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Monday, January 23, 2012

Why These Needs?

Some of the needs on the Benevolent site don’t seem to conform to the over-a-hurdle type of need, like a tuxedo to enable someone to work as a banquet waiter or a sewing machine for a seamstress. Where do needs like beds, clothes, and school uniforms fit in?

Time after time, I’ve seen people forced to make decisions that impede their own progress towards greater sustainability because they need to meet basic needs of their households.

We know, for example, that Anne would have continued to purchase one cheap air mattress after another as they popped over and over, because that was all she could afford with her cash flow. Her goal, however, is to save up so that she and her son can get their own apartment. She was spending more on air mattresses over the course of a year than what it took to get her a bed through Benevolent. Staying with a friend while she gets back on her feet, now Anne is in a better position to reach for her goal and save the money to get her own place.

Facing basic need challenges while pursuing the next level of sustainability has the power to derail someone completely.

Monique is an interesting example of this potential. She is working and in college and asking for help with school uniforms and school supplies. The uniform is a good example of something that pops up in someone's life and can actually derail her. Monique bought her son a uniform for this school year in August, but by December he had outgrown it - something she didn't foresee or save up for.

I've seen mothers in this situation do one of several things…

  • go to a payday loan store with catastrophic results
  • borrow money from someone unscrupulous,
  • get a second job and have to quit school,
  • have sex or stay in a relationship for money,
  • move into an unsafe or unhealthy place to save on rent.

These are things have happened in the lives of people I’ve worked with across a variety of settings. I’ve also seen (this was back in 1991) a mother who could afford only one school uniform for each of her children and so, like Anne buying air mattress after air mattress, this mom went to the laundromat every school night to wash her kids’ school uniforms.

Over time, of course, the things people do to meet basic needs or their skipping critical needs like vision-care can cost more than an up-front investment to meet the need would cost, but without taking one of the drastic steps above, how would the low-income adult get access to the liquid funds to pay the up-front cost?

That’s where we come in. That’s where we get to be a part of the story and to bring dignity and self-determination back into reach for those who invite us in.

Will our helping Monique with this unforeseen school uniform expense help keep her in college and on an upward path? We can’t know for sure. What we can know is that the person who knows her and validated her need has faith that Monique knows what she’s doing, what she needs help with, and how essential this help is to her ability to stay on her path. Our faith in Monique’s determination of her own most pressing needs might be the key to her continued success towards her goals.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Is it Like Micro-Finance?

I think it’s time to address head-on the oft-asked question:

“So is it like micro-finance?”

Well, readers, Benevolent is like microfinance in that:

  1. Benevolent provides validation on each need just as each microfinance project is (or should be) subject to due diligence by someone on the ground in that community who knows and has vetted the recipient.
  2. Multiple donors come together to meet each need on the Benevolent site just as some micro-finance providers allow for a crowd-funding model for investing in micro-finance enterprises.
  3. The individuals whose needs are listed on the Benevolent site are each striving for the next level of sustainability and resources for themselves and their families just as those who seek investment in their small enterprise are seeking access to sustainable and increased income streams through microfinance support.
  4. Those who financially support the needs posted on the Benevolent site can expect that their dollars will fuel progress and direct impact for those whose needs are met just as those who invest in microfinance can expect that their capital will fuel progress for those individuals and enterprises who receive microfinance loans.

The difference is, of course, that with Benevolent, investments are made to help people over hurdles and onto next steps and those investments are made as donations, not loans.

Why do we choose this approach? It’s values-based. Here’s a draft of a bit we plan to put up on the website to explain to anyone who’s interested why we choose a micro giving model for this platform…

We believe that Benevolent’s help to overcome hurdles should be grants, not loans:

  • Needs funded through the Benevolent site are investments in people’s progress. Each of these low-income individuals has a long path ahead and we choose not to encumber them with additional debts as they strive for sustainability.
  • Our needs are capped at $2,000 and average donations are under $200 each. These are small needs met by modest gifts.
  • The return each Benevolent donor receives is to know who they helped and how their support made a direct difference.
  • Each of us can recall when we received help - eyeglasses, a computer, tuition, a security deposit, pots and pans. Not all support necessitates a payout or payback.

Benevolent provides an avenue for people to seek the support they need without taking on the burden of debt at precarious junctures along their personal paths.

What do you think? Is this the platform you would have chosen?

- megan kashner, founder & ceo