Start a cult
I met Danny Wallace, the accidental hero who inspired the social phenomenon “Join Me!” that’s become known as “guerrilla benevolence” and the “Karma Army”, in a busy Covent Garden café. He was fresh from BBC Broadcasting House and had an hour to kill before he was due on Richard and Judy. I had no problem recognising him as he arrived wearing the same T-shirt and parker as on the front cover of the book that describes how he created this curiously inspirational movement.
Danny Wallace, for want of a better label, is a professional prankster. Before “Join Me!”, he’d been around the world with a friend called Dave Gorman, looking for other people called Dave Gorman, which resulted in a humorous book called “Are You Dave Gorman?”. When that project was over, and a jobless Danny was “sitting around in my pants watching daytime TV”, he came up with the random idea of posting an advert in the free London paper, Loot, that said simply “Join Me!” and requested a passport-sized photo. When the first reply dropped through his letterbox, he arranged to meet the sender, “as much intrigued by why he would answer the ad as he was about why I would place it.” After a night of “boozing and curry” with someone who he wouldn’t have otherwise met, Danny decided to set up a “Join Me!” website and print some leaflets. “More and more passport photos arrived and they were all joining someone without knowing who they were joining, or what they were joining or why they were joining and I didn’t know either.”
As the story goes, some initial “Joinees” arranged to meet up and demanded a purpose. But Danny was nervous of meeting them. He thought, “They’re going to imagine this sort of bloke in big long purple robes, making amazing speeches, and women stroking his legs and they’re going to be left with a bloke who looks like one of the Proclaimers.” Instead, he sent some disposable cameras and a Dictaphone with this message: “It is I, the leader – go out and make an old man very happy. Take a picture. Send it back”. They did this and had a brilliant time.
Five years on, Danny spends more time appearing on daytime TV than watching it. Calling himself a “modern day cult leader”, he now commands all Joinees to commit random acts of kindness every Friday. “Thousands of people around the world, every Friday, do my bidding. Friday, is just so that I can call them Good Fridays and so I can make them sign the Good Friday Agreement. I could do Ten Commandments but that would be a bit too much for people. ‘Hit and run kindness’, I call it. You just go up, you do something, you leg it. It’s not going to solve all the world’s problems, but it will improve someone’s day for ten seconds, which might rub off.”
So what sort of things do Joinees do? “If you go up to an old lady whose been looking at a pot plant and then walked away and not bought it. You just think, “Well I should buy it”. You go up and say, “I bought this for you” and you’ve bewildered someone with kindness.” The initial idea of random acts of kindness, Danny explains, came from his love of practical jokes. Presenting an old lady with a pot plant is actually a lot like “sticking a ‘kick me’ sign on her back. You get the same buzz but actually the victim benefits and you feel great..”
Join Me! clearly started as a joke, a humorous idea to sell some books, and stumbled into becoming something altogether more substantial than its creator expected. But although it’s no longer only a joke, the joke ethos remains central. “Doing these acts of kindness is the same mentality as doing a prank, because you need to get over that embarrassment barrier and treat it like a joke. The vast majority of society want to do something nice, but are afraid to. It’s this weird social barrier where you might see someone struggling with some heavy shopping but you won’t go and help them, because they’re going to think you’re mental. Join Me! has become an excuse to do something nice. Everyone always says you shouldn’t need an excuse, but you know, bollocks, sometimes you do.”
Danny is full of stories about the happiness that Join Me! has brought to people’s lives. Like the 83 year old granny in Edinburgh who joined to raise her spirits after the death of both her husband and son within a fortnight. Danny sent her a postcard telling her that he was planning to be in town and would try and pop by. He then gathered together a group of local Joinees and turned up on her doorstep with flowers and chocolates. “It was great because there were all these 18 year olds, and it was the first time they’d done something this weird. We brought her all these gifts, and not one of us left with a dry eye. She was brilliant, a real character.” Even just hearing about Join Me! has helped some people. “One guy wrote to me recently and said he’d read about it just after his marriage had broken down and it had re-instilled his faith in people.”
Even though he got there more by accident than design, there’s a lot Danny can teach someone who wants to motivate large numbers of people to have a positive impact on the world. He came up with a simple idea that can capture people’s imagination. He put the internet to great use by getting people to share their experiences and arrange meetings in their local pubs. And he realised that personal contact is key – a lesson he learned from a vicar in Inverness, who contacted him with this piece of advice, to which Danny responded by hopping straight on a plane to meet him. “I flew up to Inverness and I stayed at his vicarage, and he’s a Joinee for life now.” The more his Joinees get together, Danny says, the more enthusiastic they become. “Suddenly it’s got proper, physical meaning, because there are other people doing it.”
Grown-up people doing good turns, like oversized boy scouts, is certainly a rich vein of humour. But, as Danny philosophises, “I’ve always thought that the most important way of getting a message across is through humour. So whatever you do you should, if you can, make it a bit funny. World peace, stop hunger, stop all wars, all that sort of stuff. I think most of it would be slightly alleviated if you just lighten up a bit. Have a cup of tea, have a sit down.”