Nothing Modest About Small Charity's Impact

Published August 26, 2004

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When Keith Taylor was barely making ends meet as a financially struggling college student, he could always count on the generosity of his friends and family to help him get through the tough times.

The memory of those lean days — and the small loans that helped him get by — stayed with him for more than a decade, eventually inspiring him in March 2002 to found Modest Needs, an innovative philanthropic organization that uses small donations to help people facing short-term financial problems.

Now a professor of medieval British literature at Middle Tennessee State University (search), Taylor said it occurred to him that there were likely many people out there who, as he had been, were just getting along but who, unlike him, may not have friends, family or neighbors to turn to in a crunch.

"I remembered in undergrad and graduate school how I was just scraping by," he says. "There were lots of times when an unexpected expense — a car-repair or a medical bill — could have put me in real trouble. Fortunately, I had people who came through for me."

"They were never rich people," he hastens to add. "But they were able to find some modest help that got me through, and that help enabled me to eventually become productive."

Modest Needs was conceived, built and still operates on simple concept — a small investment to help an individual or a family with a utility bill, rent check or health-care invoice reaps huge rewards if it keeps its recipient employed or prevents an eviction.

So Modest Needs cuts small checks to people in short-term straits. The goal is to keep the recipient self-sufficient and off public assistance.

The average Modest Needs grant is $180, and the organization won't give any single applicant more than $1,000. But Taylor estimates that the $234,000 Modest Needs has given out since its inception has saved its recipient families about $7.7 million in possible lost income.

Modest Needs only accepts donations from private individuals. It won't take money from corporations, foundations or state or federal government.

"That's to prove a point," Taylor explains. "We could probably get a $1 million grant from a big foundation," he says. That's likely true, given that the organization has garnered some media attention of late. "But that's not what we're about."

Between 80 and 85 percent of donations to Modest Needs go directly its grant recipients. Because the entire system is run through the Web site, and is staffed by Taylor and 22 volunteers across the country, there's very little overhead.

"We get $11,000 to $12,000 per month in donations, and spend about $3,000 per month in operating expenses," he says.

Here's how Modest Needs works:

The site gets about 300 grant requests per month. Taylor's team of volunteers does a preliminary screening for the obvious rejections.

"We won't buy anyone a DVD player. And we once had a woman who requested money for a chainsaw to cut up her ex-husband," he says.

Requests that survive the initial screening are then sent to regional teams across the country for further scrutiny. So requests from, say, New Jersey, are evaluated by a jury of volunteers from the Northeast, who can better evaluate the urgency and validity of the application.

These panels then rate the requests from one to four. Four-point requests are granted first, and tend to be situations where the need is immediate, and the grant would prevent unemployment, eviction, or ill health (about half of all personal bankruptcies are caused by health-care costs).

Currently, Modest Needs is able to fulfill about 10 percent of requests that survive the initial screening.

Proponents of laissez-faire capitalism often point to organizations like Taylor's when arguing against the need for social safety nets such as welfare and Social Security. It's in our own self-interest to look after one another, the thinking goes, and in the absence of a state-funded social welfare system, we're more likely to come to one another's aid before letting someone slip through the cracks.

Aid that comes from friends, family or organizations like Taylor's is always more efficient, targeted, and ultimately more beneficial, than aid taken from taxpayers that's then filtered through bureaucracies at the local, state, and federal level.

Modest Needs, for example, sends its checks directly to the creditors of its beneficiaries, not to the beneficiaries themselves. That's a small innovation, but it prevents grant recipients from abusing the system — a problem most government aid programs haven't been able to overcome in a half-century or more of operation.

While Taylor understandably refrains from attaching a political worldview to his organization, his experience has given him a similarly optimistic outlook on humanity — that when called upon, people tend to look out for one another.

"What's been most heartwarming about this project is seeing how everyday people — people who don't have a lot of money to throw around — are willing to forego a night out to dinner or a six-pack a week to make a modest donation that could mean a world of difference for someone they've never met," he says.

"And [the recipients] are people who aren't already on any kind of social assistance," Taylor adds. "They're sort of on the cusp of self-sufficiency and welfare. They're just getting by. And it's great to see how many people want to help them stay above water."

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at: www.TheAgitator.com.

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