by Tahira Rifath


For long as I remember, I had three dreams. One of them was to become a teacher. One was to live in New York City. And one was to become a philanthropist.

After 14 years of school and about $100,000 in student loans, I had managed to fulfill one of those dreams. I had become a professor. At 32, Ph.D. in hand, I secured the academic Holy Grail-a tenure-track job, teaching in my field, at a terrific university just outside Nashville, Tennessee. Along the way, I had got married and divorced. I’d become a father of a remarkable boy. I’d made a lot of good friends.

Still, no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t make ends meet. My starting salary was barely enough to pay rent, child support, basic utilities, and my student loans. With each little increase in salary came an increase in expenses.

I still very badly wanted to be a philanthropist, but that dream seemed unattainable. To my mind, a philanthropist was someone with hundreds of millions of dollar to funnel into medical research or to build hospitals. I, on the other hand, could barely take care of myself. Just when I was ahead on my bills, something else would happen- my car would break down, for example- and I’d find myself behind again.

I still wanted to help people, but I couldn’t understand how. That $5 I might give to charity meant $5 worth of gas I couldn’t purchase.

So this is how I lived, month after month, for two years. And every month, my dream of becoming a philanthropist seemed farther and farther out of reach until one evening in March 2002.

It occurred to me that throughout my life, there had been many times that people had pulled me through a tough time. They haven’t showered me with thousands of dollars, but rather with tens or twenties to help me with small, unexpected expenses. My father had stepped in to repair my car when he knew I couldn’t afford it. My boss had helped me to buy a pair of glasses to replace the ones that I had broken while working with him. My best friend in college once paid my power bill when I had been forced to choose between books for class and the light to read by.

None of these people had been rich. None of them had given me very much money and yet their small, one-time gifts had come at just the right time. And they had done this- often giving up something themselves in the process- simply because they cared.

The longer I thought about it, the more I realized that these acts were the very definition of philanthropy. Philanthropy has nothing to do with the amount of money. Philanthropy is simply reaching out to help, in whatever way we can, without expecting anything in return.

That’s it, I told myself, no more excuses. No more waiting till I was “back on my feet.” No more waiting to hit the lottery. If I was ever going to become a philanthropist, the time was now.

I began by downsizing my life. I gave up the period apartment I loved and moved into a triplex down the street- a dump at half the price. I got rid of all the “stuff” I’d accumulated over the years, whittled things down to my TV, couch, bed, and dishes. I worked out a new monthly budget. I now had $350 a month- about 10 percent of my income- that I could use to help other.

But how?

In order to find people who needed the kind of help I could offer, I put together a simple website, which I called modest needs. I launched that website with a pledge: I promise that every months until I died or the internet became obsolete, I would use that site to offer 10 percent of my monthly income-$350 a month- to people who didn’t qualify for conventional charity (just like me), who were working as hard as they could (just like I was), and who encountered a small, unexpected expenses that threatened his or her financial stability (just as I had many times in the past).

The first person Modest Needs helped was a man living in the Midwest United States who couldn’t pay his car insurance. I asked him to send me his bill, and I wrote a personal check to the insurance company for $78. Putting that check in the mail gave me a feeling unlike anything I’d never experienced. For the first time in years, I’d done something completely unselfish, and nothing- nothing I could buy or own or have- felt good to me as that did.

I expected Modest Needs to sit quietly in a corner of the Internet that few people ever visited. I expected to hear from five or sixe people a month. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t help them all. I figured if I managed to help just one person a month, then that was one person whose life was a bit better off.

But things didn’t go quite as I’d expected.

A few weeks later, on April 1, a friend posted a link to Modest Needs on a community web log. The next morning, I was inundated. About 10 percent of the people who e-mailed me thought Modest Needs was an April Fool’s joke. Another 10 percent asked me for some kind of help. The rest wanted to know how they could help.

Things snowballed after that. I was flown to New York to appear on the Today show and on CNN’s Morning Edition. When I returned home that evening, it took me over three hours to download my e-mails.

At that moment I knew my life was never going to be the same.

People often ask me to tell them my favorite Modest Needs story. Without question, it is the mother from Kentucky who needed help for her fiver-year-old son. The little boy was born with Irlen’s Syndrome. His eyes were unable to process shapes, so everything was a colored blur. Lenses to correct the disorder cost $500, plus the frames- which the mother couldn’t afford. She told Modest Needs that her son was about start kindergarten and if we would send her $50 for a down payment, she’d get a second job to pay the rest.

Modest Needs was able to fund the entire cost of the special lenses. Later, I learned that when he was being fitted with these lenses, he looked in the mother’s direction, pointed, and said, “Is that mommy?”

It was the first time he had seen his mother’s face.

Today, Modest Needs has become more than a non-profit organization. It is a community of philanthropist, exceptionally caring people who have chosen to give up a small indulgence- a cappuccino on their way to work, a hamburger, or a couple of movie tickets-in order to help others. They make this sacrifice not because they have to, not because they feel guilty, but because the pleasure it gives them far outweighs that small indulgence.

Today Modest Needs helps an average of one person per day, with donations that may be as small as four quarters anonymously taped to a postcard. Since that fateful March in 2002 we’ve given away nearly quarter of a million dollars. I don’t feel like a knight in shining armor, and I sure don’t look like one- more like Jerry Seinfield, I’m told. But I do feel good. My blood pressure and cholesterol are down; I’ve lost 50 pounds, quit smoking, and even enjoy working out. (I used to think that there is no point in running unless you were being chased!) And I’ve met some amazing people; one even helped me find a beautiful, inexpensive period apartment in my dream town – New York City.

So, in the end, I have attained all three dreams.

Such is the power that we have when we act on the most human of desires-the desire to reach out to others.

Such is the power of philanthropy.



text – from the book, ‘Me to We’ by Craig and Marc Kielburger

picture –