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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Luxury of Choice - A Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving just behind us, I have found myself reflecting this week on how thankful I am for the luxury of choice. I can choose to take a new path, choose so many things afforded to me by - among other things - my education.

There has been a great deal of focus in the past few years on the quality of our educational systems, the qualifications of our country's teachers, and the supports and structures necessary to create the optimal learning environment.

Less focus has been placed on what happens after our learners are out of high school, about the attainment of higher education and training, about adult returning learners, those who started college but never finished because life got in the way. We see many of these "some college" adults in the Benevolent community. They left their educational paths behind because of money, parenting, family illness, job changes, and more. Today, these “some college” adults are seeking employment, education, housing, and more.

When I think about choice, I start thinking about the members of the Benevolent community who are ready to commit to their choices, their aspirations, the pursuit of their goals. I think about the barriers that stand in their way as well as the opportunities that lie before them.

For those reading this post who have achieved their college degrees, have landed those professional positions, have attained the luxury of choice, I wonder if each of us can recall a moment (or several) along our paths at which we would have had to drop out or settle for less than reaching for our goals if it had not been for someone helping us past a hurdle.

In this week after Thanksgiving, I find myself thankful for the education I’ve had the fortune to receive and wish the same and more for our Benevolent community members.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Courage and Determination We Can All Learn From

Tori has traveled a long way. On June 29, 2009, she left her abusive husband of thirteen years, took her children, and fled to a friend in Chicago. It took true courage for her to walk away without a safety net and without a clear path for herself and her seven young children. She found the courage because she knew she had to get herself and her children to safety.

I had the honor of meeting and getting to know Tori a few weeks ago, and found myself incredibly moved by her story, her poise, and her determination.

To hear Tori’s story in her own words, and to hear what the staff at The Cara Program (a nonprofit here in Chicago), have to say about her and the need she seeks support for, go to our website at www.benevolent.net and click on the link at the top that says “Tori.”

“My kids are some of the most amazing kids…”

In the 28 months since her leap to safety, Tori has journeyed through shelters, transitional housing, job readiness programs, and now to stability. She’s gotten herself and her children to a place of security. She’s working full time, she has an apartment, and the kids are in school and thriving – playing sports, excelling in academics, and bringing home As and Bs with every report card.

Tori has plans for her children – she expects each one to go to college and encourages them all to excel in everything they pursue. Sometimes, however, she has to say “no.” Whether it’s a field trip she can’t afford, the right equipment for football, or a volleyball tournament team trip, Tori has had to tell her children over and over again that they can’t afford things. There’s no money for extras.

She’s okay with that, but the one thing she is focusing on for the next steps forward is a computer for her family. Tori is determined that her kids will be educated, strong and independent. Right now, Tori’s kids have to go to the library after school or after their sports practices so that they can get online and complete the parts of their homework for which they need a computer. This means that the kids are away from her and outside the house more, that Tori can’t monitor them while they’re online, and that she can’t be there to motivate and help them while they’re doing homework on the computer.

For Tori, the inability to parent her kids in these instances is untenable. She takes pride in her children’s health, happiness, and success. Now, while she’s financially stable for the basics like rent, utilities, food and clothing, Tori is seeking our help in meeting her primary goal – being the best mom she can be to her kids.

We estimate that a computer with the necessary programs, a mouse, virus protection, etc, will be $705. Tori has researched internet access and found that she can get it for under $10 per month, and she can cover that on a regular basis.

Torti’s is an interesting need in that she is focusing on her children’s next steps, goals and plans. She is so clearly striving to achieve and succeed in the face of obstacles and barriers - I feel it will be an honor to help Tori to meet her need.

Here’s what we can do - if you want to help support Tori’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 Tori to buy a computer for her family, we’ll send the money along to The Cara Program -- the nonprofit that provides Tori with job training and personal support -- and they will get the funds to Tori for the computer. We’ll update her page on our website so that you know not to send any more contributions for her.

By supporting Tori’s need, you’ll be helping her get the computer for her family, and you’ll also be helping us here at Benevolent as we build our model. With every need that’s filled we’ll use about 3.5% to cover credit card and processing costs and 6.75% to cover our own costs here at Benevolent. We’ve already factored that into the amount we need to raise to meet this need.

