As a 17-year-old, American Jacob Lief was visiting South Africa to take a first-hand look at its first post-apartheid elections. There, he met an older black woman in Alexandria Township, who told him she had been standing in line 36 hours to cast her ballot.
He was dumbfounded. Why would she be willing to stay in line so long?
"You don't understand," she told him. She'd been waiting 85 years to finally be allowed to vote.
"That was the moment I realized I wanted to get involved with the new South Africa," Mr. Lief says.
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A way to help came into focus a few years later when he was a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. On a return trip to South Africa he met a black schoolteacher on the train, who advised him to get off at Port Elizabeth and look around. Lief was introduced to another black schoolteacher who asked him to come and work in his school. "I moved in with his family," Lief says.
That experience, in turn, helped guide him to found the Ubuntu Education Fund, which over the past 15 years has created a pathway out of poverty for 2,000 disadvantaged children and youths in Port Elizabeth and their families. The aid comes in many forms, from health care to education.
Rather than seeking to expand geographically, Ubuntu attempts to super-serve a specific community of about 400,000 people who suffer from unemployment, poverty, lack of basic health care, and a high incidence of infant mortality and HIV/AIDS.
This "depth over breadth" approach, Lief says in a phone interview, isn't some radical new idea. Rather, it's an "old recipe" that emphasizes a long-term and thorough commitment.
He's watched, he says, as some pretty famous nonprofit groups have come in with quick aid programs – and then quickly moved on.
"I didn't get to a top university [by being handed] a cup of soup and a windup computer," Lief says. "We've found it take from 48 to 52 months to take a child that's been raped or abused or lost their parent, greatly traumatized, and get that child to where they can be part of a community again and ready to begin to advance academically."
If the children are living with a parent or parents, Ubuntu gets parents involved. Even those who can't read spend time holding a book with their children and pointing to the pictures they see. That way the parent is showing the child that books are important and worth picking up.
The biggest lesson Lief has learned over the years? Start working with kids as early as possible.
"We now start with pregnant mothers," he says. "We make sure they deliver a healthy baby."
Some of the Ubuntu children have been able to go to college and begin professional careers. But all of those who stick with the program are benefited.
Ubuntu works closely with private-sector employers looking for good recruits. Ubuntu's children will earn $8.70 over their lifetimes for every dollar that Ubuntu invests in them, Lief says.
"Kids coming through our program are disciplined, healthy, ready to engage in the work force," he says, so they are attractive to employers, who often follow up with their own on-the-job training.
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Another lesson Lief has learned from 15 years working closely with disadvantaged kids: Show them tough love.
"We kick children out [of the program] all the time," he says. "Our children are required to show up on time, to play by our rules.
"You're not going to get kicked out if you fail a math test; you [do] get kicked out if you didn't show up for your study period and study hard for it. That's when you get kicked out. If you're putting the effort in, we're going to work with you."
With enough support, even children from very challenging circumstance can succeed, Lief says, an idea that is reflected in one of Ubuntu's mottoes: "Your birthplace should not determine your future."
• To learn more go to www.ubuntufund.org/
Ever had an “a-ha” moment? They seem to spontaneously arise out of nothingness. A fleeting image or a random thought ignites a chain reaction as previously unintroduced synapses exchange business cards in our brains. A second or two later, we are forever a new person.
Audrey Forshey had her a-ha moment at the outset of the great housing crisis of ‘08. A residential real estate agent from Gaithersburg, MD, she often worried about how to protect the material “things” in her life. And with the housing market starting to turn drastically south, she wondered what she would do if the world she knew crumbled. Then came that moment.
“I thought ‘Get over yourself … really, get over yourself. You are blessed to have everything on the earth, while there are people who struggle for food and water. They sleep on dirt and don’t have access to an education. Snap out of it!’”
Audrey had always been a “giver,” but she now felt compelled to do something more personally meaningful. She needed to roll her sleeves up and become fully invested in a cause. She wanted to find a purpose.
One of Audrey’s friends, Racquel “Rocky” Turner, had started a small nonprofit called Mothers Fighting for Others (MFFO), providing orphans and vulnerable children with loving and nurturing environments and quality education. This was what Audrey was looking for. She began by making donations, and then upped her involvement by organizing a fundraiser.
Education was paramount for the kids that MFFO was helping, so Audrey decided to champion that slice of the pie. She soon launched the annual MFFO Gift of Education Fundraiser. The first event was conducted in her home; it raised $10,000.
Today, the Gift of Education exclusively supports the St. Monica’s Children’s Home, just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Just five years after her first event, Audrey’s 2013 fundraiser (which is now so large it’s held at a Hilton Hotel), raised close to $50,000 in a single night, covering most of the education costs for the 44 girls at the home.
Audrey teaches us that you don’t have to begin with exact knowledge of WHAT the difference is that you intend to make. It’s enough simply to know that you want to make a difference, and then to begin trying things out.
On that note, I’ll share Audrey’s favorite saying, which comes from Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne): “Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.” Thanks for sharing your story with us Audrey, and for caring so much.
1. IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To share love and kindness with as many people as I can, while passing my time here on earth.
2. HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
The success of the kids at Saint Monica’s Home has, unapologetically, become my passion and my goal. Never before in life have I been so driven to make something successful. The fundraiser started in the living room of my house and now, five years later, it is hosted by our MFFO team at the Hilton Hotel.
3. WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
It’s twofold. The joy I experience when I go to Nairobi, Kenya to see the 44 children and how much they have grown and learned since I first met them; their determination and the sound of their laughter makes my heart sing. The kids have said to me, “we can never pay you back for helping us.” I told them the way they “pay us back” is to do their best in school, dream, and be anything they want to be.
Like a parent, I am proud to say that we have four girls currently in college – one headed to law school – and six girls will graduate from high school this year. We at MFFO are very proud of their accomplishments. It proves what we are doing is working. We are making a difference.
The second thing that I get from giving is community. I am filled with pride and honor when I see folks in our Maryland community volunteer at and support our annual fundraiser, united by the shared mission of helping the children in Kenya.
4. WHO IS A HERO, AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
Nelson Mandela. How could he be persecuted for so long and still have so much love and goodness. Where does that come from? Most people would be resentful and be filled with hate. How did he make it through all of those years of prison, isolation, and still come out and make a positive difference in his country?
5. WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS? $12.00.
A simple program we have at Mothers Fighting for Others is called 12 for 12. It is a commitment to donate $12 for 12 months to help pay for the running of Saint Monica’s Home, and school fees for the children in Kenya. If we could inspire 1,000 people to commit to $12 a month we could change our 44 girls’ lives. It would enable us to help the 45th child and so on.
6. WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
What are some of the most successful fundraising ideas or advice that you can share with me. I am driven to do the work to raise the funds to support the kids in Kenya, but I wonder if there is something someone could share with us to help us reach our goals?
7. WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
Girls Rule. Our group began by supporting girls because girls don’t usually have a chance to obtain a higher education in third world countries. By educating the girls we have a better chance to help the community by making them self sufficient and having them go back to their community to continue the education of orphan girls.
8. TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC?
Sometimes I am really scared. I can be described as a “grab the bull by the horns” kind of person and fundraising is a 100 percent volunteer side job for me and my other volunteers. But we are making it up as we go along. What if no one comes? What if I say the wrong thing? We want to be successful so our kids are successful. There is a lot on the line.
9. WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS?
You are stronger than you think. Have really big dreams and ideas, you have the power to make them happen. We have to believe in ourselves, just like I tell the kids, I am telling you and myself – we can all do what we set out to do. Whatever your passion, you have it in you to reach inside and make a difference.
10. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE SONG AND WHO IS THE ARTIST? “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” by Tears for Fears. The opening line: “Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back …”
• This article was originally posted at Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, visit this link.
On a Saturday in September, more than 125 volunteers showed up with tools in hand and built six new 16-by-20-foot houses for a group of formerly homeless men. It was the beginning of Second Wind Cottages, a tiny-house village for the chronically homeless in the town of Newfield, N.Y., outside of Ithaca.
On January 29, the village officially opened, and its first residents settled in. Each house had cost about $10,000 to build, a fraction of what it would have cost to house the men in a new apartment building.
The project is part of a national movement of tiny-house villages, an alternative approach to housing the homeless that's beginning to catch the interest of national advocates and government housing officials alike.
For many years, it has been tough to find a way to house the homeless. More than 3.5 million people experience homelessness in the United States each year, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Shortages of low-income housing continue to be a major challenge. For every 100 households of renters in the United States that earn "extremely low income" (30 percent of the median or less), there are only 30 affordable apartments available, according to a 2013 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
But Second Wind is truly affordable, built by volunteers on seven acres of land donated by Carmen Guidi, the main coordinator of the project and a longtime friend of several of the men who now live there. The retail cost of the materials to build the first six houses was somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 per house, says Guidi. But many of the building materials were donated, and all of the labor was done in a massive volunteer effort.
"We've raised nearly $100,000 in 100 days," he says, and the number of volunteers has been "in the hundreds, maybe even thousands now."
The village will ultimately include a common house, garden beds, a chicken coop, and 18 single-unit cottages.
"The typical development for extremely low-income housing is trending up toward $200,000 per unit. That's a lot of bills," says Jill Severn, a board member at Panza, a nonprofit organization that sponsors another tiny-house project called Quixote Village. (The organization's name is a play on Sancho Panza, Don Quixote's sidekick in Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel.)
Quixote Village opened in Olympia, Wash., right before Christmas. But it began in February 2007 as "Camp Quixote," a protest held in a city-owned parking lot. A group of homeless people assembled there to oppose an Olympia ordinance that made it illegal to sit, lie down, or sell things within six feet of downtown buildings. When police evicted the campers eight days after the protest began, the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation stepped in to help, offering temporary refuge on their land.
For five years, the camp's location rotated, moving and reassembling every 90 days at one of several different local churches. Panza was formed by a corps of volunteers from the faith communities assisting the camp, and the organization worked with the city council to secure and rezone a parcel of county-owned industrial land near a community college and create a permanent site for the village. In December of 2013, the residents of Quixote Village settled into their new homes there.
Quixote Village has fostered a positive relationship between its residents and local government and police, says Severn. Despite this, the project was held up in court for a year by a local organization of businesses and landowners called the Industrial Zoning Preservation Association, which cited concerns over the potential impact on local businesses in a nearby industrial park.
Panza used the time to fund raise and build an outreach campaign to win over the public. They had the support of legions of volunteers, mostly from local churches, who had staffed the camp.
"Having hundreds of [residents] get to know people that were homeless made a huge difference in the success of getting this off the ground," says Severn.
Today, the 30 structures that make up Quixote Village are home to 29 disabled adults, almost all of whom qualify as "chronically homeless," by the standards of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The residents also have a common space with shared showers, a laundry, garden space, and a kitchen. By sharing these amenities, the community was able to increase the affordability of the project and design a neighborhood they believed would fit their needs and make them more self-sufficient.
The shared space has also helped them create a supportive community. The residents, who are self-governed, have developed a rulebook that prohibits illegal drugs and alcohol on the grounds and requires that each member put in a certain number of service hours per week. They meet twice a week in the evenings to discuss problems or concerns and to share a common meal that they take turns cooking.
The main complaint right now, says Raul Salazar, the village's program manager and only full-time staff member, is that the postal service still hasn't started delivering mail.
The cost of units at Quixote Village is significantly higher than at Second Wind—about $88,000 per unit—but that's still less than half the cost of the average public housing project, according to Nan Roman, president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Quixote has had access to state funding and local community grants, as well as private funding from individuals, businesses, and two Native American tribes. The project also received a Community Development Block Grant for $604,000 from the State of Washington Department of Commerce and a $1.5-million grant from the Washington State Legislature.
Two architecture and design firms, MSGS Architects and KMB Design Groups, also contributed design services pro bono, and the Thurston County Commission is leasing the land to Quixote for $1 per year.
Many other tiny-house projects are just beginning to get of the ground, raise money, find land, and gain approval from local officials and members of the public. But the unorthodox nature of the small houses presents unique legal zoning limitations and barriers that limit where tiny houses can be stationed.
In the spring of 2011, prior to the launch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol—focused on the state's controversial anti-collective-bargaining bill—prompted additional legislation that prohibited groups from gathering without a permit. When the protests joined forces with Occupy in the fall of 2011, this created a unique opportunity for the voices of the many homeless people in Madison to be heard.
"There were some great moments throughout the Occupy movement where a lot of dialogue was going on between the people without homes and the people with homes," says Allen Barkoff, one of the board members of Occupy Madison, Inc., a nonprofit formed in December 2012 to address the need for legal places where homeless people in Madison could congregate and stay safe. The organization first looked into buying an apartment building or a shared house for the homeless but ultimately settled on tiny houses as the most flexible and economical way to create homes for people.
In this case, the cost of building the tiny homes comes to around $5,000 each, funded by private donations and an online crowd-funding campaign. The nonprofit also plans to apply for some city grants. Each home will come with a propane heater, a composting toilet, and an 80-watt solar panel array—and will be about 98 square feet in size, 99 if you include the porch. (The volunteers enjoy the joke: "We are the 99 square feet!")
But the question of where the houses can legally be located is still up in the air. Volunteers are now building houses for six people. Because of a recent ordinance change, the houses are allowed to sit on church property in groups of three. City regulations also permit them to be placed on the side of the road, as long as they are relocated every 48 hours. But Madison's snowy winter makes the houses hard to move, explains Barkoff.
Now Occupy Madison, Inc., is in the middle of a lengthy process to purchase a parcel of land on the east side of the city to accommodate 11 houses, along with a central building (a converted gas station) that can serve as a workshop for making more homes. This spring, they will continue to hold neighborhood meetings about the project, talk with police, and work with the Madison Planning and Development Department—and, eventually, the city council—to negotiate zoning issues for the village.
Efforts to break through the red tape and raise money to house the homeless almost always pay off for a community. Even the most expensive tiny-house projects—such as a new, ambitious $6 million campaign to build a 200-person tiny-house park this year in Austin, Texas—can't rival the cost of homelessness to taxpayers, which was more than $10 million per year in Austin, for example, as YES! reported in December 2013.
"Chronically homeless people—people who have disabilities and are homeless for long periods of time—can be very expensive to systems of public care," explains Roman. In 2007, the National Alliance to End Homelessness compiled three studies showing that it costs the same or less money to provide permanent housing as it does to allow people to remain homeless. In Denver, Colo., a housing program for the homeless reduced the costs of public services (including medical services, temporary shelter, and costs associated with arrests and incarceration) by an estimated $15,773 per person per year, saving taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Government officials and city planners are beginning to see the tiny-house village as one viable solution for addressing homelessness.
"It's certainly something that we would encourage other communities to take a look at when it comes to creating solutions for housing the chronically homeless," says Lee Jones, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "It's a very important step in terms of the kinds of services we should be providing to people that need assistance."
Currently, the various efforts to house the homeless in tiny-house villages comprise a small and pioneering movement: But each new project helps create lessons and a model for other communities.
For example, Quixote Village, as a recipient of state funding, is considered a "pilot" project: It is required to report its progress to the state legislature in five years. In the meantime, says Severn, the residents will be settling in, putting in garden beds, building a carpentry workshop, searching for jobs, and simply living their lives.
"One of our residents has been homeless for about 25 years," Severn says. "He told me he's excited to start a little rose garden. It really touched me to hear that."
• Erika Lundahl wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erika is a freelance writer living in Seattle. The original article appeared here.
Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week [Feb. 12] when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.
The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat.
Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded, or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren’t making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you’d factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.
What looks like a lurch of patronage money to investigative journalism has coincided with the newspaper death spiral. As economist Mark J. Perry noted in a much-reproduced chart, newspaper advertising revenue peaked at $65 billion in 2000, with the most dramatic and steady rise of revenue coming between the early 1970s and 2000. These years happen to overlap with the golden age of both investigative and “accountability reporting.”
It’s not that newspapers shunned watchdog journalism before 1971; they just didn’t do that much of it, as a visit to the newspaper microfilm archives of your public library will confirm. Reportorial dependence on government and corporate spokesmen in those ancient times would appall most modern readers, who have become accustomed to investigative and adversarial journalism in their newspaper diet.
Investigative journalism, like far-flung foreign, domestic, state, and regional bureaus were affordable only because newspapers had more money than they knew what to do with. Chains like Gannett used their profits to buy more newspapers, but papers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Knight Ridder chain, to name a few, spent on journalistic expansion. (Don’t worry, the shareholders of these papers did okay, too, while the money poured in.)
But as newspaper advertising revenues fell from $65 billion in 2000 to about $20 billion in 2012, investigative journalism contracted, as did coverage of foreign news, statehouses, and localities. (I don’t want to reduce the popularity of investigative journalism to economics alone — see this learned paper (pdf) by Mark Feldstein on the role culture and politics have played.)
As economist Perry notes, the decline in newspaper advertising revenue is “not even close to being over.” Seeing as about 80 percent of newspaper revenue traditionally came from advertising, fewer and fewer newspapers will have the money to fund investigative projects. Investigative news, it is worth reminding, has always been high-cost content that produced a very low — if any — return in increased circulation and advertising revenue.
With less money to spend on investigations, newspaper editors have surrendered much of the beat, but not all, as worthy investigations by the New York Times, the Washington Post, my brothers and sisters at Reuters, and elsewhere attest. This has created a market opportunity — if that’s what to call the surefire opportunity to lose money — for those outside of traditional media to enter the investigation business.
Another economics-flavored vector has helped foster the entry of new investigative operations into the marketplace: The falling prices of communication technologies, which grow exponentially more powerful by the year, have made it easier and cheaper for investigative startups to do battle with established outlets. Consider this: the last big magazine launch — Condé Nast’s Portfolio in 2007 — took nearly two years from inception to mailbox and cost a reputed $125 million. Barsky’s Marshall Project has “been in the works” for about four months, will operate on about a $5 million budget, and will launch at mid-year.
Compared to newspapers, which launch investigations to procure bragging rights and Pulitzers, the new Medicis want primarily to save the world. Pierre Omidyar (First Look) has articulated his opposition to surveillance culture, the Kochs have their libertarian agenda, Neil Barsky is up-front about the Marshall Project’s goal being to “help make criminal justice reform an important part of the national debate by the 2016 presidential campaign,” and Pete Peterson (Fiscal Times) has always hollered about the need for debt reduction.
This issue-centricity is shared by many but not all of the non-profits. Most limit their activism to safe calls for “good government,” an informed electorate, and the value of public service. (These positions seem pretty empty when you consider that almost nobody ever campaigns for bad government, a stupid electorate, or public disservice. But that’s another column.)
If the money the new Medicis are throwing around seems huge to you, that’s probably because you’re a working stiff. Total philanthropic giving reached $316 billion in 2012, about 2 percent of GDP. In an entertaining series of tweets about the future of journalism last week, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote: “I suspect total global quality investigative journalism expense budget = $20M/year? Maybe?”
Let’s recall that T. Boone Pickens once gave Oklahoma State University $70 million, $20 million of which was reserved for the expansion of its football stadium. Even if Andreessen’s estimate is off by a factor of three or four, I suspect that he’s right to believe that a combination of philanthropists, crowd-funders, and for-profit outlets can comfortably fund our future investigative needs.
Depending on the Medicis to fund investigative reporting has the same downsides as depending on them to fund painting, the ballet, the symphony, and football stadiums: Just as your tastes in the arts and athletics don’t always coincide with those of the billionaire givers, your tastes in investigative journalism might not coincide with those of the Medicis. In your mind, their investigations might constitute misinformation, subversion, agitprop, or stupidity.
If you’re strongly opposed to the sort of journalism the new Medicis are buying with their money, I’m sure you can find somebody who will do your kind for the right price.
What are you waiting for?
• Disclosure: Last year, I interviewed for the job of editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Neil Barsky, chairman of the board of overseers of the magazine, was one of the interviewers. I was not offered the job. Interview me for a job (or shake me down for a donation to your investigative non-profit) via email: Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed occupies a third state of media, somewhere between for-profit and non-profit. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
Many Americans are swamped with credit card debt. It is a leading source of debt in U.S. households, right after home, car, and student loan debt. And credit card debt continues to increase. It now totals more than $850 billion, an increase of $172 billion since 2000, according to the Center for Responsible Lending.
This is not because more Americans are going out on frivolous shopping sprees. In fact, the data suggest that a significant number of low- and middle-income Americans are relying on their credit cards just to make ends meet. Data from the Center suggest 40 percent of low- and middle-income households use credit cards for basic expenses like rent and food, and nearly 50 percent use credit cards for medical expenses. More than 85 percent of the unemployed have racked up credit card debt.
Conversely, credit card companies are doing quite well. A 2012 Federal Reserve report says that banks in the credit card market had net earnings of 5.4 percent, compared with a 1.2 percent rate of return for all commercial banks. Part of this is because of predatory and in some cases unfair and deceptive lending practices by those companies that Congress took some steps to curb in 2009.
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But not all credit card issuers exist for the sole purpose of reaping profits.
“We are committed to providing better financial products and services for the working poor,” said Justine Zinkin, CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, a financial services and financial counseling nonprofit. Over the years, Neighborhood Trust has helped 30,000 lower-income people improve their financial lives.
“One of the biggest economic challenges for low-income individuals and families is burdensome credit card debt,” Zinkin said. “Once you are in debt, it’s hard to get out.”
There is a reason for that. Credit card interest rates are notoriously high, particularly for individuals with lower credit scores. And the card issuers make it all too easy to simply make the minimum payment and let the balance grow as interest expense accumulates. These minimum payments may ultimately become untenable. Nearly 10 percent of credit card holders are more than 90 days delinquent on their payments, according to the Federal Reserve.
Since so many families rely on consumer credit, Neighborhood Trust has turned the relationship between credit cards and borrowers on its head.
“We have created access to a card where the default behavior would be to help people with too much debt get out of debt and stay out of debt,” Zinkin explained.
It’s called the Trust Card, or what Zinkin calls the “un-credit card.” The idea is to facilitate a glide path for consumers to shed unhealthy credit card debt and stay out of debt while accessing affordable credit at more manageable levels. The card was developed in collaboration with Innovations for Poverty Action with funding from the Ford Foundation, and the first cards were issued a year ago.
Personalization is a key component to the Trust Card. Each cardholder is matched with a trained Neighborhood Trust financial adviser who examines the cardholder’s financial status to determine a personalized payment plan. Typically the cardholder will agree to maintain or increase their monthly payment, which when combined with a reasonable interest rate of 12 to 15 percent results in a much faster pay down schedule.
The card also requires some commitments from borrowers. Cardholders must agree to consolidate all other credit card debt onto the Trust Card. And they are prohibited from using any other high interest cards while they are using the Trust Card.
What the cardholder gains from these commitments is a product that encourages debt repayment via a simple, fixed monthly payment while still maintaining access to a limited credit line that grows as a fraction of the principal reduced.
Data on the success of the Trust Card are promising. There are zero cardholders in default. But the data are also limited. There have been 50 cards issued in a year of pilot-testing the Trust Card program.
“We would never claim that these data are robust,” Zinkin said. “But it is evidence that it is a worthy investment to push forward with a larger pilot.”
This means going to scale. Neighborhood Trust has plans for a small number of larger financial institutions to issue the cards on a broader basis.
“We have received interest from other credit unions about The Trust Card, so we know there is demand for this product,” Zinkin said.
Technology will also be crucial as the Trust Card grows, since matching each cardholder with a financial adviser may prove prohibitively expensive. So Neighborhood Trust is exploring electronic enrollment and automation of the process of designing a tailored payment schedule for cardholders.
The card is designed to ultimately benefit both borrowers and lenders. The Trust Card may not only create a healthier balance sheet and credit profile for today’s indebted consumer, but also serve as a profitable gateway product that creates a more attractive banking customer.
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“Our goal is to launch enough cards in 2014 to confirm our hypothesis that when supported with financial counseling and fair alternatives, these cardholders can reduce or eliminate their credit card debt, begin to build savings, and ultimately take advantage of other savings and credit programs offered by their banks.”
Those steps might give many more Americans access to credit cards that, instead of leading to a debt quagmire, could pave the way to improved financial stability. That still leaves most of the $850 billion of consumer debt looming out there.
But the un-credit card has to start somewhere.
• Justine Zinkin is the CEO of Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners, a financial services and financial counseling nonprofit.
• This article originally appeared at PopTech, a community of global innovators that catalyze social impact through renowned Fellows programs, incubated initiatives, thought-provoking salons, and an annual conference in Camden, Maine.
The National Housing Trust doesn’t just advocate for better housing policies to help the needy—it also offers housing that poor people can afford to rent.
The group has overseen the development of 25,000 low-cost apartments in 41 states and has financed $1 billion in affordable housing since 2001.
It now owns and operates 3,000 apartments, which gives the nonprofit credibility when it talks to lawmakers about how housing regulations affect real people, says Michael Bodaken, the group’s executive director.
He says his comments to lawmakers are always fresh “because we’re always in the market.”
The group’s mix of advocacy and service helped it earn a $1 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of seven groups the grantmaker is honoring today [Feb. 20] with its Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
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The prizes are awarded to organizations the foundation has supported in the past, and like its “genius” fellowships for individuals, nobody can apply for the award.
Instead, staff members nominate the groups they think deserve recognition.
“We don’t select the recipients for any one project,” says Robert Gallucci, MacArthur’s president. “Rather, we find their overall approaches to be highly creative and to have outsized impact in bringing about social change.”
As a group, says Mr. Gallucci, this year’s winners “reflect some of what is working best to achieve impact in the nonprofit community today: using evidence to inform and impact public discourse and public policy, using effective and creative communications to further program goals, and applying technology in powerful and innovative ways.”
The seven nonprofit organizations MacArthur honored this year each received up to $1 million for operations and to support their long-term growth and sustainability.
The charities are receiving different amounts depending on their budget size, and the money can’t account for more than 70 percent of an organization’s annual budget.
The National Housing Trust will invest its prize money in new business ventures, using the additional income to further its work to renovate and make environmentally friendly improvements to its apartment buildings.
Specifically, the MacArthur grant will help the group pursue options to make low-cost housing more energy efficient in ways that other organizations could copy, says Mr. Bodaken.
Several nonprofits that were honored this year use a data-driven approach to their work.
The University of Chicago Crime Lab studies human behavior through randomized, controlled trials “of the sort that provide gold-standard evidence in medicine but remain far too rare in the policy arena,” says Jens Ludwig, director of the Crime Lab and a professor of social-service administration, law, and public policy at the university’s Harris School of Public Policy. His group uses its research to inform policy decisions that aim to curb violent crime.
One of the Crime Lab’s key projects has drawn attention from the nation’s top policymaker.
The Becoming a Man program provides tutoring and guidance to male students in grades 7 through 12 at some of Chicago’s most crime-riddled schools.
