Charity is about changing lives, but some ways are clearer than others. As donors, we want to see and feel the impact our dollars have on people’s lives, which is why programs like Heifer International or food drives are so popular – you can envision the meal eaten by a hungry family.
Chicago startup and not-for-profit Benevolent is taking that sentiment even further. The site features personal stories by people in need – looking for college tuition, or a computer, or a car – along with videos. Local nonprofit professionals confirm their story, and donors can contribute to fund that specific need.
Below, founder and CEO Megan Kashner, recently named one of the Techweek 100, shares her vision and her startup’s humble (and cramped) beginnings.
Tech Cocktail: Why was Benevolent needed?
Megan Kashner: Nonprofits lack funds to help their clients when they come upon one-time needs like car repair to get to work, a uniform to work as a banquet waiter, or a security deposit. These gaps in our safety net hold people back, keep nonprofits from success in helping their clients, and cost families and safety net systems thousands as a result of longer-term dependence and backsliding.
Potential givers seek ways to give that feel impactful and transparent, wanting to help people they can see and hear, with assurance that the needs are valid and their giving has an impact.
Tech Cocktail: What was the inspiration behind your startup? What do you enjoy most about working on it?
Kashner: As a social worker and nonprofit leader, I had seen case after case where people had an opportunity to advance that they couldn’t take advantage of, or were faced with a roadblock they didn’t have the funds to overcome. The existing safety net doesn’t provide sufficient support for things like car repairs, uniforms, certification courses, or tools. People and their families stayed stuck.
Then one morning I envisioned it – a way for people to tell their own stories and explain with dignity what they needed to help them move forward; professionals who knew them validating their needs; donors seeing and hearing individual stories and contributing small amounts in crowd-giving, and then hearing back that they had – honestly – been transformative in this one particular life. Win, win, win: recipient, donor, society. I imagined a wave of respectful, catalytic giving going nationwide, maybe global, affecting generations.
Since taking the leap, leaving my excellent job with a national nonprofit, I’ve certainly had moments of fear and doubt, but never regret. We’ve helped 31 people so far, but more importantly, we’re creating scalable and extendable systems to make this kind of giving and this kind of support possible for everyone across the country. That’s a huge accomplishment for a small nonprofit startup operating with an entirely volunteer and pro bono team.
Tech Cocktail: What’s one quirky fact about you or your office culture?
Kashner: For the first year of our existence, Benevolent operated out of one 8’x12’ office. Many days, as many of five of us worked here at once. It was cramped, to say the least! The Benevolent team is an entirely volunteer and pro bono team, most dedicating 30 hours a week or more to the work. For the first six months or so, we were also an all-female team. In our teeny-tiny office, we made room for an entire drawer of tea, so pop in for a cup when you’re in our neck of the woods!
Benevolent was a showcased startup at our Tech Cocktail Techweek mixer.