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Joanne Fritz

Grants Expand Crowdfunding Site for People Down on Their Luck

By May 7, 2013

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Diagram showing how Benevolent works.

Benevolent's mission is simple. Help people who just need a modest helping hand to dig out of a tough spot. And do it through online crowdfunding.

There are so many crowdfunding sites that have sprung up in recent years that it is truly daunting to keep up, but this one caught my attention almost instantly.

So what's so special about it?

Its Relevancy. Everyday now we hear about the long-term unemployed, about families in need, and ordinary people who have fallen on hard times through no fault of their own. Benevolent offers a simple way to help individuals, not an organization, for a reasonable cost.

Its Backstory. Benevolent was launched in 2011 by Megan Kashner, a social worker and experienced nonprofit professional in Chicago, who grasped the power of crowdfunding and of focusing on one individual and one specific need. Kashner's pilot program raised more than $35,000 for more than 70 people in just 15 months.

Its Safety. People like to give to people, but they want to make sure that their donations are safe. That's why Benevolent works with nonprofits who have to "vouch" for an individual and verify that their need is legitimate and reasonable. The money goes to the nonprofit and then to the person. Benevolent says that the average donation at the site is $50 and the average need is $470.

Its Backers. Kashner was invited to present her idea at last year's White House Forum on Philanthropy Innovation. The keynote speaker was Jean Case of the Case Foundation and she liked Benevolent, calling it one of the best programs presented.

Now, Benevolent has received $285,000 in grants from two major foundations, the John S. and James L Knight Foundation and the Marjorie S. Fisher Fund of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. The new money will help fund the expansion of Benevolent into three new cities, Detroit, Charlotte, North Carolina, and San Jose/Silicon Valley.

Its Simplicity. Online, potential donors see profiles of people in need with a very specific request. For instance one man needs to get his car repaired so he can go to his new job; a woman needs a computer so she can work from home even though she is disabled; and a mother with a two-year old needs some furniture for their apartment.

Needs tend to be just a few hundred dollars at most, and donors can make small contributions. The website is simple, almost austere, but it works well. One person's story at a time, one simple need, amount needed, progress toward completion. Click, fill out simple form, done.

Having proved its worth in Chicago, now the organization is set to expand. The three new cities were chosen because their low income residents face some unique challenges.

For instance in Detroit, the median houshold income decreased more than a third in recent years and half of the city's household have to manage with less than $25,000 annual incomes.

In San Jose, the properous tech industry has brought in a tide of transient workers who often work for low wages while living in an area with one of the highest cost of living rates in the country.

In Charlotte, census figures show that the percentage of families in poverty has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010.

I like this crowdfunding site very much. As one of its new funders, Mrs Fisher of the Marjorie S. Fisher Fund, said, "This is not charity, it is neighbors helping neighbors."

Benevolent feels that way to me too. That's why I gave.

Photo: Courtesy of Benevolent.

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