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Safety 'net

Facebook meets pocketbook on a Baltimore-based Web site that matches donors to stories of need

May 09, 2007|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

After the site's first month in business, the users seem to act as its filter, aiding some solicitors while refusing to respond to others whose requests might appear excessive. Some people on the site have asked for as much as $100,000 for everything from automobile repairs to student-loan debt to down payments on a house. Most of those requests have yielded a few page visits but no assistance.

"People are looking for legitimate cases with legitimate problems, and not someone who spent too much money needing money to get out of a hole, because we've all done that," said Peter Chasse, associate pastor at the Main Street Baptist Church in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. His church requested $7,000 to help fund an initiative to dig wells and construct rainwater collection and filtration systems in Kenya. A donor quickly pledged $7,000 on the condition that the church match that amount through its fundraising.

Blass said he was motivated to launch RealityCharity after hearing about how millions of dollars raised to help victims of the Southeast Asia tsunami and the Gulf Coast hurricanes never made it to the needy.

`A better way'

"Frankly, I was tired of sitting on my couch yelling at the TV saying, `What's going on?'" he said. "I felt there has to be a better way of doing this."

After spending years in the corporate world at Legg Mason, Bearing Point and the Maryland Venture Fund, Blass quit his job 2 1/2 years ago and began planning a company that, he told his friends, would have a worldwide impact. He launched it with his own money as well as donations from family and friends. He is currently seeking corporate sponsorships for the site.

"He sat me down for two hours and explained the idea to me," said David Patrician, Blass' friend from undergraduate days at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I told him not to leave his venture-capital job altogether, give yourself something on the side," Patrician said, "but he said, `To do this right, I have to give it 100 percent.'"

Blass' father, Thomas Blass, is a Holocaust survivor and a psychology professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is known for his research on Stanley Milgram, the late social psychologist credited with the "six degrees of separation" theory.

As a teenager, Alex often was skeptical of solicitors who'd show up at his Pikesville home. Once, a man from Romania interrupted the dinner hour and conveyed a tale that Alex believed was bogus. Still, his father gave the man some money. Why fall for such a phony story? Alex wanted to know.

"I would much rather err on the side of caution and run the risk of giving money to someone who doesn't deserve it, rather than turning away someone who really needs my help," the father told the son.

That moment still resonates with Blass, who later visited the Auschwitz concentration camp where many of his relatives perished. "Just being born in this country I've had so many opportunities academically and professionally, and if I couldn't leverage all of that to do more than just get myself a job I would be very disappointed in myself," he said.

He has created a donating platform for those whose needs are all but overshadowed by harrowing tragedies that make headlines. No donation request, it appears, is out of bounds.

Dr. Tali Shokek of Baltimore, who was recently diagnosed with young onset Parkinson's disease, aimed to raise $1,000 for the New York-area Parkinson's Research Unity Walk, which she participated in on April 28. Shokek exceeded her fundraising goal on RealityCharity.com, raising $1,654.22 from 26 donors (including an anonymous gift of $100).

A fast response

"Last October, I ran in a 5K in Baltimore where I raised about $150," Shokek said. "On Reality Charity, my goal was originally $500, but I spoke with Alex, who I met through a friend, and he said, `Why not put up $1,000? Give yourself a loftier goal.'

"I posted my Web page at about 3 in the morning, and within the first 15 hours, I had raised more than $500."

The RealityCharity.com site makes reference to a Wall Street Journal/Harris Interactive survey that said only 15 percent of people who contributed to charity last year were motivated by tax write-offs.

"We don't write off our contributions anyway, so it doesn't matter to us," said Mary Hovis of Cowder, Ill. She and her husband, Gary, have 12 children, including five who were adopted. Last month, they chose to give to John Caroleo, a 35-year-old from Loveland, Colo., who wrote that he hasn't seen his mother since he was 2 and wants money to hire a private investigator to find her.

Brandon and Roxanne Wallis, the parents of baby Montgomery, posted a personal page, complete with photos, for their son. They appealed for help with financial problems tied to Montgomery's premature birth and stay in a neonatal intensive-care unit more than an hour from their home.

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