The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Fisher Family provided $285,000 in grant money to Benevolent, a crowdfunding site for low-income individuals, allowing it to move into three new areas: Charlotte, Silicon Valley and Detroit as announced Monday morning.
Benevolent was launched in Chicago in 2011 by Megan Kashner, a long-time member of the philanthropic community.
What sets her site apart from others: It focuses on individual stories, allowing donors to form a more personal connection with recipients. Kashner said the site allows for “incredible stories of striving, diligence and success.”
All stories are told in first person. “People are telling their own stories, and they’re telling them in a positive way,” Kashner said. She said that while typical stories of poverty revolve around negativity, Benevolent stories inspire.
Kashner’s introduction to the Knight Foundation was not made in Chicago. Rather, it was in Washington D.C. in September, when she spoke at the White House Forum for Philanthropic Innovation, where she identified an integral need in the philanthropic community.
“We didn’t used to be able to focus on the ‘one’ — what does one person need in order to reach his or her goal,” Kashner said. “But now with technology, we can harness that, the power of one, where one person can help one other person in one moment in time.”
“I have been for years frustrated by the fact that low income families were so often derailed by one thing that shouldn’t stop them,” Kashner said, noting that new technology has allowed people to finally fill gaps in philanthropic need.
Benevolent raised more than $35,000 for more than 70 individuals within 15 months. Kashner said in a prepared statement that the three new areas of need were chosen because of their unique challenges:
- Detroit: Median household income decreased by more than one-third from 1999-2011, with half of the city’s households reporting less than $25,000 annual income in 2011.
- Charlotte: The percentage of families living in poverty nearly doubled from 7 percent in 2000 to more than 13 percent in 2010.
- Silicon Valley: An influx of transient workers in San Jose earn below-average wages while struggling to meet a cost of living more than 50 percent higher than the national average.
The Knight Foundation, which supports engaged communities through transformational media, is providing $200,000 for the program’s expansion into Charlotte and the Silicon Valley.
The Fisher Family, who supports families in need in the Michigan area, is providing $85,000 to support the Detroit program.
Kashner said the grant will help the program learn the best way to move into local non-profits and other cities. She said the expansion and grant money has provided the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity.
“We don’t know what is going to work and not work, she said. “But that is part of the value of being a start-up.”
Benevolent works with local non-profits to better identify areas of need, as each locale is unique and Kashner said many non-profits have begun to depend on the Benevolent platform as a more effective way of giving. Kashner said the grant money would help the program cater to each location more effectively.
“Funding can help us expand and learn and figure out what it’s going to take to scale,” Kashner said. “And it could not have come at a better time. We’re ready to go and figure out how to take it forward.”
“The very first challenge we’ve overcome was that no one knew we existed,” she said. But this dilemma did not last for long. “Right now we’re facing a very interesting challenge. We’re having trouble keeping up with demand from donors that want to give in that way.”
Kashner said that moving forward, she hopes to learn to meet the challenges of each new city, gain a more robust flow of stories onto the site and have more people leaning forward to give.
“We can say this is the backbone,” she said. “Now lets go out into your cities and learn there.”