After Living on the Streets, a Nonprofit Leader Seeks to Give the Homeless a Voice
The Chronicle of Philanthropy – by By Caroline Bermudez – Feb 24, 2014
The videos on the Invisible People website bear a warning: “Some content may be offensive. Our hope is you’ll get mad enough to do something.”
Viewers see candid, unedited, and often unsettling interviews with homeless people of all ages, including some people who hold full-time jobs. One older man talks about his alcoholism, another person discusses his heroin addiction. One cherubic-looking young man tells the interviewer it’s his first day of living on the streets—and his 18th birthday.
The interviews are conducted by Mark Horvath, a formerly homeless man who started the Los Angeles nonprofit in 2008. He says not enough charities are using social media to whip up public outrage over social ills.
“Most nonprofits over the years have presented social [problems] in an almost entertainment fashion,” says Mr. Horvath. “They have well-produced videos and well-produced media campaigns, but the general public detaches from that.”
The public is clicking on Invisible People’s reports, if not necessarily rising up in outrage to demand changes in homelessness policy. In 2013 alone, the charity’s presence on Facebook and Twitter generated a total of more than 239 million impressions.
Mr. Horvath’s innovative use of social media has made him one of 10 winners of the Dewey Winburne Community Service Awards, which recognizes people who use digital technology to help others. The awards will be presented next month at the SXSW Interactive festival.
The online reports have helped put faces to the statistics about homelessness, advocates say. Invisible People has gained support from corporate donors like the Ford Motor Company, PepsiCo, and Hanes, the clothing manufacturer. And Mr. Horvath has been teaching other charities how to communicate online better, helping them reach the public and raise more money for their missions.
By showcasing real individuals, Invisible People “helps inform the policy conversation,” says Barbara Poppe, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, a federal government agency.
She adds that Mr. Horvath’s talent lies in making the homeless less anonymous. He “is so well trusted, and he makes it possible to have the human element. He has critical mass. I’m not sure where else that story of homelessness is being told.”
But for all his prominence on social media and his popularity with large companies, Mr. Horvath has yet to translate those things into more money for his cause.
Invisible People remains a one-man volunteer enterprise. The organization’s most recent informational tax return reports that it earned $48,164 in 2012, most of it from Mr. Horvath’s donations. Last year the charity raised only $17,000 from other individuals, he says. A current drive to raise $10,000 by March 13 had brought in less than $2,000 by mid-February.
He is hoping a new documentary about Invisible People called “@Home,” produced by the Kindling Group and See3 Communications and supported by the Pierce Family and Irving Harris foundations, will draw new donors when it’s screened around the country this year.
He also thinks the charity’s social-media traffic will make the group more valuable to corporate supporters and “will get foundations to notice us,” he wrote in an email.
But, he acknowledges, “it is frustrating to reach millions and millions of people but there’s not enough funding to create that call to action to have more impact.”
‘A Responsive Network’
On the web, Mr. Horvath’s impact is significant, says Beth Kanter, a social-media writer and consultant.
“He has a highly responsive network, which I think is the holy grail of social media,” she says. “This whole concept of individual social responsibility, where you’re building relationships online and practicing what I call small acts of generosity and encouraging your network to do the same? Mark’s done that on steroids.”
Those small acts of generosity by members of Invisible People’s social networks have included making donations to help furnish apartments for homeless people Mr. Horvath has helped get off the streets.
Bevan Dufty, who oversees the San Francisco city government’s services for homeless people, was sufficiently impressed with Mr. Horvath after meeting him at a conference to invite him to roam City Hall for three days last year to press city officials to improve services to the homeless.
“I think he’s helped to build a national community,” Mr. Dufty says.
When Mr. Horvath interviews his subjects, he’s gentle and respectful. As an icebreaker, he often hands out a pair of socks and asks simple questions to draw people out. The most effective: “What are your three wishes?” (“A home” is by far the most popular answer.)
He knows how his subjects feel. He lived on the streets of Los Angeles as a drug addict after losing his job in television syndication distribution in 1995.
No longer homeless, he has nevertheless continued to struggle. He lost another job in 2007, and his home was foreclosed on in 2009. He now makes his living as a communications consultant and public speaker.