Whether or not you decide to help Tori, we’re glad that you know her now, as we do. She’s a strong woman with a story of courage and determination, and I have all the belief in the world that she and her kids will go far and impress us all.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO

Monday, November 14, 2011

Filling Gaps and Building Communities of Support

A Benevolent Blog Guest Blog

By Professor Scott W. Allard, School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, Research Associate of the Population Research Center at NORC and the University of Chicago, Research Affiliate of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, Research Affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Member of the Board of Directors of Benevolent.


As poverty and unemployment rates remain at historically high levels, the growing needs of working poor families and job-seekers shine a harsh light on the gaps in today’s safety net. These gaps should be challenging us to think of new ways of connecting those who can help with those in need. Benevolent.net offers a promising new way to direct giving to the unmet needs of low-income families -- needs that too often fall through the gaps in the safety net and consequently make it difficult to find or keep a job.

Government programs like food stamps or Medicaid often come to mind when we think of assistance for the poor. Yet these public programs cover only some of the material, transportation, or health needs of low-income families striving to make it. For example, lack of access to a reliable car or to public transit is a significant barrier to many of the working poor – but there is precious little transportation assistance available. Many poor job-seekers may need vision care or dental work in order to secure a steady, good-paying job, but these basic health needs often are not covered by public assistance programs.

There is other help, but it also can be spotty and insufficient. In some cases, social service programs and organizations provide critical assistance to the poor through employment services, adult education, child care, emergency assistance, and counseling services. Delivered often through community-based nonprofits, these social services are central to helping many low-income families achieve stability. The problem is that social service programs are coping with substantial cuts in public and philanthropic support. And what support there is doesn’t always reach those with the greatest need. In my 2009 book, Out of Reach, I found that residents of high-poverty neighborhoods have about half as much access to social service providers as do people who live in more affluent neighborhoods.

It can be bitterly hard for families living on the edge of stability to find help in times of need. Most turn to family, friends, or trusted members of their social networks for help with needs that safety-net programs do not or cannot address.

Ordinary people who want to help often don’t know how to. We know there are people around us who are having a hard time, but many of our neighbors silently struggle to find work, feed their families, or keep their homes. We find ourselves asking - what can we do?

How can the nonprofit sector do a better job of filling critical gaps in the safety net? And, on the other hand, how can we give private philanthropists, who don’t have unlimited means, opportunities to make a real social impact?

I believe Benevolent can be the answer to these questions. By providing an online portal that connects donors to community-based organizations, caseworkers, and ultimately to families who need help in a time of crisis, Benevolent helps to weave a connective web of people to fill in critical gaps in the safety net. Benevolent ensures that we reach those most in need at the moment of their need, and ensures that the donors’ support has real, visible impact. By providing a place for people to interact and share with each other, Benevolent helps us become a community of support. In short, Benevolent is a platform for helping us to realize how we would like to receive help and give help.

- Scott W. Allard, Benevolent Board of Directors

Monday, November 7, 2011

Doing the Right Thing 15+ Years Ago is Working Against Denise Today

Denise did what she needed to and followed the rules. Now she’s lost her job and she and her children are living at a shelter.

Denise was a teenage mom. When her child was born, she continued her education, receiving some Temporary Aid for Need Families support while she went to high school. She made it through her junior year before she found herself having to make the tough decision to drop out of school. She had struggled to find safe, nurturing child care for her son while she was in school, but when her senior year came around, she was out of child care options and chose to put her son first and stay with him.

In the following years, Denise went to school to become certified as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). She was able to do this because CNA training is one of the select training paths one can take in Illinois and still qualify for TANF, subsidized child care, food stamps, and other services.

Once she had her CNA, Denise found a job working with seniors and people with disabilities. She worked full time, uninterrupted, for fifteen years as her family grew, her skills increased, and she matured into adulthood. Denise had never been homeless never had to seek out TANF any further, until this recession.

In March, the facility where Denise worked shut down. When she pursued a new job in her field, she found that the field had changed, shrunk, and that there were not jobs readily available. She’s been seeking work since March and only last month had to give up her apartment and move herself and her children to a shelter. She has gone back to school for her GED, hoping to go on to train as a medical assistant. Last school session, though, she had to drop out because she didn’t have the bus fare to get to her classes regularly.

