For two decades, a 46-year-old Detroit woman named Dechiel endured physical abuse at the hands of her partner — violence that became so horrific that it resulted in her daughter’s death. After that loss, Dechiel sought refuge in a domestic violence shelter, where a local nonprofit helped her find a job designing specialized jackets. With newfound confidence, Dechiel began talking about going back to school, empowering other women, starting over. She was ready to move out of the shelter and into a new apartment, but one thing stood between her and independence: a $500 security deposit.
Dechiel’s scenario is one that plagues our systems of public assistance. Too often, a person who’s fallen on hard times stands to benefit from a government initiative or a charity’s work, but some seemingly minor obstacle stands in their way. A jobs program, for example, may connect the unemployed with work, but it doesn’t guarantee the willing worker any money to fix her broken down car so she can get to work, funds for childcare while she’s on the clock or pay for the clothing needed to blend in with the workplace’s informal dress code. For too many, help falls just beyond reach, a buoy thrown short of the drowning man’s grasp.
In two decades of social work in New York and Chicago, Megan Kashner had witnessed this problem time and again. Fed up with asking her director for money and being told that her agency didn’t provide that type of aid, she dreaded seeing the look on her clients’ faces as she forced herself to say, “I’m so sorry, we can’t.” It’s why Kashner founded Benevolent, an online philanthropic platform, to bridge the gap from where traditional services end and poverty truly begins.
The site is something like a Kickstarter for the underprivileged. Only with Benevolent, instead of backing your friend’s art-house indie movie idea, you can contribute to the essentials a person needs to function in society: the heat for a mother’s car in blustery Chicago, a laptop for an asylum seeker in San Diego or beds for a Detroit family sleeping on their floor while their father’s out of work (three examples of recently funded projects). To put it another way, government gives boots to the destitute, but this platform crowdfunds the actual straps by which they can pull themselves up.
“I have seen families fall through the cracks and away from their goals because they couldn’t get what they needed to take the next step forward, the things we take for granted,” says Kashner, Benevolent’s founder and CEO, a “ticked-off social worker” turned digital entrepreneur. In her opinion, “Today’s technology and the reality of crowdfunding is a total game-changer for that… Technological advancement, individual access and information will allow us to personalize how to help people get themselves out of poverty.”
In his or her own words, the individual seeking funding presents a pitch on Benevolent’s site. (A case manager provides a short verification as well.) The first-person narrative empowers users to talk about their circumstances and their aspirations, and in return, see that someone cares enough to listen (and hopefully, provide funding). The model is so important the Benevolent employees have even transcribed information phoned in from prison inmates that didn’t have access to computers.
Because the site is individualized, Benevolent can win over potential donors with compelling narratives, but it also leads to questions of whether handing over cash to each person is the most efficient use of funds. Could money be better spent buying goods in bulk, then distributing them? Kashner’s belief: A firm no. “Charity is not the answer to everything. The fact that people in low-income circumstances have trouble accessing equipment for work, let’s say, doesn’t mean that we need to have a new nonprofit that specializes in work gear,” she answers. Benevolent works, she says, because it focuses on targeted assistance. It gives a person concrete access to the next step, not a free handout they can repeat next week.
“If we can help the woman who wants to be a phlebotomist [a medical assistant who draws blood], get subsidized childcare, secure housing and a quality education for the 18 months in school, then she might never need those services again,” Kashner argues.
Since Kashner came up with the idea of Benevolent in February 2011, the site has raised $270,000 (from 4,600 donors) for 578 people. Four benefactors fully funded Dechiel’s apartment deposit, and an update on the Benevolent website shows Dechiel smiling, proudly displaying her new keys, as she says she’s ready to move in and “move forward.”
In Kashner’s mind, the site is accomplishing something more important than funding a small number of the down-and-out. “Benevolent also exists to highlight and to bring to light the fact that these gaps exist. For example, right now, we see a lot of people moving into permanent housing. When they get there, they have no tables or chairs, no beds, no linens. It’s almost like they’re squatting,” she says. By documenting these trends in housing, transportation and employment, Benevolent may actually convince enough elected officials to create the systemic change that would fill these cracks.
“Our dream would be that this service would be unnecessary in the future,” Kashner says.
Charitable giving has transformed from a collection plate for the nameless poor to individual donations that go towards a hyper-specific need. For the first time, the platform empowers the recipient to speak about her situation and her future, not rely on what a donor says is best for her. With Benevolent, Kashner’s redefining philanthropy for the Internet age.
(Homepage image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)