A personal form of charity

Small donations have big impact on family homelessness

Microphilanthropy is an occasional feature that calls attention to small acts of generosity that people do for the benefit of others and highlights little-known needs that could benefit from generosity, even on a small scale.

THE EXPLOSION OF electronic communication and content sharing have expanded the ways that charities seek donations. They can inexpensively ask for contributions with e-mail and social media posts soliciting for their cause. Donors, in turn, benefit from the quick and painless giving enabled by the charities’ websites. The interaction ends after a few clicks.

But an innovative Boston area nonprofit is working to show that there are ways to use electronic media to create a closer connection between donors and recipients to the benefit of both. The organization marries contemporary ways of managing content with the timeless belief that a charitable gift has the most meaning when the donor can see the specific consequences of the gift for another individual.

Small Can Be Big is a charity that solicits small contributions that have a big impact on families at risk of homelessness. Its mission is to provide quick and targeted financial assistance to families identified by one of 15 of Greater Boston’s best regarded social services agencies. Small Can Be Big does not itself provide direct services but responds quickly with funds that can keep a struggling family in their home, off the street, out of a shelter, and out of harm’s way. Donors help a specific family or person and receive a report on the impact of their gift.

Professionals who work with families know that the line between having a home and not having one is often thin. An illness, a layoff, an abusive boyfriend, or brutal winter weather resulting in huge utility bills can push an economically marginal family off the cliff into homelessness. Even though the government tries to help with housing subsidies, heating, and other support, sometimes the money runs out or the rules are too inflexible to intervene quickly in a crisis. The loss of a place to live can initiate a cycle of trouble. Without a home base, it is extremely difficult to sustain a job, to maintain children in school, or to execute the myriad details necessary for a successfully coping family.

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When a small amount of money can stem a crisis and sustain a family in their home, Small Can Be Big will step in. On any given day the organization’s website will profile the specific current needs of a family that has been vetted and referred by one on the partner agencies. For example, a parent with stomach cancer couldn’t work for several months, fell behind on rent, and faced eviction. A mother’s automobile engine blew and, if she didn’t repair it, she couldn’t work. Paying for the repair required deferral of her utility bill resulting in threatened electric shut off. Another family had to pay for the unexpected death expenses of a relative and put themselves at risk of eviction. In each case, Small Can Be Big donors paid the arrears, stabilized the situation, and allowed the family to look forward. The woman whose family economics were sent into a spiral by the funeral cost told her donors: “The best part is being able to breathe again and to finally grieve my loss.”

Over the past year, Small Can Be Big has served as intermediary for funding 124 families with an average grant of $1,460. Almost all contributions come through the web site and the average donation is $86.31. Small Can Be Big does not solicit donations from corporations or large foundations. A major part of the organization’s purpose is to engage individuals and their personal networks in charitable giving. Rather than a gift from a company, they seek multiple small gifts from people who believe it is important to help an individual in need. This adds to the meaning for both the giver and the recipient, something that is enhanced by the fact that donors receive a follow-up report on how the funds impacted a specific family.

Meet the Author

Edward M Murphy

Guest Contributor

About Edward M Murphy

Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.

About Edward M Murphy

Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.

Small Can Be Big is lightly staffed. Another of its features is that 100 percent of all donor contributions are used for the families in need. No overhead costs are deducted because all such expenses are defrayed by the Boathouse Group of Waltham, whose owner, John Connors, saw the need for a new kind of charity when he served as a board member of St. Mary’s Center in Dorchester, a homeless shelter for women and their children.

If you would like to join others to help a specific family, have an understanding of what they need, and get a report about what happened afterwards, you can see who needs help today and make a tax deductible contribution through the web site.