MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell has a loyal fan base that is helping the impoverished nation of Malawi, Africa, one desk at a time.
Having landed his primetime gig on MSNBC a few weeks after a life-changing trip to Africa, O’Donnell started the charity KIND (Kids in Need of Desks) six years ago — and not occasionally uses his on-air job to ask viewers to help provide children there get an education.
“Having this space in primetime cable carries with it, to me, a certain obligation to try to think about what you can do with it that delivers something more than just some more cable news programing,” O’Donnell told TheWrap. “It’s just worked remarkably well.”
What began as a passion project has now raised over $12 million and provided countless jobs and at least a million children with a place to do school work.
“When I first told the audience about it, I was hoping that we could maybe get $50,000 or something that could make a difference for a few schoolS in Malawi. In the first two months … we collected well over $2 million,” O’Donnell said. “That amazed me.”
The host and his viewers have now created an entire industry in Malawi, as it was difficult to even find a carpenter to build a single desk in the area before KIND existed.
“Now there are three different factories that are doing it, providing several dozen jobs in different places around the country,” he said.
While O’Donnell and his viewers want to make sure that every child has a place to learn, he said the “jobs are really, really important, too.”
“A job is a gigantically life-changing position to have,” O’Donnell said about the nation where earning money by legal means is extremely difficult. “Each one of the factory jobs, making these desks is feeding families that otherwise would not know where their next meal is coming from.”
O’Donnell explained that when his viewers donate money, it goes directly into the process of making the desks. Then, by the time the desks wind up in a classroom, it’s the second batch of people being helped by the initial donation. KIND also has a girls’ scholarship component, which O’Donnell takes pride in because that’s where he sees the “real stories” of lives being changed by the program.
“If those girls are not in school, then they have no future and they know it,” he said.
“The Last Word” viewers have contributed over $1 million in the last three weeks alone. O’Donnell thinks the recent uptick in donations is a direct result of what’s going on in the world.
O’Donnell knows that his viewers are making a difference, but says it was “purely accidental” how providing children with desks became an issue that he wanted to use his show as a platform to help.
“A friend of mine who was a public school teacher had just returned from Malawi, where she was visiting her niece, who was working as a doctor. Because she’s a teacher, she visited schools and asked them what they need. All the schools said, ‘we need chairs … a place for the children to sit,'” O’Donnell explained. “When I heard that, in a casual conversation, I suddenly heard myself saying, ‘well we could get them chairs, can’t we?'”
Sadly, providing chairs and desks was not something that could be easily accomplished from afar by simply writing a check.
“I went over there on my own, a couple of months before this show started, and I had no idea what I might be able to accomplish,” O’Donnell said. “What I thought I was going to come back with was the story of why there are no desks in Malawi … about three days into my first trip there I found someone who could make desks.”
O’Donnell said his discovery was a “breakthrough” that was only possibly by literally walking around and looking for someone with the skills and tools to build a desk from scratch.
“On the first trip we were able to supply one classroom with the cash in my pocket,” O’Donnell said before explaining that he told the same story on one of the first episodes of “The Last Word.”
“The audience responded in an incredible way,” he said. “We’ve done well over 100,000 desks and have another 1000,000 in the pipeline now.”