We're happy to see you here at the Benevolent Blog. Please also visit us at www.benevolent.net!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Bed of One’s Own

Last week, Anne told us that what she really needs right now is a mattress. She explained that she and her 10- year- old son are currently sleeping on an air mattress, and that this air mattress was sure to pop soon, as all the ones before it have done.

Today, let's start raising the $430 for Anne's bed.

Her request was so basic, so modest – a mattress to put on the floor to sleep on with her son – that I felt compelled to encourage her to think bigger and to ask for a bed, complete with box spring, mattress, and simple frame.

“I don’t want my son to have to sleep on the floor.”

To read Anne’s story in her own words, and to read what the staff at The Cara Program, a nonprofit here in Chicago, have to say about her and the need she seeks support for today,watch a video of Anne describing her situation right at the bottom of this blog. Then you can go to our website at www.benevolent.net and click on the link at the top that says “Anne's Need."

Anne has a plan and a vision for her life. She has lived through violence, unemployment, and homelessness. Now she’s working, living with a friend, and saving up all her money for her own place for herself and her son. She hopes to achieve this goal in the new year and to have enough room so that she and her son can each have a bed, among other things.

Anne’s story is very common, yet when you meet her or watch her video, she doesn’t easily fit into any stereotypes we have of those who are homeless. She is in that category of “precariously housed,” or “couch-homeless.” Estimates from the National Coalition for the Homeless tell us that approximately 1.65% of the entire U.S. population fits into this category. That’s upwards of 5 million people couch surfing, without a place of their own.

What a bed will mean to Anne will be the end to spending $20 each on a series of air mattresses that pop in the middle of the night about a month into their use. It will mean a place that is hers – where she can sit and read, work with her son on homework, listen to him tell her about his day at school, and watch him sleep. It means his sleep will be uninterrupted and secure. The bed will be hers – not someone’s stained hand-me-down, not something she feels obliged to someone for, just hers. In a bare subsistence life like Anne’s, that means a great deal.

Anne’s is the first need we’ll be posting to our site and opening up for support. Our real website will launch sometime next month with many more people’s stories and needs, but we chose Anne as our first and we hope you’ll help us make her an example of the power of personal stories to spur action and support.

Here’s what we can do - if you want to help support Anne's need, please go to the link on our website at www.benevolent.net that says “Donate Now.” There, you can click on a link to PayPal where you can submit a contribution. The PayPal page is truly not pretty, but it works.

As soon as we’ve received the total amount needed for Anne to buy a bed for herself and her son, we’ll send the money along to The Cara Program -- the nonprofit that supports Anne with regard to job training and support -- and they will get the funds to Anne for the bed. We’ll update her page on our website so that you know not to send any more contributions for her.

By supporting Anne’s need, you’ll be helping her get the bed for herself and her son, but you’ll also be helping us here at Benevolent as we learn what works best. As with every need, we’ll use about 6.75% to cover our own costs (including credit card processing – ouch!) here at Benevolent. We’ve already factored that into the amount we need to raise to meet this need.

Whether you’re someone who will decide to help Anne or not, we’re glad that you know her now, as we do.

2006 was the last time Anne had a bed of her own. Her simple statement, “I don’t want my son to have to sleep on the floor,” is really all I needed to hear.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The word to spread is...

If you’re wanting to spread the word about Benevolent, here’s the word to spread:

“Starting in mid-November, you and I will have the opportunity to connect directly with individuals who are facing hurdles, opportunities and challenges, and who are open to receiving our help as they strive to overcome and succeed. There will be a new platform, www.benevolent.net and it will be our chance to make a difference, one to one.”

Here’s how we’re getting there…

Next week, the Benevolent team will start our work in nonprofits across the Chicago community, talking with staff members and clients of local social service organizations. We’ll be listening to the stories of individuals living on very low incomes, each one facing a hurdle on his or her path to stability and greater success. We’re looking forward to sharing some of these stories in future blogs and on the pilot of our website.

In these initial weeks of our work in the “field,” we’ll be capturing the stories of people at a moment of need or opportunity in their lives, through our partners at the Cara Program, the Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C-4), Family Focus, and Bethel New Life. As our work unfolds, we’ll extend to other nonprofits in other neighborhoods across our area. We’re aiming to get our site up, with several dozen individuals represented and ready for help, by mid-November. When that happens, our members’ stories will speak for themselves.