Results of one trial have been significant: Data show that program enrollment reduced violent-crime arrests among participating students by 44 percent, cut weapons crimes and vandalism by 36 percent, and increased the likelihood of high-school graduation by up to 23 percent.
The results caught the eye of President Obama, who visited students in the program last year, sharing with them some of the mistakes he made and overcame when he was a teenager.
The Crime Lab will put its $1 million MacArthur grant toward developing new methods of research, establishing an innovation fund, and beginning research projects in other cities.
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The other MacArthur prize winners are:
- The Campaign Legal Center, which seeks to teach the public about campaign finance. Most famously, it teamed up with the comedian Stephen Colbert to establish a super political action committee. The nonpartisan Washington group will use its $750,000 prize to replenish cash reserves and redesign its website.
- The Citizen Lab, which uses data analysis to expose illegal online-tracking activities by government entities. Based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, it will use its $1 million grant to establish an endowment and expand its communications programs.
- NatureServe, an environmental group in Arlington, Va. It will use its $1 million for a five-year strategic plan to expand its monitoring and evaluation of conservation projects.
- ProPublica, a nonprofit in New York doing investigative journalism. The $1 million from MacArthur will support the group’s cash reserves and expand reporting on child welfare, immigration, online security, and sports finance.
- Women’s Rights Advancement and Protection Alternative, in Abuja, Nigeria. It will use its $750,000 for a facility with a library, an auditorium, and a hostel to shelter women and children fleeing abuse.
When he was growing up in San Diego, Francisco Cervera’s family sometimes struggled like so many American families do today. Money was tight. Unpredictable, sometimes-volatile expenses made saving money virtually impossible. “We were pretty close to being poor, if not poor,” Cervera remembered.
Since his mother worked, after school Cervera would walk to his aunt’s house. He recalls people coming and going at her house on some of those afternoons, often dropping off money.
These were not untoward transactions going on.
Cervera’s aunt was a coordinator in what is sometimes called a money pool. “She was in charge of calling people and making sure they stop by and drop off the money,” he said. “That is the way it is still done.”
Money pools are one of the world’s oldest savings mechanisms, started over 1,000 years ago. People without access to more formal savings tools still widely use money pools in countries and cultures worldwide.
And money pools have just as many names. They are called Fokontany in Madagascar, Hui in Taiwan, and Pandero in Peru. Among Cervera’s Mexican relatives, money pools were called Cundina.
Regardless of what you call a money pool, the basic concept remains the same. A group of people contributes on a regular basis to a common fund, and members take turns collecting the resulting lump sum. So, 10 people might contribute $100 each month to a money pool and take turns collecting $1,000 each over 10 months.
Many people in Cervera’s Mexican-American community routinely tapped into money pools for larger purchases.
“Buying a computer for school, buying my brother’s first car, we always did money pools,” Cervera said.
As an adult, Cervera and his brother Luis have revolutionized that practice by taking the money pool concept digital, through eMoneyPool. This online tool facilitates the creation of money pools without the tedium of face-to-face money exchanges like the kind Cervera’s aunt managed in San Diego.
This elegantly leverages modern technology, allowing people to create their own private money pools among friends anywhere in the United States or to join some other pool open to eMoneyPool members.
The tool has some enticing safeguards. The site includes identity verification for all users. Newcomers to eMoneyPool are limited to $100 contributions and must take one of the last five slots to collect the lump sum. There is also a guarantee: If somebody fails to pay, eMoneyPool will step in and fill in the missing contributions.
But even online, saving isn’t easy when money is tight. But just like they have for 1,000 years, Cervera’s online money pools still offer a group dynamic which can be a powerful psychological incentive to contribute and save money successfully.
“Saving money by yourself is a nice idea. But when you are living at the poverty level, everything is drawing on your cash,” Cervera explained. “Money pools change the idea of saving because you are saving as a team.”
In other words, the team aspect of money pools helps you not spend every penny of your own money.
“It changes the desire to save from a want to a need,” Cervera said. “People think, ‘Now I have to put that money away because the group is counting on me.’ ”
The Cervera brothers are now taking steps to allow eMoneyPool to evolve further to also serve as a bridge between their underbanked customers and formal lending institutions.
It’s all about helping eMoneyPool users — who may lack access to the tools to develop more conventional credit histories — to establish credit. Participants in eMoneyPool already receive eMoneyPool credit ratings based on their eMoneyPool payment histories. With a user’s permission, eMoneyPool will share that data with a credit-rating agency.
But the Cerveras are also taking steps to deliver that kind of eMoneyPool payment history data — again, with a user’s permission — directly to select lending institutions. This creates a positive payment history for users and an ability for borrowers and lenders to connect who might otherwise be off each other’s radar screens.
“We are creating a bridge for our users to lending institutions, but we are doing it in a way that is comfortable and familiar to them, with money pools,” Cervera explained.
The Cerveras’ eMoneyPool is growing. After two years of working in beta, the site launched publicly in early 2013, and participants have saved around $300,000.
A new user interface is now on its way, and by 2015 the brothers hope to have arrangements with hundreds of financial institutions to share the credit data from interested eMoneyPool customers.
These ideas exponentially change the potential impact of money pools from the kind managed by Cervera’s aunt back in San Diego.
“The original way is so incredibly inefficient,” Cervera said. So the Cervera brothers came up with some of the biggest changes money pools may have seen in over a thousand years.
• This article originally appeared at PopTech, a community of global innovators that catalyze social impact through renowned Fellows programs, incubated initiatives, thought-provoking salons, and an annual conference in Camden, Maine.
