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How to Get Your Money to Those Who Need It More Than You

As unemployment claims pass 40 million and the anxious people who file them grow more desperate, an altruistic instinct has emerged among those who are more financially secure.

But the sheer breadth of the pain is almost overwhelming, and the appeals are everywhere. And the impulse is to help — now — when confronted with a personal plea.

So what is the very best way for people with more money than they need to quickly hand it over to those in need, so they can use it for food, shelter and other necessities?

It isn’t easy to find a satisfying answer. Sites and services like GoFundMe can connect donors with real people, but they may lack vetting of recipients, their back stories or their plans. They also may not make it possible to be identified or anonymous, depending on your preference as a giver or a beneficiary. Donors with large amounts to give may want to use tax deductions to increase what they can afford to donate, but may not be able to get them through one-off cash transfers.

The elusiveness of perfect solutions has inspired a variety of social entrepreneurs to pursue various forms of direct giving. If you’ve sent money via DonorsChoose to help a teacher pay for a classroom project, you get the basic idea: Give a little money, know exactly where it’s going, have some sense of who’s getting it and have someone between you and the recipient to provide at least some verification. The goal is to provide a charitable option that lives somewhere between handing money over to a large, faceless nonprofit group and just Venmoing people who say on Twitter that they need help.

Now that the pandemic has left millions more people with acute needs, two existing organizations and one new entrant are offering some of the most satisfying ways of providing few-strings-attached assistance. Modest Needs Foundation and GiveDirectly, both nonprofit organizations, are using years of experience to pay people’s bills or hand them money to pay for things themselves. And the 1K Project is facilitating money transfers, although without the tax deductions the other two can offer donors.

First, a few words for the wary. Cash transfers have been the subject of a fair bit of study, particularly on transfers outside the United States. GiveWell, an extremely particular, research-driven nonprofit group, evaluates how much good other charitable organizations do. Its extended take speaks to a few findings: Recipients tend not to spend more on “temptation goods” like tobacco and alcohol but do increase what they lay out for more and better food. Many people also invest in infrastructure upgrades, like replacing thatch roofs with iron.

GiveWell recommends a handful of charities, including GiveDirectly, which began its coronavirus efforts in March with the same basic goals it set for its work outside of the United States: Give $1,000 to poor people and let them decide what to do with it.

GiveDirectly partnered with Propel, a company that helps recipients of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program once known as food stamps) manage their benefits. They receive a message at random offering the money, a bit like a lottery that they don’t have to enter.

It is not actually legal for a nonprofit group to help you transfer money directly to specific individuals if you want the amount to be a tax deductible donation, though GiveDirectly does post videos from grateful recipients. Michael Faye, a co-founder and the president, who has a Ph.D in economics, said in an interview that the organization wouldn’t want to allow that anyway — research indicates that donors might choose people based on physical appearance rather than pure need.

Donors can, however, direct their money to specific hard-hit cities. So far, GiveDirectly has sent $1,000 each to about 82,000 people. Its goal is to reach 100,000, though it is likely to continue the efforts if donations keep coming in.

Modest Needs, a nonprofit organization, operates on a smaller scale, with a slightly different model. Recipients need to find their way to the group and apply for help paying particular bills. It requires documentation of the need and pays bills directly, without giving money to the applicant.

Keith Taylor, a former humanities professor, started the organization with the intent to help people cover a out-of-the-blue emergency expenses. In practice, he said, people often turn to Modest Needs after they’ve paid for the emergency and can no longer cover food or shelter or that month’s car payment.

Modest Needs posts requests for help on its website, but by the time they are there, the organization has verified that they are legitimate. All that’s left is for donors to give. In the last two months, requests for help have more than quadrupled: 539 people or families are currently waiting for $842,000 in donations.

More than half of the people who have received help in the past are now among the group’s donors. Some of them give as little as $2 per month, but those that do give regularly have often been doing it month-in, month-out since they received their own assistance.

The 1K Project sprang from the minds of two venture capitalists, Minda Brusse and Alex Iskold. In conversation and on their site, they speak of quick-scaling, self-organizing systems, complex networks and a sort of human blockchain.

In practice, they aim to find needy people through a rapidly expanding network of trusted referral sources, vet them with the help of volunteers and pair donors of $1,000 per month for three months with recipients. (Neither reveal their full names to one another. Donors and recipients at GiveDirectly and Modest Needs rarely if ever do, either.)

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 28, 2020

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.