Throwing spare change into a fountain is a time-honored ritual: throw a penny into the water, and your wish might come true. But all that money has to go somewhere. Otherwise, the growing piles of pennies, nickels, quarters and Euros could clog up the fountain’s works.
Depending on where a fountain is and who owns it, the coins collected can go to all sorts of different places—from fountain upkeep to charity or public service.
In New York City, for example, change collected from fountains in public parks often go towards the fountain’s upkeep itself, though entrepreneurs who don't mind getting their hands wet often get to it first, writes Adam Chandler for The Atlantic.
“We have over 50 beautiful, decorative display fountains in NYC parks,” New York City Parks and Recreation spokesperson Maeri Ferguson tells Chandler. “They are cleaned regularly by Parks staff (every few weeks), but we consistently find that most of the coins have already been removed by entrepreneurial New Yorkers and there is not a significant amount left to be collected.”
Other cities, though, can pull in a much more serious haul. Take for example, Rome’s iconic Trevi fountain: for hundreds of years, visitors have thrown coins over their shoulder into the fountain to ensure that they return someday. So many tourists toss in coins that Roman officials have the fountain cleaned every night, reportedly netting as much as $4,000 in loose change from around the world each day, the BBC reported in 2006.
Most of the money collected each night goes towards running a supermarket for the needy. And collecting that cash is serious business. Roman officials have been known to be tough on anyone caught skimming coins from the fountain, the BBC reported.
In one case in 2005, police arrested four fountain cleaners after they were spotted slipping coins into their own pockets after collecting them. Authorities finally caught one notorious skimmer nicknamed “d’Artagnan,” banning him from the fountain after he fished out thousands of dollars in change over 34 years using a magnetized wand.
For the most part, money collected from privately-owned fountains in the United States also goes to charity. The fountain in New York City’s Bryant Park is owned and operated by a non-profit corporation, which puts the cash collected by cleaners towards the fountain’s own upkeep.
Chandler reports that private fountains can also rake in tens of thousands of dollars a year, leading private companies to create official policies towards disbursing the change. Minnesota’s Mall of America collects about $24,000 in change each year from its fountains and ponds, and nonprofits can submit applications for a cut of the change.
Tens of thousands of dollars in coins scooped out of wishing wells, fountains, and ponds in Florida’s Walt Disney World are donated each year to support foster children living in the state, Attractions Magazine reports.
Whether or not your wish comes true after tossing a coin into a fountain, you can rest assured knowing that the change is likely going to someone who needs it.