When Denise sought help, TANF, food stamps, and other supports this year, she found that she was ineligible for most public supports because in her teens she had exhausted the 60-month lifetime limit for support. This meant that doing the right thing for her son when she was 17 years old precludes her from receiving much help now, in the depths of the recession. While I’m not sure whether the crafters of welfare reform in the 1990s meant for this to be the case, it is the reality for Denise.

Today, we post Denise’s simple request. She’s finding it almost impossible to persevere in her job search, get to class and the library, and manage her progress forward without being able to access even public transportation. Denise is asking for three months of a hand in the form of three monthly bus passes for the Chicago Transit Authority. It’s not a large request, only $280, but Denise has a plan and a path, and simply needs help getting to and from it.

As always, you can support Benevolent member needs at www.benevolent.net. We are pleased to report that Anne's need, posted less than two weeks ago, has been met in full. We hope to continue to prove the Benevolent model with the fulfillment of this need in the weeks before the launch of Benevolent't real site.

- megan kashner

Founder & CEO

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Are We Entitled to Know?

A New York Times editorial this week called out different states’ approaches to determining worthiness for state-administered aid. Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, signed a law in May requiring those who receive TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to submit a urine sample and pass a urine test. While that determination is currently being held up through the federal courts, the sentiment behind it is apparent.

What the New York Times’ editorial calls “punishing poverty,” I would call “punishing need,” and it calls up for me a number of insights and concerns I’ve heard from members of our nation’s nonprofit and philanthropic sectors this week at the excellent Independent Sector conference here in Chicago. While the Benevolent model is clearly a highly- validated one - with local nonprofit Validators providing clear statements about the ways in which their clients are striving and on the path to meet their goals – the question of personal revelation remains.

Several people have asked me how much each Benevolent member who wishes to post a need will have to reveal about his or her self. How much personal history will we require in order to post the need, and how much will be necessary to make the potential donor feel secure in filling that person’s need? My response remains the same – Benevolent members have the latitude to reveal as much or as little about themselves and their circumstances as they see fit.

I am given pause, however, by the presumption, both in Rick Scott’s legislation and in the well-meaning queries I’ve received, that in order to be entitled or even eligible to get help from another person, from the State or from a nonprofit, we must be prepared to bare our souls, reveal all our past indiscretions, and own up to our faults.

It made me think about situations in which someone has wanted or needed something I had the power to provide, like a job. When I interview candidates for positions, I don’t ask them if they’ve ever done drugs. I don’t ask them whether they’re taking medication, and I certainly don’t ask them if they’ve been a victim of domestic violence. I ask them, instead, about their personal goals, about the skills and exposure they hope to gain over the coming years, and about their approach to work, responsibility, and collaboration. Basically, I ask job candidates forward-facing questions – questions about where they’re going and how they hope to get there.

If we’re lucky, a job candidate and I will find a common direction and complementary set of needs – the candidate a need for growth and challenge, and my organization a need for the skills and energies the candidate can bring. It is my hope that rather than looking for a deep revelation of past missteps from those who seek our help, we will focus on the path forward our Benevolent members have set for themselves, and look for a new kind of complementarity.

The complementarity I’m referring to here is the way in which giving meets a need for the donor – a very personal and intimate need. If we can find individuals whose need for financial help and willingness to share their stories and their goals meets the needs of those who seek to understand and gain from that introduction into the life and onto the path of another, then we will have met a set of complementary needs.

Similarly, trust is a complementary phenomenon. In the case of Benevolent members, both the donors and the members with needs will want to find a comfortable place of mutual trust – the donors trusting that the individuals are doing their utmost to move forward on their life paths and the people exposing their needs trusting that the details and intimacies they choose to reveal will be held met with respect.

How much does each person – the person who gives and the person who receives – need to expose about himself or herself in this equation? The answer will reveal itself over time and testing of the Benevolent model and platform, but it is my deep hope that we, as a Benevolent community, can refrain from the tendency to ask of those with a need more than that person feels comfortable sharing.

Whatever Benevolent’s members who post their needs have faced or however they might have stumbled in the past is not the focus of our drive to help them today. Today, we focus on individuals’ goals, circumstances, systems of support, and paths forward.

Every adult makes choices every day. Often, we make the wrong ones. When we find ourselves – consciously or unconsciously – starting to expect more revelation from a person in need than we would be comfortable revealing about ourselves, I hope we’ll each pause and re-locate that part of us that respects and sees the common humanity between us.

- Megan Kashner, Founder & CEO