Small Change

In 2002, I started a website that I called Modest I meant this website to be nothing more than a personal project—a simple way that I could reach out to persons in need, just as people had reached out to me at the times in my life when I’d most needed a helping hand.

In the time since Modest Needs launched, this organization—an organization that I had intended to be a source of help for perhaps one or two people a month—has made over $10 million in small grants to individuals and families who desperately needed a short-tem hand up but didn’t qualify for conventional types of charitable assistance.

Far more impressive, though, than the amount of money we’ve been able to disburse to our grantees is how that funding has been raised. Whereas many charitable organizations depend on state and federal funding to sustain their programs, at Modest Needs we have opted not to pursue such avenues of support. Instead, the grants we make are funded almost entirely by small-change contributions made by members of the general public.

Over time, the average individual contribution to Modest Needs has been around $30. This is “small change,” to be sure. But over the past ten years, by pooling their resources in this way, “small change” donors have restored the vision of a child born with a rare condition that prevented him from seeing shapes ($550). They have purchased (and then returned to its original owners) a house that was scheduled to be sold at auction over a past-due water bill ($320). And in one especially memorable case, they made it possible for a woman who’d lost three children pre-term (and was in the midst of her fourth high-risk pregnancy) to bring a healthy baby girl into the world for just $36.50—the cost of a three-month supply of medication that this single-income, uninsured family simply couldn’t afford on their own.

The stories above—each a minor miracle unto itself—are entirely representative of the (now) nearly 11,000 grants our donors have made with their “small change.” But even now, as I write this piece about the importance of giving, I remain cognizant of the fact that both Modest Needs and the miracles its donors have made possible almost never came to pass.

You see, for all of my life, I’d dreamed of being a philanthropist, of spending my life helping those in need. It’s a dream I think most of us have had at one time or another. But like so many of us, I didn’t do much to act on my desire to reach out to others because—well, on an assistant professor’s salary and with student loan debt to pay, I could barely keep a roof over my head.

“Philanthropists aren’t people like me,” I thought. “Philanthropists are wealthy. They build hospitals, feed millions, and cure diseases. On my limited income I can’t do any of those things. I can barely pay the rent. Given the magnitude of the needs that exist in the world, what can I do? How much difference can one ‘regular person’ really make?”

The answer to that question came to me one March evening. I was thinking how lucky I was to have not just a job, but a job I genuinely enjoyed. In a moment of sheer gratitude for my life, I paused to remember those people who’d helped me along the way, never with more than a few hundred dollars, and always at times when that small amount of money was all that stood between me and homelessness.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that none of these people—people whose kindness had changed my life—had ever been wealthy. They were simply compassionate. And in acting on that compassion as they could, they’d done far more than help me through a tough time. They’d shown me that “small change” can and does make a world of difference. They’d taught me the true meaning of philanthropy.

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