Five years ago, before he launched his MSNBC show, The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell visited the southeastern African country of Malawi.
Visiting a school in the capital city of Lilongwe, O’Donnell was profoundly moved to see students in classroom after classroom doing their work while sitting on cement floors–the school had no desks. “I knew instantaneously I wanted to help,” O’Donnell said.
On MSNBC Monday night, O’Donnell told viewers the charity inspired by that trip, the K.I.N.D. (Kids In Need of Desks) fund, has reached a milestone: $10 million dollars in donations–almost all of it from MSNBC viewers. “The audience has continued to surprise me every year,” O’Donnell said in an interview with TVNewser Monday evening. “It’s been remarkable.”
K.I.N.D. has raised millions without glitzy galas or high profile fundraisers–just O’Donnell occasionally taking a moment on his show to mention his visits to Malawi, and to show viewers what happens when a child who’s never had a desk suddenly has one. “They know just what to do,” he said. “And that kid who was trying to write on a cement floor is suddenly on a wooden surface, writing.”
Many MSNBC viewers shared O’Donnell’s instantaneous desire to help. “There’s a tremendous amount of goodwill out there in this audience,” O’Donnell said.
That unique connection between viewers and K.I.N.D. almost never happened. “When I began the show, I wasn’t sure I was going to bring it up,” O’Donnell said, thinking he’d keep the charity separate from the show “as a private thing that I do.”
But months after the show’s launch, O’Donnell decided he would share his personal story. It was a “what I did over the summer” tale that didn’t make air until the first week of December, as families prepared for the Christmas holiday. “That turned out to be perfect…the season of giving. Pure coincidence.”
Last January, viewers brought the total donations to the fund to $7 million. A year later, donations spiked in the two days before Christmas, pushing the total over $10 million–money that’s bought a lot of desks, but O’Donnell says much work remains to be done. “Most kids in Malawi still don’t have desks. That’s how big the need is, and how long we’ll be at this.”
In addition to desks, O’Donnell and his viewers have established a scholarship fund for girls in Malawi–many of whom would not get an education without the support. “There are now hundreds and hundreds of girls in Malawi who are in school thanks to this audience.”
That audience includes viewers who most of the year watch The Last Word, and let O’Donnell know how much they disagree with him–but then write a check every December to buy kids in Malawi desks. “It really is the most encouraging interaction I have with my audience,” O’Donnell told TVNewser. “There are people out there who disagree with me politically, and understand the limits of that disagreement. It doesn’t mean we disagree as people on basic human needs.”
O’Donnell says he hears from those viewers, who tell him “I disagree with everything Lawrence says and thinks, but I support K.I.N.D. because it’s a great idea.”