Meeting Modest Needs

Jim Daniels
December 20, 2004
Modest Needs founder Keith Taylor
Modest Needs founder Keith Taylor

Lisa is a mother in Bowling Green, Kentucky, whose family of five gets by on about $27,000 a year. Her son, Zayne, has Irlen's Syndrome, which means that he doesn't see the world as most people do. What Zayne sees is like the reflections in a shattered mirror. Learning, socializing and normal kid behavior are all impossible without special glasses to help him process his vision. The glasses cost over $500—a sum that Lisa found out of reach.

Then, in June 2002 Lisa read in USA Today about the Modest Needs Foundation. Keith Taylor, a college teacher in Nashville who lived from paycheck to paycheck himself, had started the foundation as a personal online philanthropy project that March. He dedicated $350 a month (from his annual salary of about $32,000) to help people whose quality of life depended on finding help to meet one small, critical need, and started a Web site so people could submit their requests for help.

Visit Modest Needs

But it turned out that a lot of the people who found his web site didn't ask for money. Instead, they wanted to add their own $5, $10, or whatever they could manage. Taylor soon realized that his site was reaching an untapped population of philanthropists—people who can't afford to give much, but whose own modest circumstances mean that they understand the critical importance of a well-timed helping hand. Taylor's personal project had evolved within weeks into a nonprofit foundation and an online community.

Lisa wrote to Taylor and asked for "what I thought would be a modest amount, a $50 down payment for the glasses. Keith didn't think that was enough. I almost fell out of my chair when I received Keith's message saying that we were fully funded." As Lisa said on the CBS News Early Show that October, "When you see your son look at you for the first time and say, 'That's Mommy?'. . . it's both heartbreaking and now, of course, it's something to be very joyous about because now I know that he can—he can see me."

Taylor's personal, small-scale, online approach is unusual, but goes back to a basic concept of community—sharing whatever we have. Since its debut, the web site has attracted donors who feel the same way through word of mouth and media coverage. With 46,000 members, this community gathers a lot of small change.

Small Change?

Learn about Hugs and Hope and Make a Child Smile

Harold and Pamela live in Gainesville, Georgia. Their nine-year-old daughter Latosha's illness makes it hard for her make friends. But thanks to the "happy mail" she gets from Hugs and Hope and Make a Child Smile, she has friends. These two charitable organizations enable visitors to their web sites to send cheery cards and letters to children battling illness or disability. But there came a time when Harold, out of work for months with a knee injury, couldn't afford the rent for his daughter's post office box. Without it, she couldn't get her special mail any more.

Her dad said, "She would be devastated if she could not receive it due to us not being able to afford a box." So they asked the Modest Needs Foundation for help. It cost $36 for Modest Needs to pay the rental fee and keep Latosha's mail coming. "It has restored our faith in humanity," says Harold.

Madison, Jordan and Danielle are two-year-old triplets in Rhode Island. Trying to keep up with her sisters, Madison always fell. Her doctor recommended orthotic inserts for her shoes to help her walk and run without falling down—but the family's health insurance company called this need "a cosmetic procedure" and would contribute nothing.

When Madison's mother told the members of the Modest Needs online community that the insurance company considered this procedure to be "cosmetic," Taylor answered, "We, the people, do not." Borrowing language from a high-profile credit card advertising campaign, Taylor sums it up this way: "Cost of this medical treatment to Modest Needs: $395. A little girl able to run for the very first time? Priceless."

The mission of the organization is to help those who are self-sufficient but just getting by until a small, one-time critical need threatens to cast them into the cycle of poverty or welfare. Volunteers across the USA and Canada read requests and evaluate them on their potential to make a significant difference by funding what are literally modest needs. The average request funded is $180, going directly to meet the need—whether to Zayne's optometrist in Bowling Green, the Post Office in Gainesville or Madison's orthopedist in Rhode Island.

Visit Modest Needs on the web.

The financial transactions are totally transparent and reflected on the continuously updated web site. In the foundation's first 2 years of operation, almost 35,500 pleas for help were received. Of these, 3.7% have been funded—while less than one-tenth of a percent could have been funded using Taylor's money alone.

The ratio is now improving, for two reasons. As more donations come in, more can be done. In addition, Taylor and volunteers now pre-screen requests to eliminate those that simply do not fit the organization's mission -- either they're for large amounts that exceed the budget, or their funding would make no long-term difference in the lives of the recipients. Even then, the Resources section of the site, and the spirit of community among its staff and visitors, often play a role in finding other ways to help those individuals and families.

Kids Giving Back
From the beginning, the generosity of children has played a role in Modest Needs' growth. Just weeks after Taylor had started his web site, he received a request for help from Madeline in Baltimore, Maryland. Madeline's husband had a steady job, but they also had five children under 18. They had suddenly received a huge water bill from the city. They fixed the problem, a pipe leaking under the house, and made extra payments for four months. Then they received a notice that to collect the remaining balance of $310.09, the city was putting their home up for public auction.

Of course, Taylor would help—if he could. But at the time, the balance in his Modest Needs funds was $36 short of what Madeline's family needed. That day, a letter came from a school teacher in Nashville. When she had told her class about Modest Needs, those kids decided to hand their teacher their ice-cream money for the day on the spot. She had enclosed a check for exactly $40 -- enough to pay off the City of Baltimore. Keith Taylor reports: "Nine minutes before the final deadline, the auction of this family's home was stopped, thanks to the courageous generosity of these children."

Kids' contributions go beyond money. Logan-Alan, a child with cerebral palsy and a former Modest Needs beneficiary, is now a Young Ambassador for the Easter Seal Society—and booster for Modest Needs.

Logan Whittle tries the ramp provided by Modest Needs with technician Don Jensen (on left) and dad, Mark-Alan Whittle.
Logan Whittle tries the ramp provided by Modest Needs with technician Don Jensen (on left) and dad, Mark-Alan Whittle.

Logan-Alan has cerebral palsy. His dad, Mark-Alan, wrote from their home in Ontario, Canada with a simple request. He had to lift his boy's wheelchair into their van twice a day, to drop Logan off at school and to pick him up. Modest Needs bought them a ramp to get the wheelchair in and out.

Logan-Alan is eight now and definitely getting around. His dad says, "One of my proudest moments came when Logan was old enough to go to a regular public school, where I observed the profound effect his free spirit had on the other children in his class. It's a notion of loving and caring that should be learned by all of us." Logan-Alan was nominated by the mayor of Hamilton, Ontario to be a Young Ambassador for the Easter Seal Society for 2004. His father, Mark-Alan, is currently the international reader for Modest Needs, evaluating all requests from outside the United States.

Growing, But Carefully
Modest Needs has remained personal and community-oriented while growing from a web site to an office in New York City. The ability for donors to earmark their pledges for use in a particular state has made the process more targeted. Plans are now in the works to go further and establish state and regional offices by enlisting a network of regional administrators who will follow Taylor's example and make a monthly contribution of similar magnitude. That process should begin in January 2005. (Anyone interested in helping neighbors in their own state can find out more on the web site.) Taylor predicts that his nonprofit will soon be operating on a national scale while spending less in each state or region than the weekly salary of one secretary in a major charity's office.

Modest Needs is also now operating in Canada and hopes to open 13 chapters in the provinces and territories of Canada beginning in January, 2005.

Talk Back

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