Oct 3, 2013 · 3 minutes

Through AngelList, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo, crowdfunding is changing investing, the arts, and hardware. But what about for people in need?

The philanthropic aspect of crowdfunding is both less lucrative and less advanced than its business-oriented counterparts, but it is making progress. In the last couple of weeks, one emerging platform has taken strides to connect donors with people in need who need to raise modest amounts of money for one-off purchases.

BenevolentChicago-based Benevolent runs on volunteer steampower and grants from foundations, but in its 18-month existence it has helped 135 people raise a collective $70,000 to pay for such things as laptops, school books, furniture, bus fares, and carpentry tools. Now, Benevolent has expanded to Charlotte, NC, Detroit, MI, and San Jose, CA, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

“The truth is that San Jose has a great deal of need,” says Benevolent CEO and founder Megan Kashner on the expansion. “It’s a city with incredible highs and lows in terms of income and poverty.”

Indeed, the Valley’s gap between rich and poor has come under heavy scrutiny in recent months, including on PandoDaily. San Jose in particular has found itself in the news for its tent city, a temporary settlement for the homeless erected not far from the area’s glittering tech campuses.

Benevolent, which funded its first year of operations on $80,000 and is inspired by the likes of DonorsChoose and GlobalGiving, is not a particularly scalable operation. It sources, selects, and approves people for the platform by going through social workers and employment counsellors at nonprofit organizations. The fundraisers only come to Benevolent when there’s not other way to fund their needs.

Benevolent’s software is also limited. For now, social workers have access to only a very basic content management system. The site doesn't appear to work well in the Chrome browser. But this is a lean operation and improvements are on the way. Within a month, Benevolent will be providing workers with dashboards so they can better keep track of the fundraising campaigns.

In part because of its operational limitations and high qualification standards, Benevolent has a supply-and-demand imbalance. But it’s the reverse of the fundraising problems that Kashner, who was previously executive director of the Taproot Foundation, is used to. It turns out that there’s an over-supply of willing donors, and an under-supply of stories and needs on the site. “In my world, that’s backward,” says Kashner.

For the people who have found success with Benevolent, the impact is meaningful. Last year, Koffi Soglohoun, an asylum seeker from Togo, raised $500 from eight donors to buy a laptop fo his oldest daughter in order to improve her chances of going to university.

Soglohoun says he was surprised at the response from his funders, and how fast it happened. “Where I come from, you’ve got to do your own thing,” he says. “Here, I was not expecting it.”

Soglohoun says his family of eight needs a lot of help because he is the only one earning an income. “People like to help, and I would like to help somebody also,” he says. “But unfortunately, I cannot afford my own situation.”

In his thank you note to his supporters at the end of last year, he wrote:

My daughter has been waiting for this for a long time, and I had promised her this from a long time ago. I had no idea I would actually be able to give her this so soon. Thank you so very, very, very much and I hope to be able to help someone someday soon as well.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]