, Kirschman and his wife, editor Doris Ober, rarely kept an exact running count of the total donated. Too many coins were in circulation at any one time, and they wanted to keep administration simple anyway.
But this year, as a new member joins the board, Kirschman, 85, realized this astounding fact: Over the course of eight years, without anyone spending a dime, the $3 coin project has raised upwards of $50,000. And it’s all gone to good causes.
That’s not even the kicker to this story. Kirschman and Ober never really promoted the project to retailers in the ten communities. So now, with more active engagement, the coin’s true potential may be realized.
“It could earn twice, maybe five times as much, and in a shorter time frame,” Kirschman says. “Who knows? The coin’s motto after all is Strength in Community.”
He gets out his notepad to show what he means: “There are 2.5 million visitors coming through West Marin every year. If one out of ten took one coin home, it would leave $500,000 for local charities-every year.” So with a little effort, the total really could be stunning.
It Works and It Baffles
The only thing not in agreement about the $3-coin project, at least with non-economists like me, is exactly how it works.
First, it’s important to note: Kirschman’s coins are not a version of Bitcoin or other “cryptocurrency.” They are not “zero coins” or supermarket tokens or part of a speculative bubble or pyramid block chain or altcoins. They are, rather, an agreed-upon currency that brings together ten coastal communities whose merchants want to help local non-profits.
So if you find one of these coins in your change after paying a grocery store or restaurant in, say, Stinson Beach or Point Reyes or Tomales Bay, you can: 1) keep it as a joyous art piece or commemorative collector’s item or absolutely terrific stocking stuffer (kids love them); or 2) use it in payment for other purchases throughout West Marin.
And if you keep it, simply by taking $3 out of circulation, you’re making a donation to local nonprofits. Frankly, that’s the puzzler for me: How can it be that if you simply do nothing with actual money or spend it as local currency, you’re contributing to good causes?
How It Started
Kirschman got the idea in the 1990s when he realized that nonprofit groups in West Marin were seeking donations from a very small population. With only 2,300 households in the entire area, “everybody was fishing from the same pool,” he says.
At the same time, the more than two and a half million tourists coming through West Marin each year represented an untapped bounty of cash. They loved exploring famous natural landscapes along Highway 1, from Muir Woods through the Point Reyes National Seashore to Tomales Bay, and they spent a lot of money doing it.
Kirschman knew that most of these visitors wouldn’t be interested in donating to small nonprofits they’d never see again, like local libraries, museums, preschools, Little League, senior centers, summer camps and the like. Nevertheless, he was intrigued by the way tourism stimulated the local economy.
So he created a nonprofit (technically a 501(c)3, which took six months of state forms to fill out and regulations to pass and a Board of Directors to create), now known as the Coastal Marin Fund. He took out an account at Wells Fargo in Point Reyes Station to process the flow of money. And when he contacted wildlife artist Hanson, he wanted the look and feel of the coins to be so classy and timeless that visitors and residents would want to keep them forever.
Kirschman then asked merchants along Highway 1 to integrate the $3 coins with real money, and to explain to customers why using the coins was 1) a fun idea and 2) not costing anybody a penny.
“For every coin that drops out of local circulation,” Kirschman stated probably hundreds of times, “two dollars becomes available for a local charity or other community nonprofit.” (That’s two dollars rather than three because the coin costs a dollar to mint).
It took another six months of going from store to store, restaurant to restaurant and service to service across the wide expanse of West Marin. Over time, enough merchants got it — you didn’t have to understand the premise to make a real contribution — that soon a real presence of the coins began making a lasting impression.
Signs began to appear — “$3 Coins Accepted Here” signs! “Ask for one in change” signs! — in many of the ten West Marin towns whose names proudly ring the circumference of the coin: Muir Beach, Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Dogtown, Olema, Inverness, Point Reyes, Inverness Park, Marshall and Tomales.
So Simple It’s Hard to Believe
Want to know how the project works in more detail?
Let’s say you’re a participating grocer who’d like to support a local nonprofit like the West Marin Little League:
- You buy a box of 25 coins from the Coastal Marin Fund at $3 each, paying a total of $75. (Of course you don’t really buy them; you exchange $75 in real money for $75 in gold coins.)
- Now the gold coins are real money as far as you’re concerned. You offer them as change for your customers, who take them home as keepsakes (they’re so beautiful!) or spend them elsewhere in West Marin.
- Because the coins cost the Coastal Marin Fund only $1 each to manufacture, here’s what happens to the $75: a) $25 goes to replace 25 coins, leaving $50; b) $10 goes to the Coastal Marin Fund for operating expenses, leaving $40; c) that remaining $40 goes to a designated charity or nonprofit.
