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Guerrilla philanthropists using Craigslist to find needy families

By Art Hughes | Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008
An emerging group of givers who want to donate during the holiday season without the help of established charities are finding needy families with ads on Craigslist.

Tony Landecker of Minnetonka wanted to do something to help the needy this holiday season.

Echoing Scrooge after a night with the Christmas ghosts, Landecker promised to buy a struggling Minnesota family the “biggest turkey we can find at Cub Foods” — along with potatoes, boxed stuffing, canned cranberry sauce, two pies and the ingredients for green bean casserole.

And how did Landecker find a family in need of help during these economic hard times? He put up a free classified ad on the website Craigslist.

“It was awesome,” said Tony Landecker, who, along with his fiancé, Bridget Falls also of Minnetonka, received 100 responses of hardship. “They were all pretty sad. It was tough to pick.”

Landecker is part of an emerging splinter group of givers exploiting technology to find a direct link to the receivers. With no worries about the portion of their donation that’s eaten up by administrative costs, these guerrilla philanthropists get to watch as a grateful family drives off with a sack of expensive groceries — a practice that’s drawing notice and cautions from philanthropy experts.

Personal connection
Landecker said he and Falls were inspired to help the needy after the urging of a pastor at a church retreat. Landecker also felt he had a responsibility as someone with relative fortune in a time of economic distress.

“I got a good job right out of college working for the federal government,” he said. “My work is pretty secure,” while people all over are losing their jobs.

When it came time to choose the needy family for his gift, Landecker was moved by the humility of a laid-off Howard Lake man and his family. As the transaction took place, Landecker got the personal connection he aimed for.

“It was really, really nice,” he said. “It’s human beings helping human beings. They are real people in real situations.”

Landecker said he witnessed the family’s mother tear up with gratitude and received a hug from the couple’s son, one of three children.

The same sentiment prompted 24-year-old Princeton, Minn., resident Sarah Reed, to post her own Craigslist offer. She decided to donate a Thanksgiving dinner after reading similar offers on the St. Cloud and Twin Cities Craigslist sites.

 “I couldn’t really think of a local, public area to go through” to find someone to help, Reed said, so she turned to Craigslist.

In the end she chose one family from Minneapolis through her Craigslist responses, and got the name of a local needy family from a nearby church.

“I live paycheck to paycheck myself,” said Reed, a fitness club manager. “So, if I could have done more I would have.” Reed enlisted the help of her fitness club members, who brought in donations toward the cause.

Risky and inefficient
While he understands the appeal of direct donor-to-receiver transactions, Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy, warns that it is risky and inefficient.

“Unless you pay attention and really know the recipients,” you won’t be able to gauge the best way to help, Borochoff said. “A family might get a wonderful meal when what they really need is to pay their utility bills. What happens the day after Thanksgiving?”

Borochoff, whose organization analyzes and rates charities, noted most people aren’t as qualified as professional social workers with the time and expertise to determine how best to help needy individuals and separate the hungry from the hucksters.

“I don’t want to turn people” away from giving, Borochoff said. “But if you really care about helping, you have to get sappy sentiments out of it.” With the current economic climate, “now is not the time to squander charitable resources.”

Borochoff also worries about the equity of the process through Craigslist, which would seem to favor people who not only know how to navigate the Internet, but know how to promote themselves to potential donors. Meanwhile, those in truly desperate situations go without.

“We often see the same sort of thing after disasters,” like the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina, he said. “People [in need] would get their stories in the newspaper and end up driving around in a brand new, donated SUV, while others in worse situations got no help at all.”

So far, established charities don’t see Craigslist doing to them what the site did to newspapers when it comes to classified advertising, which was to cut out the middleman in favor of a no-cost direct transaction.

Doesn’t solve the problem
Jill Hiebert, spokesperson for Hunger Solutions Minnesota, which represents organizations that distributed 50-million pounds of food to needy state residents last year, welcomes additional awareness to the pervasive need. “It does help generate some talk, at least,” Hiebert said about individual postings to Craigslist.

Donating a single meal once a year “certainly isn’t going to solve the problem,” she said. “But everything together works to solve it.”

Hunger Solutions recently received a donation of 16,000 pounds of turkey from the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, which will provide tens of thousands of meals through the Food Shelves and shelters throughout Minnesota.

A Craigslist representative said that the company does not track individual offers of charity in the hundreds of cities it serves around the globe.

In Landecker’s case, he said he had to post his desire to help out a family three times on Craigslist because other users flagged it for violating the site’s rules.

Craigslist spokesperson Susan McTavish said that if such postings are flagged for removal by other users, it’s probably because the posts were place in the wrong place on the site: in the “for sale” category instead of the community forum space, for instance.

In any event, Landecker says he plans to do the same next year.  “We figured we’d make it a yearly tradition,” said Landecker. “It’s pretty sweet to give to a family and see the effects.”

Art Hughes is freelance journalist living in Minneapolis who writes about poverty, demographics and cultural issues.