Think Digitally, Give Locally: Benevolent Opens Detroit Office

11/27/13Follow @XconomyDET

Darnell lives in Southwest Detroit. He recently transitioned out of homelessness and into a new apartment, thanks to support from the Coalition on Temporary Shelter. He hasn’t had the ability to put his home together, however—an absence made worse because of his medical condition, which makes getting from a seated to standing position difficult. But thanks to the online giving platform at Benevolent, he might have proper furniture in time for the new year.

The Chicago-based Benevolent launched online two years ago, and it officially set up shop in Detroit over the summer. Its founder and CEO, Megan Kashner, was previously a social worker whose clientele was made up of low-income families.

“I got tired of having to watch families set a goal and have the incredible gumption to get there, only to be thwarted by needing car repairs or needing a laptop to get a job,” she says. “Often, I’d have to say we didn’t have the funds for that. I thought instead of saying no, I’d invite them to go online and tell their stories. We have great programs that can get people from homelessness, but we have a gap. If people don’t have furniture or pots and pans, it’s hard to feel secure.”

Benevolent partners with local nonprofits to capture the videos, photos, and stories of people who have a one-time need, like beds for their children or bus fare for two months. Those profiles are then posted to Benevolent’s site so that the needs can be fulfilled through crowdfunding. Donors can give as little as $5 or they can cover the whole need, which usually doesn’t cost more than $700. Kashner says the average donation is $50.

When a goal is met, donors get an update from the person they helped, which enables them to see the impact of their support firsthand. “We want the needs to focus on things representing forward progress,” Kashner says. “We try not to post things like, ‘I’m three months behind on rent.’ We also don’t post needs for people under 18 unless the parents do the talking.”

Andrea Perkins, who manages Benevolent’s Detroit office, says that tech-enabled, medium-sized nonprofits in Detroit have been eager partners so far. Nine Detroit “needs” have been funded and 11 are currently up on the site awaiting donors. Benevolent also just launched a gift card option for the holidays.

Kashner says Benevolent’s platform is scaling quickly with offices in Detroit; Chicago; Charlotte, NC; and the Bay Area. It also has partnerships with nonprofits in 17 states. The Detroit office is primarily funded by an $85,000 grant from the Fisher Foundation, and Kashner says Benevolent will continue to operate in Detroit “as long as it makes sense.”

“As we’re going into the holidays, it’s important to think how we support one another,” she adds. “We’re very connected through Facebook and other social media, but we’re living disparately and in an economically segregated way, too. Benevolent offers a connection to people who are trying their utmost to move forward.”

Sarah Schmid is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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