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Friday, December 28, 2012

You’re Incredible

On the morning Christmas eve day, I put on a nice shirt and some makeup, asked the kids to excuse me for a little while, then sat in front of my computer for a TV interview accompanied by Benevolent supporter and believer Lisa Bloom (she was in a studio in LA). What happened next was nothing short of incredible.

If you haven’t been following Benevolent from its tiny inception this past year, here’s a recap. Benevolent started as an idea in February of 2011. By December of 2011 we were running a small pilot in the Chicago area. In September, we were ready to branch out and started working with just a few nonprofits in other cities to see if our systems stood up to the test. We were bolstered in that month when I was invited to speak to a gathering of philanthropy leaders at a White House Forum on Philanthropy Innovation. Benevolent began to get attention, and the opportunities started to flow.

In the weeks before that Christmas eve, a few wonderful grants were committed by some excellent foundations to help us expand into three to four new cities in the new year (stay tuned for those announcements next month). So on Christmas eve, the Benevolent office had been closed for the holidays. We had divvied up the responsibilities for responding to questions and managing the site through New Year’s, and then the interview ran on HLN – first live and then in one city after another across the country throughout the day.

Immediately, there was so much traffic on the Benevolent website that our servers had trouble keeping up. Within 33 minutes, 35 contributions came in, completing the funding needed for seven people. We filled all the needs that were posted, and people continued to reach out.

Since the 24th, almost 200 new people have liked our Facebook page, over 90 signed up for our email mailing list, dozens posted to and liked messages on our Facebook wall and twitter feed, and several more sent us emails of encouragement, offers of help, ideas for expansion and contributions to fuel our work. Here’s one staggering (for us) number: on and after December 24th, over 8,000 people – new people who had never heard of Benevolent before – visited our site.

What an amazing holiday gift. We’re thrilled to have helped so many people this year, and to have added so many members to the growing Benevolent community all in one day was breathtaking. We’re so pleased you’re all here.

There’s a flip side to this story, though. By the end of Christmas day, over 100 people had reached out directly to Benevolent asking for help. Homeless families, people with medical needs and debts too deep to tackle, seniors living without heat, students unable to continue their studies because of tuition burdens, and more.

So many stories of people sidelined by illness and injury, so many stymied in their efforts to reach sustainability for themselves and their families. They came in all at once and they’re still coming – like a flood, really. Each story tests my social worker mettle - my ability to continue to move forward and help, even when the stories and situations before me are painful and overwhelming.

In the middle of the flood of needs, on Christmas day, I took a breath and took a moment to focus on and read the outpouring from people wanting to help others in their communities, people eagerly awaiting new stories and new needs we’d put up on the site after the holidays, people asking how they could help bring Benevolent into their communities. I realized at that moment that this was it, this was the original idea I had woken with on February 13th, 2011 – not even two years ago – the certainty that there was a match to be made between those facing one-time challenges with those who want to help.

I believed that if we made it possible for low-income adults to tell their stories of striving and to invite others into their success, then we, their neighbors, would step up to the challenge, eager to know who we’re helping and how we’re helping; that the way we give can transform someone’s life at a critical moment.

I believed in you, and you came through. Thank you for that. Thank you for believing in people who need our help to reach their goals. Thank you for sharing your stories and your personal experiences with us. Thank you for proving in Benevolent s first year that this is a way we want to give and get help, and that the way we give really is transforming.

Happy New Year to each and every one of you. May this year prove to be one in which you get to be the person you want to be. May this be the year we bring light into one another’s lives and hearts.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

Monday, December 3, 2012

Giving With Kids

It’s the giving season, the perfect time to invite kids to get into the spirit and the act of giving. How, though, do we instill understanding and generosity in the kids in our lives without making those who live in challenging situations seem “other” or in a world apart from the lives our kids are living? It’s not simple, but it’s where we -- coaches, parents, teachers, grandparents, cousins and neighbors -- can make all the difference.

Kids are always listening. When we talk with kids openly and with an empathetic lens about what we see around us, we’re building responsible, thoughtful kids. When we make it personal through visiting Benevolent.net, reading people’s stories together and talking through some of the reactions that kids might have to reading about people’s circumstances and needs, we’re stretching all our perspectives, learning from each other as we go.

If we give with our kids, not just once a year but as a part of our family’s weekly life, and if we talk about the needs and ambitions of people who have greater challenges than ours, we’re modeling something they’ll carry with them into adulthood and into their own children’s lives.

I asked a handful of people to share the ways in which they weave giving into their family life. Here are three that I think I’d like to try with my kids:

1 – One family collects money throughout the year, setting some aside from allowance and spending money every week. At one set time each year, the parents sit down with their kids and each family member suggests a cause or effort they think the family should support. They talk about what issues are important to them, come up with a list of organizations that address their chosen issues, and make sure each kid gets to direct at least some of the funds for the year as they send off their family donations.

2 – A second family does a range of things, both as a family and as individuals. They go together as a family throughout the year to bring donations to the local food pantry and shelter. They have regular conversations about their own blessings and how fortunate they feel they are. Their oldest started teaching classes to younger kids as a required community service, but then got hooked and kept on volunteering.

3 – A third family has a rule that 10% of any money the kids get (as gifts, from working, etc.) is saved for giving to others. Each kid decides how to give his or her money and when. Sometimes they give to a cause or project through their church, sometimes to a person in need in their community, sometimes to a nonprofit. This way, each child is learning to set aside some of his or her own funds for others and then gets to decide on his or her own priorities for giving.

What if you chose a person a week on the Benevolent site? What if I did this with my kids? We could use that one person’s story and need to spark conversation, talk about choices and personal commitment, to imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes. Then we could give.

Maybe this week, it’ll be Tiffany who has already been certified as a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) but wants more for herself and her family than minimum wage. She wants to be a Nurse, an LPN.

Tiffany shares a great deal of her story, including the fact that she had been pregnant with twins, but lost the babies, then lost her job. She shares which college she’ll attend and how she will use the laptop she’s hoping to get to help with online classes. There’s a great deal to talk about there – goals, loss, setbacks, plans, and balancing kids, school and work – a lot to talk about at the dinner table or on the drive to school.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo