New Help for the Poor: Cash Grants, Through a Web Site

In Vittorio De Sica’s bleak, postwar Italian movie “The Bicycle Thief,” a man is humbled by a personal catastrophe involving a tiny amount of money: unemployed, he is given a chance at a job, but he is required to have a bike to travel to work sites. Antonio Ricci doeshave a battered old bike, but he is in the process of pawning it for food. Undaunted, his wife pawns the family linens instead. All is good until the bike is stolen, leaving Ricci to haunt the markets of Rome while trying to find it. The bicycle is worth about seven thousand lira—just a few dollars—but the loss is devastating; finally, out of options, Ricci makes an ill-fated decision to steal another man’s bike in recompense for his own loss. The resulting public humiliation is one of cinema’s most awesome, and moving, moments.

But what if the bicycle thief had had other options—like posting his tale on a Web site and soliciting donations for a new bike from strangers?

For almost two years, a Chicago not-for-profit corporation called Benevolent has highlighted the financial challenges of people referred to the site by community groups and nonprofits across the country. Users post a short description of their needs, as well as a Kickstarter-style video appeal to potential donors. Next to each posting is a dollar amount, usually in the several-hundred-dollar range. Donors can give all of the requested amount or a portion of it. Benevolent then sends the money, in the form of a grant, to the referring community group, which funds the client’s needs.

Shavon Dossett, for instance, required a hundred and one dollars to take a North Carolina licensing exam after her nursing assistant’s license expired. Without it, she couldn’t work in the jobs for which she was trained and couldn’t properly take care of her three children. “I did a short interview on an iPad,” Dossett told me. “They interviewed me about who I am and what goals I was trying to accomplish. We put together the video and they posted it online. Within two weeks my needs were met.” Once donors had sent in enough money, Benevolent gave a grant for that amount to Grace-Mar Services Inc., the nonprofit that had been working with Dossett. Grace-Mar then gave her the money. “I was able to take the state exam; I passed it,” she said. “I’m working two jobs, I’ve got an interview with a local hospital—so everything is coming together.”

Benevolent’s rules are simple. It posts only the stories of clients referred to Benevolent by trusted community groups. The people who post online requests have to be at least eighteen years old and low-income, and they can’t seek money to pay off debts. Instead, they have to request one item that will allow them to pursue an opportunity: for instance, a security deposit for an apartment so that a family can get out of homelessness, or money to buy tools for a job, or cash for a laptop computer.

The model has its roots in recent academic research, collectively highlighted at the Experimental Approaches to the Study of Charitable Giving conference held in July of 2007, at Princeton University. The research shows that when people can personally identify with others in need, they respond far more generously than when they’re presented with large-scale problems or abstract situations. Our brains like to be told a story—and it turns out that’s as true for our interactions with charities as it is for our engagement with great novels.