Why here? We chose Chicago as our pilot site for many reasons, the first of which is that Chicago is our home – both professionally and personally. We’ve built strong partnerships with these first few organizations and their staffs, people who believe in our mission and the work we are gearing up to do. At Bethel, for example, the leaders and staff would happily have helped us fuel the pilot site with the needs of fifty, one hundred, two hundred clients and families currently served by their various programs.

This tells us a great deal. That the need is great and immediate: individuals living on very low incomes are striving for more for themselves and their families, and they need their community – us – to help them realize their goals and dreams. That the nonprofits who know their communities’ needs in the greatest depth are excited to introduce a new resource into the mix, one which will help their clients voice their own stories. That people are seeking connection, affirmation and dignity in their work and in their lives.

What we’ll find out in the coming weeks is how best to provide a meeting ground between people who need help surmounting specific obstacles and others who want to help steady them on their paths, in a way that is within their reach to do. We will find out what resonates and what doesn’t; what the snags are, and how we can overcome them. We’ll come closer to our goal of getting help and support to people at critical moments in their lives.

We’re glad to have you along with us for this journey and to explore these new steps together. As we do, we hope you’ll start to spread the word about this pilot across your networks.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Success is when you fill your first need, and someone’s life gets better from it

I sent out an email recently to a number of people who have been close to Benevolent in our early stages. I asked them to send me some quick thoughts about “what success and accomplishment will look like for the pilot phase of Benevolent.”

The responses named milestones ranging from changing lives and channeling support, to user satisfaction and return, to proving the model as a conduit for social change. In short, the varying views of success ran the gamut from the tactical to the inspirational.

For all of us working towards launching the Benevolent pilot, the responses are inspiring and motivating, and daunting. Here are some of them, grouped by common themes – impact, learning, and user experience:


One way to measure success is when one of those helped by a Benevolent Donor reaches back and helps someone else seeking assistance. - Bob Wordlaw, Executive Director, Chicago Jobs Council

Success is when people you don't personally know are using the site. Success is when you fill your first need, and someone's life gets better from it. - Andy Slocum, Lead Consultant, Thoughtworks

The Benevolent pilot would be a success if we could show that the model addresses key gaps in the safety net and creates opportunities for working poor families, with a higher degree of responsiveness than other public or private types of assistance. Success is demonstrating - through the lives of those helped during the pilot and feedback from donors - that we can harness, target, and promote philanthropy with greater efficiency and energy than other modes of charitable giving. - Scott Allard, Associate Professor, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and Benevolent Board Member

For a social change agent like Benevolent, I can't help but think the most important metric is the number of people we help to overcome a hurdle in their path to better quality of life. For me, this number is 10. If the pilot can raise enough attention and dollars to put 10 people past a bump in their lives, it is a great start…Someone might argue that 10 people is not enough, others might say that the attention we get is more important than a small number of people we help. I can see both of these angles. But to me personally, 10 lives means a lot. - Billy Belchev, Designer, Webitects

I think success is making these initial connections between donors and clients and following the synergies as they happen. It is not a finite accomplishment but a process that will eventually lead to meaningful experiences that will motivate both sides to encourage all the people they know to get involved. - Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan, Visiting Faculty, DePaul University School for New Learning


Success is learning - learning what your various constituents value, learning how they spread the word, learning what is the most effective way to reach them. Success is NOT dollars of revenue or number of users you can attract with advertising - those things come later. Now you need to LEARN and need to understand your audience and what is most effective with them. It is a series of small, well defined experiments that get you this learning quickly and inexpensively. - Troy Henikoff, CEO, Excelerate Labs

I think success is using the pilot to determine the key metrics of a respectful and rewarding match. The next step is using those metrics to develop a strong program. - Rebecca Lindsay-Ryan, Director of External Affairs, Big Shoulders Fund

Got to go with some numbers: 1) At least 80% of pilot NEEDS are funded to 75% or more. Need photos with some smiles as proof! 2)100% of partners and donees and 25% of donors/site users provide actionable feedback to improve Benevolent.net experience. - Rajnish Chawan, Pro Bono Consultant to Benevolent

User Experience:

Success for me would be ease of use for the end users – the investor/donors. Once they are driven to the site, the investors would be led through a process that makes sense and is easy to navigate so their enthusiasm and passion to invest is not hindered in any way. - Gary Vlk, Principal, One Smooth Stone

I think success could be defined as being prepared for whatever may happen and being able to quickly accommodate the surprises that do occur. Not having any major problems that cannot be solved within a few hours could be another measure of success. – Samantha Brdek, Benevolent Accounting & Finance Fellow

For me, I think that early wins will find our first donors discovering that it is within their own resources to make an important difference in real lives and that success will find us learning and shifting our approach as we go.