An efficient cookstoves project in Darfur has been issued with Sudan’s first-ever carbon credits, in an effort to boost climate finance reaching poorer countries.
The Gold Standard, a major certification body for carbon offsets, said the project – started in 2007 by Carbon Clear, a UK-based carbon management firm, and development agency Practical Action – will allow families in North Darfur to replace their traditional wood and charcoal fires with modern, energy-efficient, and cleaner-burning LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cookstoves.
Ten thousand cookstoves are being delivered to communities in El Fasher, which will save more than 300,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 10 years, the Gold Standard said. The stoves are also expected to bring social, economic, and health benefits, such as less smoky homes.
People in El Fasher, a large town, usually buy charcoal and wood from vendors called zaribas, often on a daily basis. Using charcoal costs a household around £20 ($33.50) per month, while using LPG costs roughly £7 ($11.70) per month. But the initial cost of the stove and the LPG canister can put families off switching.
This barrier to uptake is being overcome through a micro-loan scheme operated by local womens' associations and funded by carbon finance, according to Carbon Clear.
The carbon credits for the project in Darfur – which has suffered years of conflict between government-backed militia and rebels from the vast west Sudanese state – are also the first to be issued using new rules developed for verifying projects in conflict zones and refugee camps, work that has been partly funded by the German government.
The Gold Standard said it has been working on approaches to increase the flow of carbon finance to the world's poorest countries, where prohibitive implementation costs have made micro-scale projects that cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions unviable.
"It is essential that carbon finance reaches poorer countries, regions, and communities – and it must deliver both climate and development outcomes," Gold Standard CEO Adrian Rimmer said in a statement, adding that the new rules would help drive finance into "thousands more" such projects.
The organization said it has also changed its procedures to cut implementation costs for small community projects and has launched a formal "Sustainable Development Accreditation Scheme."
Since then, 12 multi-technology, multi-country programs across Asia, Africa, and Latin America have been submitted to The Gold Standard for approval, and the first of these are due to issue carbon credits later this year.
Mark Chadwick, CEO of Carbon Clear, said the pioneering carbon finance project in Sudan "demonstrates how businesses can successfully reduce GHG emissions and make a positive contribution to communities."
The Gold Standard was established in 2003 by WWF and has more than 80 NGO partners worldwide. It enables individuals, corporations, and governments to buy carbon credits against verified emission reductions and sustainable-development outcomes, and has channeled billions of euros into 1,000 low-carbon development projects over the past 10 years, it said.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
He is known simply as “The Sockman.”
And while he doesn’t don a brightly colored cape or have his own theme song, the case could be made for calling him a superhero.
Retired Illinois special needs teacher Tom McNamara read an article about a couple who started giving out socks to the homeless. He realized that while it can be relatively easy for folks to find a donated winter coat, or many types of clothing, socks are a tougher commodity.
Inspired to help change that, he decided to sell his house, purchase a recreational vehicle (RV), and travel the country handing out socks to the homeless as a means to both meet the need and to bring attention to the homeless community.
“It was an easy decision,” says Mr. McNamara, who has been retired for two years now. “I wanted to continue doing something, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I bought some socks and handed them out in my local area, and I got a fabulous response.”
Fast forward a little more than a year, and McNamara has now distributed more than 4,000 pairs of socks in 17 states and countless towns and cities.
“It has just exploded, way past what I thought it could be,” he says.
When he first began touring, McNamara would base his route on things he wanted to see around the country – historic sites, tourist attractions, or particular cities or towns.
But he soon found that he would become fully engrossed in handing out socks and talking with homeless individuals he came across, and that became his true purpose.
McNamara recalls a visit to New Orleans for the annual “Day of the Dead” festivities. He wound up walking around a good part of the city handing out socks until he ran out. A quick trip to a local store, and some negotiations with the manager, landed him a great deal on a new batch of socks, and he returned to the streets to give the rest of them out – all while missing the thing he thought he had come to the city to see.
“For me, it is about the personal contact,” he says of his work. “A lot of people do great things for the homeless… but I really like trying to go out and find the individual guy who is in the woods…. I can sit down and talk to them, and they give me their story sometimes.”
On a recent trip to Phoenix, McNamara met two men, Mike and Roger. He wound up spending some five hours talking to the pair and listening to their stories, and he visited them again the next day before leaving town.
Now, when he visits cities or towns, he asks locals where he can find the homeless population.
“I am just looking for homeless wherever I go,” he says.
As for financial backing, McNamara lives on a fixed income and relies on his retirement funds to cover his living and travel expenses. He set up an online site to accept donations from friends, family members, and others interested in helping. His friends help with the logistics of obtaining more socks when he needs to replenish his supply.
“It is just me,” he says. “There is nobody behind me…. I am not a 501c3 [registered charity], I am just Tom McNamara.”
McNamara says he is looking into the possibility of becoming a registered charity, but that he enjoys the freedom of being able to help as an individual, rather than as an organization.
“This way, it is just me,” he says. “Nobody has to tell me anything.”
Of course, McNamara’s nomadic lifestyle is not without its challenges.
“The toughest thing is not knowing where I am going to stay at night,” he says during a recent phone interview while he was staying in Tuscon, Ariz. While some businesses used to allow RVs to park in their lots overnight, McNamara says many towns have now banned that practice.
He does tow a small car with him and will sometimes park the RV outside of a town and use the car to reach his clients, filling it with socks and driving into town.
