In difficult times, people are eager to help strangers in need, when they're given a wise way to do so.
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.
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.
For Taylor, changing the giving culture is just as important as the grants. "People think they can't do that much, but they find out that the $5 they would have spent on a fast-food lunch has the power to really change someone's life – a very specific person they choose to help," he says.
Jennie and Dan Keeran, who moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2005, had a similar desire to help strangers in need – the homeless men they saw on city streets. When they took coffee and food to one of them, they saw he was making a beautiful etching on the back of a mirror. Learning his story stirred them.
"We thought if others heard their stories, they would want to help," Ms. Keeran says. They also created a website – HomelessPartners.com – to encourage people to connect with individual homeless people in Vancouver. Working through a local shelter, they interviewed some men and put their stories on the site along with their wish lists for Christmas. Then they sent out a press release.
"A lot of people responded in a very short time," with gifts, cards, and letters, Keeran says. They soon added Calgary, Alberta, to the project, and now it's in nine cities – four in Canada and five in the US.
Volunteers from local churches do the interviews. Donors choose the individual and gift they wish to make and deliver it to the shelter. The gifts are distributed on Christmas and Boxing Day (Dec. 26).
"The message we repeatedly get from the men and women is, 'I feel human again. I feel like I'm not invisible,' " Keeran adds.
At the US Vets shelter in Las Vegas, Army veteran Dave T. is "trying to get his life back on track." He has a job at Goodwill, but is seeking a better one so he can afford an apartment. His Christmas list includes a phone card, boxer shorts, a jacket, and dress shoes.
"I don't have family here," he says by phone from the shelter. "The gifts and wishes make us feel proud that they want to help us out."
For interviewer Stephanie Sullivan, "it has been incredible to get to know these men and women who have served their country and now find themselves homeless."
In Calgary, people have embraced the project, donating thousands of gifts over the past three years. Some 800 individuals were interviewed this season. "A lot of people in the shelters are working poor. They have full-time jobs, and sometimes decent ones, but the cost of living here is so high they can't afford it," says Brandi Mooney, secretary at Calgary Church of Christ, who is the local project coordinator.
The Keerans have an ambitious goal: to expand their Web-based project to every city where there are homeless people.