- So when the box is empty, it’s now worth that $40. You simply hand the box over to the Little League of West Marin (or any nonprofit in West Marin; here’s a selected list).
- The Little League then turns the empty box over to the Coastal Marin Fund, which gives the group $40 cash. The group can wait until more empty boxes pile up from other merchants, which is usually the case. Twenty-five boxes worth $40 each, after all, equals $1,000, and that’s a lot of baseballs.
But wait, says the person who nearly failed algebra but now insists there must be a straightforward answer: How does the fact that the customer takes the gold coin home — the equivalent of Kirschman’s vision of the coin that “drops out of circulation” — result in more money for nonprofits?
“The same way,” says Kirschman, “as when a casino patron takes home a $5 chip as a memento — a chip that probably cost the casino a nickle to produce — leaving the casino with a profit of $4.95. Since in our case the $3 gold coin costs about $1 to make, whenever one coin drops out of circulation, it leaves $2 behind for West Marin.”
The Hidden Joy of It All
I think what I love most about the coin project is that it’s both realistic and hopeful, practical and idealistic. Like so many of Kirschman’s ideas, it says: If we all believe in each other, the value of free-enterprise in a democracy is not to make the 1 percent of the population rich. It’s to spread the power of wealth around for everybody.
Further, built into the Coastal Marin Fund is a “Direct Granting” system that allows the merchants themselves to choose the nonprofit they like and hand over the grant, literally, in the form of an empty coin box. There are no deadlines, applications for grants, judging committees or other bureaucratic procedures (Richard hates bureaucracy) standing in the way of good causes receiving money.
And let’s say you’re not a participating merchant or town — you’re just a good-hearted citizen who’d like to assist without spending your own money. This too is simple: You just buy a box for $75, spend the 25 coins inside that are worth $3 each, and give the empty box to a nonprofit. (You can ask somebody local to do it, or the CMF.)
And thank you! say the grateful West Marin folks: You too haven’t spent a penny, and yet you’ve just contributed $40!
“By the way,” Kirschman likes to say to kids especially, holding the coin up so they can view the rim closely: “Do you ever wonder why this (and any coin of value) has these lines etched around the outside?” Few kids or adults know. “The lines are called ‘reeding.’ This was an invention of Isaac Newton’s to prevent people from filing slivers off their gold coins, which they could then exchange for cash.”
The irony of the project is that Kirschman sees himself as a skeptic and a realist and an atheist and a doubter. You wouldn’t think he’d pour his heart and soul (he does have them) into a coin project for good causes — or a unique first-aid cream for dogs, a hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania, a back-saving gear for rickshaw drivers in India, a drought-reducing device that collects water from fog — and on and on, as his great ideas go, which we will see in upcoming posts.
All that’s just for starters. I met Kirschman years ago when he wrote two self-published books that stand today as a testament to the keen observer in all of us.
Then I discovered that Kirschman is the guy who, after he served as a juror, sued Marin Country for its “rubber stamping” Grand Jury; donated land for a medical clinic to Point Reyes; gave the Boy Scouts of America an A for Atheist badge (why won’t they thank him?); created a prototype hospital for babies with AIDS in Romania; raised near-extinct farm animals on his own property to help the breeds stay alive.
And he’s still tinkering with: a fog-to-water device for the next drought; a gear for rickshaws in India that could save millions of drivers from back-breaking passenger loads; ideas for humane treatment of deer, bees, dogs, turkeys and cattle; help for prison inmates and seniors getting it on in communes.
That barely dents the list of Great Ideas he’s come up with, so I just kept writing and writing — five more posts, in fact — to see what makes a guy like this tick. Many of his projects haven’t succeeded, but he’s as proud of them as any others, because commercial achievement has never been his goal. Serving the creative impulse, following one’s passion, more deeply exploring “Strength through Community” (his own motto for West Marin!) — all of these seem to shed light on an astounding drive underneath. Yet none of them comes close.
And by the way, if the name of Richard Kirschman sounds familiar, he is the brother of police psychologist and mystery writer Ellen Kirschman, whose books I’ve discussed in previous posts. Ellen K’s name rang a distant bell when I saw her first novel in a bookstore.
Now I think, gee, what a family: Going back a half-century, one discovers that their mother became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt in the early days of the United Nations. Richard was 13 at the time and happened to “borrow” the hand-made desk plaque of USSR ambassador Andrei Gromyko as a memento … ah, but why go on (see Part V).
These are the kind of offbeat facts that I hope will explain so much about an offbeat iconoclast who really does change his world, one idea at a time.