- megan kashner, Benevolent Founder & CEO

Monday, October 3, 2011

The ‘us’ of America

Some of my best friends are___________!

You are part of a minority. Fill in the blank here – it could be gay, black, Mexican, hearing impaired, dyslexic, divorced, tone deaf…anything. The implication, of course, is that, while clearly you are a member of a negatively-perceived group, the speaker wants you to know that he/she thinks that you’re all right in spite of this.

Some of my best friends are poor!

Have you ever heard anyone say this? I haven’t. In fact, I think most of us would think it gauche to utter such a thing (actually, it’s gauche to utter any of the some of my best friends are… statements as well, but that’s a musing for another blog).

How, then, would we – should we – increase the acceptance of low-income individuals and families as valued and valuable members of our society? We certainly know how to demonize the poor – in television shows, on the news, in political posturing. Do we know how to un-demonize? I’d say not.

Has public opinion shifted over time with regard to Italian-Americans (mobsters), Irish-Americans (drunk cops), Gay-Americans (angry/flamboyant), Disabled-Americans (pathetic/grotesque), Immigrant-Americans (unintelligent, parasitic), Black-Americans (dangerous/unmotivated)? To some extent. Unfortunately, though, the overall answer is that those stereotypes and judgments continue to linger. We’ve made some progress, but not as much as one might hope.

If progress in changing public opinion for the better is so incremental and so painfully slow, it seems to be sadly easier to change it for the worse. Look at how our country turned on Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Think about the Willie Horton story. Similarly, in the last 30 years, our national perception of poor Americans has shifted. General public discourse now holds that these people are undeserving, lazy, unscrupulous, and cannot be trusted to improve their own lives and those of their families.

On the whole, we seem to have bought it – hook, line and sinker. We’ve come to view workfare as preferable to welfare, since it forces those lazy welfare moms to get up, get dressed, and get a job. We’ve come to believe that subsidized childcare is better than stay-at-home parenting because poor parents should be earning their keep. We’ve come to believe that poverty is not an unfortunate and temporary situation but reflects indelible character flaws.

So how do we turn the tide of popular sentiment? How can we promote inclusion of individuals and families living in low-income situations in the “us” of America? Remember the United Colors of Benetton? Their billboards were like the Noah’s ark of retail advertising. We were drawn in by the happiness, the glow, the togetherness of the young people in those ads. We wanted to be near them, to associate ourselves with them, to be them

Individuals living in poverty and in low-income situations look, of course, like everyone looks. How would you show them in a Benetton ad? Some of the most poignant of all American photography was, of course, that of Dorothea Lange whose photographs of the Great Depression moved even the most stolid of hearts. Those images, however, elicited pity and hopelessness from viewers, rather than empathy and respect. The passive subjects were silent and unidentified, left mired in their dire situations. In fact, one quote attributed to a now-adult family member of one of Lange’s subjects asserts: “That photo may well have saved some peoples' lives, but I can tell you for certain, it didn't save ours." (Open Photography, 2011)

Here at Benevolent, we intend to put the control in the hands of those who have their own stories to tell, photos to share, and needs to meet. We believe that by providing the right medium, a respectful context, and an opportunity for people in tough situations to seek help in taking important next steps along the path out of their current situations and to greater sustainability, we can help change Americans’ impression of those whose lives are touched by need and who strive to change their circumstances.

Benevolent will make it possible for ordinary Americans to ‘meet’ people who need help. We believe that hearing the stories of individuals striving to take the next step, we can shift opinions, touch hearts, and deliver direct help to our fellow Americans – our friends -- whose stories bear telling and whose efforts deserve celebration.