Boston, like other cities across the U.S., wrestles with a serious homelessness problem. Countless non-profits, churches, and other organizations find themselves facing the issue every day, as their resources to help the homeless become more and more scarce.
Now, there’s a new player on the scene—the Modest Needs Foundation —offering to add their expertise and capital to tackle the problem. Modest Needs, a national 5013c non-profit, has teamed up with Groupon and the Herb Alpert Foundation to provide an innovative program that could potentially bring relief to low-income, working families facing the loss of their loving homes.
As Modest Needs puts it, many Americans have, up to now, tried to play by the rules to ride out the recession. They’ve worked hard, and tried to live within their means. But they’re also constantly living on the edge between homelessness and poverty. Any of a number of unexpected situations could plunge them into disaster, like an emergency root canal for a child; an unexpected illness that forces them to choose between food for the family and urgently-needed medicine; or an unanticipated car repair bill of hundreds of dollars or more.
And what about the possibility that after a long period of unemployment, a family member finally returns to work, but finds himself or herself facing the scenario of being 10 days away from eviction, but two weeks away from the first paycheck?
So, Modest Needs and Groupon have come up with an innovative new program that proves that there definitely is strength in numbers. From October 4 – October 10, 2012, the non-profit is launching a national Groupon Grassroots Campaign to benefit low-income families and individuals. Subscribers can visit the Groupon Grassroots link to pledge: http://www.groupon.com/deals/dc-ifd-modest-needs-foundation.
According to Modest Needs, a self-sufficiency grant of just $750 will prevent a working individual – who typically does not qualify for any form of government aid or philanthropy – from becoming homeless. In fact, in 2011 alone, the non-profit has brought 1,554 working low-income families and nearly 7,000 individuals back from the brink of poverty and homelessness.
Can this work in Boston?
As a former grant-writer, fundraiser, and development director myself, I know firsthand the challenge of coming up with money to supply much-needed services to families in need. Often, it seems that there just isn’t enough to go around. At the churches where I’ve been, there is no end to the number of people knocking on the doors, asking for help. Can Modest Needs and Groupon make any inroads in addressing this problem?
One concern I’d have is the question of competing organizations. When applying for funding, we were always aware that there were dozens of other non-profits also vying for the same limited pool of money—many of which offered services or programs that were even more critically needed than ours, such as food kitchens, homeless shelters, etc. The more of us applying to foundations for help, it seemed, the less funding there was to go around. Could Modest Needs’ plan divert even more money away from well-deserving local programs?
Saint Francis House example
Just take one Boston-area non-profit, for example: the Saint Francis House, in 2009 alone, served 382,588 meals, provided 8,700 showers, 13,000 changes of clothes, 16,000 counselling sessions, and arranged for 9,000 medical appointments with Boston Health Care for the Homeless. Typically, according to this same report, Saint Francis House serves over 700 meals each day, for breakfast and lunch, with more than 5,000 hours of volunteer help each year. Certainly, in the year 2012, those numbers have swelled significantly, as homelessness and poverty have increased, and the needs have grown even greater. Would the money that might be spent as a charitable donation to the Saint Francis House go instead toward this Modest Needs/Groupon promotion?
One could compare the situation to the issue of state-run lotteries. Does buying lottery tickets, which supposedly benefits education and other human services needs, really do the job, or does it contribute to further sidetracking of money (for state administrative costs) that could be better used when applied directly to schools or other organizations, without the in-between step of lottery expenditures? Consider the fact that many of the people buying lottery tickets may be the very poor and underserved populations who have the least resources to spare, yet they’re spending out of pocket on the slim chance that a lottery win will lift them out of poverty?
The Groupon deal
How does the Modest Needs plan work? Provided that at least 75 Groupon customers donate $10, each Organization Voucher issued by Modest Needs will provide support towards two grants that will help a low-income household pay their rent or a mortgage. With the help of a matching grant of up to $90,000 from the Herb Alpert Foundation (remember Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass from the 1960s?), every additional $750 can provide another two grants to a struggling, low-income household.
Modest Needs says that they “work to promote the self-sufficiency of the 'working poor' -- the hard-working but low-income individuals and families that conventional philanthropy has otherwise forgotten.” They’ve have elected to undertake this mission because they “recognize that a significant gap exists in the social service 'safety nets' of developed nations like the United States and Canada.”
To this end, Modest Needs offers grants to low-income but generally self-sufficient households, displaced workers struggling to return to the workforce, permanently disadvantaged persons struggling to afford medical care, and small non-profit organizations. Their grants are designed:
• To prevent otherwise financially self-sufficient individuals and families from entering the cycle of poverty, when this might be avoided with a small amount of well-timed financial assistance;
• To restore the financial self-sufficiency of individuals who are willing to work but are temporarily unemployed by providing these persons with the means to return to work;
• To empower permanently disadvantaged individuals who otherwise live within their limited means to continue to live independently, despite a temporary, unexpected financial set-back related to their medical conditions; and
• To strengthen small non-profit organizations by providing a forum whereby such organizations can apply directly to the general public for the help they need to complete the relatively inexpensive projects that will allow them to better serve their clients and communities.
What do you think? Can this be another well-meaning way out of the nation’s serious homelessness problem, or simply a bandaid solution that does more to promote a commercial enterprise like Groupon than to provide real, meaningful relief? And will their idea take needed resources away from more well-established charities and services providers?