About 75 million Americans currently live near or below the federal poverty line. To Megan Kashner, A.M. ’95, another number can put a big dent in that harrowing statistic: one.
The power of one, as Kashner calls it, led her to start Benevolent, an innovative and rapidly expanding online philanthropic platform that makes it possible for donors to directly help one low-income person overcome a specific financial hurdle that stands in front of his or her goals. For her work, Kashner received the 2013 Distinctive Innovation in Social Services Award from SSA.
At benevolent.net, people share their stories and explain in print and with a short first-person video how an investment—bus fare to reunite with family, tuition at a training program, a hot water heater—will help turn their lives around. A corresponding video from a representative of a local nonprofit “validates” the request by providing additional context about the client and his or her connection to a caseworker.
To see how it works, take the story of George, a union carpenter for 20 years, who had just completed serving a 1-year prison term only to discover that his apartment had been robbed while he was incarcerated. He needed $780 for new tools so he could restart his career, transition out of homelessness and, as he put it, “be a good role model to my grandchildren.” Working with the Catholic Community Response Team in Detroit, George put his story on Benevolent. In short order, nine separate donors contributed enough to reach the full amount.
“We have an innate human predisposition to want to connect and tell our stories and listen to one another’s stories,” says Kashner, Benevolent’s CEO. “Before recent technology, we didn’t have a way to get one person’s story in front of one person’s eyes. Today, if you want a person to read and feel compelled to act, and then to act—all in one fell swoop—you need to do it online.”
A licensed social worker, Kashner has worked over the last 20 years helping to guide social justice organizations, including serving as an executive director for the Taproot Foundation and the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston and as chief development officer for Chicago’s Deborah’s Place. She remembers the exact date she came up with the concept for Benevolent, February 13, 2011, the day after reading about low-income individuals falling between the gaps in the social safety net in Out of Reach: Place, Poverty and the New American Welfare State, written by SSA Associate Professor Scott W. Allard.
“I fell asleep thinking about the people whose stories I read about in Professor Allard’s book and about the families I had worked with as a social worker. I woke up realizing that we’ve got thousands of low-income families who are unable to reach their goals because they run up against a challenge that would cost a few hundred dollars to solve. And we’ve got individuals who have the capacity to give telling us that they want to know whom they’re helping. Well, we need to put these two things together.”
To develop the site, Kashner enlisted professionals in fields from law to business to software development who donated their time. She even got feedback on a beta version from a class of Evening Program master’s students taught by Allard. After its launch in December 2011, Benevolent has quickly expanded its network of nonprofit partners to 42 cities around the country, filling the needs of more than 155 individuals. Donations average $50, and in the past year, nearly every posted need has been filled.
“Benevolent is a scalable model for how communities can come together to fill in critical gaps in the safety net and help families get what they say they need to grab the next rung on the ladder. It’s a different way of thinking about philanthropy. With Benevolent, there is a two-way street between donor and client,” Allard says.
Crowdfunding has become a powerful new philanthropic tool. DonorsChoose provides money for education needs, for example, and Kiva supports microloans. Kashner says that as these kind of programs become better known, their reach will only increase. She envisions partnerships with digital media companies and other businesses who can raise awareness of Benevolent and get more stories in front of more potential donors.
“When you give with this site, you may not be solving hunger or homelessness or poverty,” she says. “But when you’re helping this one person, that’s a very personal experience.” — David Argentar