I ask you, faithful readers: what do you think free muffins and museums have in common?

Your answer: both have an endowment.

At the Empire Grill in Skowhegan, Maine, one customer each day is given a free muffin before noon. Sure, you think – restaurants must comp food all the time. What makes this different?

In 2007, James Sham, a performance artist, was a student at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. He recognized that the diner was a community space where art students and locals were interacting, bringing together two seemingly disparate groups. He also recognized the power of an unexpected generous gesture, even a small one. So he led a fundraising campaign that eventually reached its goal of $9,000. Deposited in a savings account, that money earns $0.8 in interest each day – enough for one free muffin. He built a muffin endowment.

Most museums have endowments. Most are trying constantly to build them. Those funds are what keep the water flowing and the lights turned on. They have restricted funds for acquisitions, for education, for curatorial chairs. Some endowments are worth millions and millions of dollars.

James Sham was able to take a small, remote community, bring them together, raise the relatively tiny amount of $9,000, and he created something unique and special. Imagine what a museum could do along those lines. Could they endow one free admission each day, and celebrate the free attendee with fanfare? Could they surprise one child with a free toy from the gift shop? Could they give a free cup of coffee to their first five visitors each day?

These are objectively small things, but if they’re done right, then subjectively they can mean the world. I for one would always remember a place that placed a muffin on my plate and told me it was free, thanks to a community’s desire to make my day a little bit brighter.

The Empire Grill’s unique endowment was featured in Yankee Magazine‘s March/April 2010 issue. Sadly, the restaurant closed shortly after the magazine went to press.