Thursday, July 31, 2008

Happy Cortex

When Keith Taylor was in graduate school, he held down teaching jobs at two different colleges and worked at a movie theater. When the timing belt broke on his Ford Escort, he was forced to skip his rent for a month. His boss heard he was on the verge of eviction and handed him a $525 check made out to the landlord. “Over a car repair I was almost homeless,” Taylor recalls. “The point is that a small amount of money can make a big difference in people’s lives.” (“Saving Lives, One Rent Check at a Time,” Forbes, August 11, 2008).

Taylor remembered that lesson. He launched a small website offering to help people out with a portion of his $33,000 salary. He waded through his e-mail inbox and sent checks to people with one-time needs. He helped a man who needed $65 to cover his monthly auto insurance, and a woman who needed help paying for her son’s glasses.

Taylor eventually opened up his website to anyone wanting to help strangers with short-term money problems, and the web not-for-profit was born. Here is how it works: People needing assistance send applications to the website (Taylor has a small staff, funded by a philanthropic organization). About 20% win final approval and are posted. Visitors to the site scroll through the requests and either fund one completely, contribute to it, or apply their donation toward the general grant fund. Modest Needs funded 1,582 people in 2007 and gave away $884,990 in grants. The average grant was only $560 – to help someone with a month’s rent or a doctor’s bill or a car repair or job-hunting expenses. Only a small percentage of Modest Needs donors pick specific recipients; most opt to let the organization pick for them. But almost all donors select preferred categories of recipients such as single parents, military families and victims of domestic violence. For instance, you can help a specific single mother buy new tires for her used car or you can donate to the general fund for all requests by single mothers.

When I read articles like this I want to stand up and cheer. I love the spirit of charitable entrepreneurialism. As the Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman once noted, in responding to the criticism that capitalism influences people to act in their own best interests (which indeed it does – it is based on that!); “Yes, and Americans found it to be in their own best interests to donate over $10 billion in private relief funds to Hurricane Katrina victims.” Most people want to act nobly and give and serve. It is how God wired us. One professor who studies philanthropy refers to “the happy part” of the brain’s cerebral cortex, which is activated when we give to people in need and to good causes, whether financially or with our time and labor. Isn’t it significant that seven out of every ten recipients of Modest Needs grants log back into the site as donors.

Modest Needs is one of a new crop of web not-for-profits that puts a face on charity and gives donors the satisfaction of knowing they are fixing problems and helping people directly. It is a powerful social phenomenon. This is the way the church needs to think – creatively and dynamically and entrepreneurially. We are a sleeping giant in many respects. Christians have enormous good will, ample resources, and our Lord’s commission. Each of us has it within himself to impact specific peoples’ lives and thereby (often) animate them to do the same. This is Kingdom living!


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