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This Greek Seeks a Chorus of Gifts

As the 33-year-old scion of a Greek shipping family, Peter Nomikos has time and money to follow his passions. Based in London, he dabbles in investing, sponsors art museums and runs a winery and beer brand on his home island of Santorini. His latest cause: saving Greece from its debt crisis. Last month, the Princeton University graduate launched a nonprofit that will use donations to buy Greek government debt on the cheap. The charity, called Greece Debt Free, proposes to then forgive the debt, helping to wipe clean the nation's slate.
"I want to help my country," he says. "Crisis is the strongest national call to action, and therefore is the most powerful, unifying mechanism for change."
It is a herculean—some would say Sisyphean—task.

Greece had €280 billion ($351 billion) in debt as of March 31. But much of that debt is trading between 10 and 20 cents on the euro. With an estimated 16 million people who identify as Greek around the world, Mr. Nomikos figures it would take about "a grand a Greek"—or €1,000 per head—to materially reduce the nation's debtload.

His take so far: €273,000, a mere rounding error in terms of the total debt—and most of that amount came from his wealthy family and friends.

Indeed, Greeks aren't known for their willingness to contribute to the nation's coffers, either by paying taxes or reducing their dependence on benefits. The nation's unemployment rate remains above 20%.

While the plan may be far-fetched, it reflects the diminishing hope among many Greeks that their politicians—or even Europe's—will be able to halt the country's tragic descent into financial chaos.

Mr. Nomikos says he has faith that his countrymen will rally to the cause. "Greeks are terrible citizens, but exceptional patriots," he says.

Other recent attempts to rescue struggling sovereigns through patriotic efforts have yielded mixed results.

In the late 1990s, during the Asian financial contagion, tens of thousands of South Koreans swarmed banks to donate gold with hopes of helping the battered country shore up its central-bank reserves and repay $57 billion it owed to the International Monetary Fund in rescue funds.

In Indonesia, then-President Suharto's eldest daughter in 1998 launched a campaign dubbed "I Love the Rupiah," in which hundreds of people exchanged millions of U.S. dollars for the local currency. Separately, a "National Love Indonesia Campaign" encouraged people to donate gold and jewelry to the central bank to bolster its flailing currency.

While those campaigns boosted national sentiment, they did little for the countries' economies.

And some believe Mr. Nomikos's campaign is misguided as well.

"The proposal provides very little help to the Greek people now," says Adam Lerrick, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who led negotiations for the largest creditor group in the $100 billion Argentine debt restructuring. "It would make more sense to donate the money to a Greek charity that buys medicines for the poor."

But the tanned Mr. Nomikos, a rowing enthusiast who favors slim-fit jeans, at least has the virtue of many well-heeled friends. Family acquaintance Evangelos Marinakis, a prominent shipowner and owner of Greece's largest soccer club, Olympiacos FC, has signed up, donating €168,590 on behalf of his team. That was sufficient to buy enough bonds that cancel out nearly €1.4 million of debt.

Mr. Marinakis says he jumped at the chance. He says he wants to "set an example, and hope other Greeks reach into their pockets and collectively solve the problem."

The inspiration for Mr. Nomikos' campaign, he says, came from his days at Princeton, where he wrote his senior thesis on the response of private enterprise during the Greek financial crisis of the 1920s. Then, the populist activism during the Arab spring last year helped encourage his plan.

Mr. Nomikos also is using local products—beer and yogurt—to help build a popular movement that he hopes will channel U2 frontman Bono and his Product RED campaign, or salad-dressing brand Newman's Own, where actor Paul Newman and others donated profits to charity.

Mr. Nomikos' Santorini beer company Volkan, which made a splashy debut at celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey's Petrus restaurant in London earlier this year, contributes 50% of its profits to the charity.

"The idea is people can start to direct some of their daily consumption to products that support the reduction of Greek debt," he says.

Mr. Nomikos says his family has been involved in philanthropic endeavors for years. His grandfather, Markos Nomikos, was a well-known politician who financed the rebuilding of roads, hospitals and schools in Santorini after an earthquake last century. His father, also Peter Nomikos, continued in those footsteps, operating Santorini's main conference center that hosts many of the island's main events. He also co-founded a scientific instruments maker.

The younger Mr. Nomikos hopes to make his own mark, but his campaign faces other challenges in addition to fundraising: In the unlikely event that the charity gets inundated with donations, the subsequent purchases could actually drive up Greece's bond prices, making them too expensive.

But, after years of watching Greece teeter on the brink of insolvency, Mr. Marinakis of Olympiacos says anything "is worth trying."

Authors: Steven Russolillo And Katy Burne
Thursday, July 5, 2012