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Websites connect donors to specific needs

One site helps with unexpected expenses. Another brightens the holidays for the homeless.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 2008

Founder: Keith Taylor established Modest Needs after receiving help himself.

Courtesy of Modest Needs Foundation

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In difficult times, people are eager to help strangers in need, when they're given a wise way to do so.

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That's the lesson learned by some freelance philanthropists – US and Canadian – who've turned to the Internet to reach out to their neighbors. They're finding that thousands are responding to websites they've created for person-to-person aid to the homeless or to hard-working households that face an unexpected expense they cannot afford.

Online charities have opened the way for Americans to help individual entrepreneurs overseas, soldiers in war zones, or schoolteachers who need supplies for their classrooms.

Now, some connect donors with individuals and families to meet a single basic need or a short-term emergency: a warm jacket, an urgent car repair, a bill payment that keeps a couple from losing their home.

During the holiday season, HomelessPartners.com connects people in the community to those in shelters in nine cities in the United States and Canada.

ModestNeeds.org works year-round to stop the cycle of poverty before it starts, helping low-income workers cope with expenses that threaten to knock them off track.

"People stepped in to help me when I had unexpected expenses as a grad student and kept me from being evicted," says Keith Taylor, Modest Needs' founder. "Those were life-changing gifts that enabled me to complete my degree."

Grateful for the help, he planned to do the same for others once he became wealthy, he says. But one day he realized that "the people who helped me had not been wealthy; they had just been kind."

So in 2002, Dr. Taylor – then a $33,000-a-year college teacher – scaled back his lifestyle to the point that he could put aside $350 a month. He put up a simple website and offered to help individuals with an emergency need.

As he began to provide funds, someone posted a note about the site on a giant weblog called MetaFilter, and suddenly he was swamped with letters. Some wanted his help, but "80 percent offered to send a check," he says. He had to quickly become an official charity.

Modest Needs has since aided more than 6,300 individuals or families, with grants averaging about $500.

In the past three months of economic downturn, applications for help have tripled over last year – to about 4,000 a month. "Fortunately, we've also been able to triple the number we fund," Taylor says. Still, just 52 percent of qualified applicants are likely to get grants this year.

The charity does due diligence on each application, requiring documentation of the need. Instead of sending cash to the applicant, it pays the bill directly.

What is most gratifying, Taylor adds, is that 70 percent of the people they help turn around and become donors.

One of the most poignant applications came early on from the Logsdon family in Kentucky, whose son required glasses with special lenses to be able to see shapes. As the family told its story on CBS in 2002, when the youngster got the glasses through Modest Needs, he said, "Oh, is that my mom?" It was the first time he'd seen her clearly. The family has since, through small contributions over the years, donated much more than the $550 they received.

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