Modest Needs

The closest Keith Taylor ever came to being homeless was when he received a three-day pay-or-quit notice from his landlord. But then an unlikely character bailed him out in an act that ultimately helped change the direction of Taylor’s life.

Today he’s the president of Modest Needs, an organization that has given more than $13 million in grants to typically self-sufficient people who need a hand getting through a tough time; it might be for anything from a health problem to a heating bill. But the most common request is payment for a month’s housing due to an emergency. “The very situation I was in,” Taylor says.

The pay-or-quit notice came to Taylor when he was writing his thesis for a doctorate in English and working as a projectionist at a movie theater. He was barely making ends meet when his car’s timing belt broke, and he had to choose between fixing it and paying the rent. He chose the car, thinking he could work things out with his landlord. He was wrong.

The saving grace was his boss, a quiet curmudgeon of sorts, who wrote a check to Taylor’s landlord. When Taylor thanked him, the boss said, “Don’t mention it.”

Denise Hill, a single mother of a teenage daughter, understands hard financial choices. The South Orange, N.J., resident lost a week’s pay when the community college where she taught part time had to close after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in October 2012.

Hill was actually on Facebook trying to raise money to help other single mothers after the hurricane when she learned about Modest Needs. She says she was relieved to hear about the organization because, even as she was assisting others, she was beginning to wonder whether she was going to get by financially. “Sometimes even the simple small bills can seem catastrophic,” she says. Modest Needs helped her with a month’s rent, which kept her afloat.

Taylor says one goal of Modest Needs is to keep people out of the cycle of poverty, something the $2.1 million organization has done well. But Modest Needs started out very small, solely as a personal project for Taylor when he was a professor at Middle Tennessee State University and wanted to help people. At that point he had thrown out his previous belief that he had to be rich to be a philanthropist.

“What occurred to me was none of the people who helped me out had money,” he says. “They just had compassion.” So he decided to give away 10 percent of his monthly earnings, about $350, to help others. He designed a “pretty dinky website” where people could ask for assistance, gave up his fabulous 1920s apartment in Nashville, Tenn., sold a lot of his stuff and moved into a cheaper triplex.

The website launched March 21, 2002, and Taylor shared it with a few friends. “All but one told me I was insane,” he says. The one who didn’t posted about it on the website MetaFilter. The next morning, Taylor was shocked to see more than 1,000 emails. “Ten percent said this has to be joke. Another 10 percent or so said, ‘If you’re really serious, I have such and such a problem.’ And the rest said, ‘This is what this country has needed. Where can I send you a check?’”

What was intended to be a simple act of charity was soon incorporated. Taylor was invited on The Today Show and CNN. Within one year he decided, after much hand-wringing, to resign from his teaching position and move his foundation to New York.

Efrain Fuentes, a disabled Iraq War veteran who served in combat for 10 months, is grateful to the foundation. He experienced financial stress waiting for the Department of Veterans Affairs to give him his full compensation.

“You can imagine how I get so frustrated,” Fuentes says. “And then one morning, here comes Modest Needs. They come with open arms and they help you. It’s very touching to me to know that people care about us veterans.”

Modest Needs does not provide cash handouts. Instead, it pays the expense on behalf of clients like Fuentes, who needed help with his rent and utilities. The organization has an extensive vetting process: Applicants fill out a form at ModestNeeds.org describing their need. They also upload copies of their identification, the bills they need help in paying, bank statements and whatever else is needed to document their situations.

Anika Whiteman has donated more than $5,000 to Modest Needs since 2009. The 25-year-old works in human resources for Honeywell in Morristown, N.J., and says she likes the way Modest Needs operates.

“I feel like it’s a legitimate organization,” she says. “I can see where my money is going.” Whiteman also likes the way the foundation’s website is managed. She can log in and decide whether there are particular applicants she would like to help or if she just wants to give to the general fund. She can also track the amount of money raised for an applicant. “I try to give to as many people as possible,” she says. “There are just a lot of people in need, honestly.”

Whiteman says she donates because she believes in tithing. But she is also always reminded of her parents’ background as emigrants from the Caribbean. “When they came here, they had nothing,” she says. To her, Modest Needs represents working-class families who have fallen on hard times. “That just really resonates with me.”

Modest Needs is always overwhelmed with requests, Taylor says. The organization funds about 1,500 grants a year; in December it’s able to fund close to 100 percent of applicants; in July it’s typically closer to 40 percent.

What’s amazing, Taylor says, is “you don’t have to have a lot of money to make a huge impact on someone else’s life.” Although Modest Needs has some big donors, including the Herb Alpert Foundation, most donations average $30 to $40.

“That’s a lot of people,” Taylor says. “It’s done as a collective effort by people all over the country who aren’t wealthy.”

Like Denise Hill, who now gives back to Modest Needs every month, even if she only has $10 to spare. “I’m hoping that little bit helps because I know how much that help was to me. I know the potential,” she says.

In fact, Taylor says, about two-thirds of the people who benefit from Modest Needs become donors. Taylor recalls an older woman who was living in a manufactured rural home on a fixed income. She got a grant from Modest Needs to do emergency house repairs. To this day she sends in a $1 check every month.

Taylor loves his work but says there are drawbacks to dealing with crisis situations on a daily basis. “Try to imagine this,” he says. “You get a phone call from someone who is going to be evicted in 24 hours, she has two children and makes just enough money to be above the poverty threshold, and you don’t have [the money] that second. Now multiply that by 100 and you get a sense of what the week can be like.”

Taylor says he wants Modest Needs to change the way people think about their power to do good. “So many times we just don’t act on the desire to do good because we don’t think we can make a difference.” But, he says, the small change adds up.

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