“It has been fun,” he says. “I have learned more than I could have ever gotten out of just thinking about this.”
His biggest objective is to help shed light on the issue of homelessness, he says.
“My goal is to draw attention to the homeless, to have people realize that they are human beings [who] want to have conversations with us,” he says. “They want to feel like they are in the same place as you are, and that’s why I do it in a traveling mode.”
• For more information or to support McNamara’s work, visit http://www.gofundme.com/5mvwpw.
Valerie Weisler’s story begins like this: “I grew up thinking I had no worth. My peers bullied me every day for making friends with the odd ones out – the new kid [at school], the deaf janitor, the nine-year-old boy who skipped two grades.”
If there's one thing you should know about Valerie, it’s that the only thing she loves more than smiling is being the reason behind someone else's smile.
This, along with her experiences being bullied, is what inspired Valerie to start the Validation Project, an initiative to spread validation and proactively put a worldwide end to bullying. The project equips youth, ages 13-25, with the tools to change the world one validation at a time.
As Valerie describes so eloquently, “Everyone should be validating others; it should be as normal as brushing your teeth or combing your hair. Because deep down, everyone is fighting their own battle and even a simple smile or compliment can give them the push they need to get through it.”
Today, the Validation Project has branches in each of the 50 states and has international branches in Germany, Israel, Africa, Australia, Korea, England, Chile, Pakistan, France, Belgium, and India. Oh, did I mention Valerie is only 15 years old, and that she launched this initiative just last year at the age of 14?
Along with providing validating words to others, the Validation Project’s mission also involves validating others through action. Last year, from spring break to summer break – the time of year when many youth stay in hotels with their families on vacations – the Validation Project collected 10,000 toiletries that otherwise would have been thrown out for their “Teens for Clean” campaign and donated them to homeless shelters.
To date, the Validation Project has 5,000 teens involved with its projects.
It only makes sense that the inspiration behind this initiative would be someone as remarkable, talented, and driven as Valerie. She is wise beyond her years and carries herself in a sophisticated and professional manner. She exudes positive energy and kindness through her spoken words, written words, films, and actions.
She is also able to let loose and be silly. Valerie is the kind of girl who will chop off nine inches of her hair with safety scissors, a Ziploc bag, and no ruler, to donate it to cancer patients.
Valerie juggles all the responsibilities of being a regular everyday 15-year-old with the responsibilities of being the CEO of the Validation Project. One minute she is on the phone being interviewed by Seventeen Magazine about how feminism has influenced her path; the next she is emailing with Nickelodeon about her nomination for the Halo Effect awards; and the next, her mom is reminding her to study for her next day’s Spanish quiz.
Poignantly, Valerie attributes her strength and direction to having been bullied: “I felt alone, I could tell when other people were also feeling down. I found that the more I made it my responsibility to make others know they matter, the more I felt I mattered too.”
The 10 questions
IN JUST ONE SENTENCE, WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE IN LIFE?
To show the world that this generation is the best one yet.
HOW HAS THIS WORK CHANGED YOU?
It’s made me realize how good things come to those who take action, and that every person has something incredible inside them.
WHAT DO YOU GET FROM GIVING?
Since I was little, I’ve been making friends with the odd ones out, and I’ve been bullied for it. I’m thankful for the tormentors because facing them each day is what gave me the guts to do what I do. Because I have lived in the moment where validation was so crucial to me, I know that there are people out there that need it now.
WHO IS A LIVING HERO AND WHAT WOULD YOU ASK THEM IF GIVEN THE CHANCE?
Ellen DeGeneres, my home girl! I love how she uses comedy as a resource for kindness, and her pride is incredibly inspiring. I’d ask how she got to where she is, and how being gay has positively affected her view on life. I’d also ask her if we could grab coffee sometime.
WHAT EVERYDAY RESOURCES COULD HELP YOU ACHIEVE YOUR PHILANTHROPIC GOALS?
Money, publicity, and more cups of tea.
WHAT IS A BURNING QUESTION THAT YOU HAVE FOR THIS COMMUNITY?
Why are we so afraid of accepting people?
WHAT WOULD THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK BE?
"Being Young, Weird, and Successful In America" As a 15-year- old philanthropist, it’s taken a lot to learn that my young age is not a disadvantage. We live in a world that tells you to hold on to your dreams until you’re 18; that you have to wait to make a difference....
TELL US SOMETHING YOU RARELY SHARE IN PUBLIC?
I have a very detailed idea of heaven. I think that everyone gets a room that has pictures of who they were in past lives, and that at night they all listen to a radio where they can hear messages from loved ones who are alive.
They also have events like “Rockin’ With Rosa & Roosevelt,” where Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt perform, and “World Wednesdays,” where people get chosen as angels to help out the world below.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR OTHERS WHO ASPIRE TO BE CITIZEN PHILANTHROPISTS?
Use your energy to fuel your passion. Make volunteering your “money” that you give back to the world. If you’re young, use that to your ability! It is NOT a disadvantage. Most importantly, step outside your comfort zone. Being outside the box is true freedom. BE an outsider.
WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED, AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER?
QUESTION: What is your casual weekend plan? (Listen up people, this is golden.) ANSWER: “Full House” marathon, Double-Stuffed Oreos, too many cups of tea, and pictures of pandas sneezing.
• Taylor Zansberg, a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, is passionate about social change advocacy and creative development. Her article originally appeared on Talking GOOD, a series of interviews with “citizen philanthropists” who champion causes and lead by example. To nominate someone for a Talking GOOD interview, visit this link.