But he drew inspiration from the photographer Lynn Blodgett’s book Finding Grace: The Face of America’s Homeless. Armed with only a laptop, a small video camera, and $45 to buy online server space, Mr. Horvath began filming homeless people he met.
What started off as a small project with 1,000 Twitter followers quickly attracted substantial attention. And as the online reach has grown, so has the appeal to corporate donors, who have supported the group largely by giving products.
In 2009, Mr. Horvath sent a proposal to Scott Monty, global digital and multimedia communications manager at Ford Motor Company, asking to drive one of its cars on a road trip from Los Angeles to Detroit while he filmed homeless people along the way. Since then, Ford has lent him cars for such excursions several times, though it has not given his group cash grants.
But one road trip, in 2010, was supported by a $50,000 grant from PepsiCo as well as funds from Virgin Mobile and Sevenly, an online-shopping site that benefits charities.
On another road trip, an individual in Fayetteville, Ark., donated a parcel of farmland to grow food for needy people. The project grew into a social-service organization, the Cobblestone Project.
Other companies have offered support. In 2010, YouTube invited Invisible People to take over its home page for a day. The effort drew 1.6 million viewers.
For four of the past five years, the charity has worked with Hanes and the Salvation Army to deliver socks to the homeless during the holidays; Hanes mounted a campaign featuring photos of homeless people and inviting comments.
Last year, Mr. Horvath documented the effort to give away 250,000 pairs of socks by posting videos on Vine, staging a Google hangout on Giving Tuesday (the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, which is promoted as a national day of philanthropy), and encouraging followers to tweet about homelessness using the hashtag #HanesforGood.
Putting Partners First
Companies are willing to team up with Mr. Horvath because he is blunt about the challenges facing the homeless, says Mr. Monty, of Ford.
“Mark is a guy who tells it like it is, and he’s not afraid to live his life out in the open. People appreciate transparency,” says Mr. Monty, whose company’s philanthropy centers on education but also includes support for antihunger efforts. The company gave Mr. Horvath no talking points, he says, because the public “can see through a line of corporate messaging from a mile away.”
Despite the help he’s received, Mr. Horvath says he has not so far pushed corporations like Ford to give cash donations; because his online project is so unlike other charities, he wrote in an email to The Chronicle, “we’ve had to establish our worth.”
“Asking a brand for [cash] support would have shut the door,” he said by email.
Mr. Horvath says he is careful to put his corporate sponsors’ considerations first.
“They have to sell their products to be able to even do philanthropy. The idea that they shouldn’t is ridiculous, because the more Ford sells cars, the more they’ll be able to do things like help fight homelessness,” he says. “We have to remember that. We have to make it about them more than about us.”
To make an impact on curbing homelessness means reaching beyond the nonprofit world, says Mr. Horvath.
“One of the things we do wrong is we’re always speaking to ourselves,” he says of charities. “I speak to people that are just normal people. That’s where the gold is. That’s where we’re going to see public policy change.”
He’s been spreading his influence by sharing his communications expertise with other charities.
Christine Marge, director of housing and financial stability at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which seeks to provide permanent housing for the homeless, says Mr. Horvath trained her group’s staff to expand its social-media work.
United Way’s improved social-media outreach, she says, helped it draw more than 12,000 people for its annual 5K HomeWalk last year, raising $500,000. The local United Way was “astonished” by the success of the event, Ms. Marge says, attributing it in part to what the group has learned about social media from Mr. Horvath.
“One of the most critical components of any advocacy effort is putting a human face on homelessness, and Mark does this beautifully,” she says. “That’s been an incredible tool for us.”
To help bring down the numbers of people who are homeless in America (currently more than 610,000, according to the most recent federal-government figures), Invisible People advocates for permanent housing, and to squelch efforts by municipalities across the country to crack down on panhandling and loitering.
Mr. Horvath also seeks to help homeless people find one another online and connect to services through We Are Visible, a website he started in 2010.
He also hopes to start local chapters of Invisible People. But first, he needs to raise more money.
Most important to him is vanquishing the idea that homelessness is a problem merely to be endured or, worse, ignored.
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