this weekGrab Bag

August 7, 2004

Public Enrichment Project

Fun and common sense for a better world

When I began working on Interesting Thing of the Day, it was not with the idea that it would make tons of money. I was, and still am, optimistic that eventually the revenue generated by this project will be enough to make it worth the time spent working on it. But when you get right down to it, I do this because I feel it needs to be done. I like to learn, teach, and have fun, and Interesting Thing of the Day accomplishes those things for me. So when I heard about a very unusual nonprofit organization that appears to have the very same goals, I felt an immediate sense of kinship. The organization is called Public Enrichment Project (or PEP for short).

A friend of mine handed me a very sober-looking two-page newsletter from the organization that looked exactly like the newsletters from every other small nonprofit. It didn’t try to be cute or flashy, it simply recounted the group’s recent activities. But the activities were unlike anything I’d ever heard of—weird, inventive, and compellingly sane. The organization’s Web site says, “PEP’s mission is to assist individuals with projects that are extraordinarily creative, publicly enriching and also run the risk of going unnoticed.” That’s it? What’s the catch? Where’s the ulterior motive, the grand idea they can pitch to potential donors, the touching story of a need they’re trying to meet? There isn’t one.

PEP Rally
To give you the flavor of what PEP is about, consider their major event of 2003, the PePathlon. This day-long competition consisted of four distinct activities: trash collection, bicycling, creative presentations, and—this was the part that won me over—taking the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Contestants were scored in each of the activities except bicycling, to prevent superathletes from having an unfair advantage. On the other hand, bonus points were awarded during the trash collection activity for bagging “Special Consideration Items” such as tires and large pieces of lumber and “Extra Special Consideration Items” such as roadkill. PePathletes raised money for the charities of their choice, and the winner walked away with a large trophy and an additional contribution to his charity from the organization. Among the skills displayed in the “creative presentations” activity were speeches, massage, palmistry, poetry, and throat singing.

Another annual event is the People Tournament, a bizarre name game played by proxy on behalf of thousands of people and fictional entities. Players compete head-to-head in a series of bracketed rounds; the winner of a roll of dice in each round moves on to the next round. The very first contest this year was between the ancient Canaanite god Baal and E.H. Shepherd, illustrator of Winnie the Pooh. (Shepherd won, but he still has a long way to go before claiming the final victory. Interestingly, Tigger won the overall tournament in 1995.)

One of PEP’s ongoing services is the Court of Common Sense, a dispute-resolution forum in which a panel of nine judges bases their decision not on obscure legal precedent but on common sense and logic. The PEP Web site contains complete records of the cases the Court has tried and the decisions they reached; it’s entertaining reading. PEP also offers a service called Habit Makers and Breakers that’s designed to encourage people to stick with whatever resolutions they’ve made. It works like this: you pay PEP a sum of money and sign a contract stating what activity you intend to do (or refrain from doing). PEP monitors your progress and repays the money to you incrementally only to the extent you succeed; the rest is kept as a donation. In addition to these services, PEP provides financial and logistical support to worthwhile creative projects undertaken by other people or groups.

Holy Fun
PEP is not an overtly religious organization, although most of its board members and staff attended Mennonite colleges and have careers that exemplify traditional Anabaptist values. What I find delightfully interesting is that with all the activities in which they could have chosen to invest their time, PEP’s founders did not create an organization with pretenses of saving the world. PEP is not trying to stop violence, feed the poor, or spread the gospel. I am not aware of any biblical injunction to “go forth and have fun,” but that is essentially their mandate, and if I may say so, it’s a darn good one. I do wish their Web site and newsletter were a little less matter-of-fact and businesslike—I think people would catch on to the group’s ideas more quickly if their public materials had a catchier look and feel that better reflected the character of the organization. Still, PEP is, in its own small way, spreading good vibes and helping people to take life a little less seriously. If more organizations caught on to that idea, there could be hope for saving the world after all. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Public Enrichment Project…

For more information about the Public Enrichment Project, visit their Home Page.

Chad Umble reports: “PEP’s 2004 People Tournament has begun. Our website has a list of all 16,384 participants with descriptions. Each name is indexed, so you can find where everyone is playing on brackets that are also posted online.”

To learn more about the Graduate Record Examination, visit Educational Testing Services; to get help preparing to take the GRE, visit The Princeton Review. (Disclaimer: I used to teach GRE review classes for The Princeton Review.)