May 29, 2019; San Francisco Chronicle

A year ago, NPQ profiled an attempt by the Silicon Valley-based nonprofit Benetech to develop a Yelp-like network that would “make the social safety net as visible as the business net is,” as Benetech founder Jim Fruchterman put it. At the time, Benetech had recruited area nonprofits to participate in four design teams: one on governance, one on funding, one on vision, and one on cost accounting. The idea was to create a common data platform, branded as Service Net.

Benetech, founded nearly two decades ago, has a mission to take the technology and knowledge Silicon Valley has figured out and move it into the nonprofit sector. It’s best known for its Bookshare program, which has a contract with the US Department of Education and makes over 700,000 print titles electronically available for people with vision disabilities and dyslexia. Roughly $9 million of Benetech’s $14 million budget comes from its Bookshare program.

Could Benetech, in partnership with service nonprofits, pull its Service Net vision off? Anh Bui, former director of Benetech Labs, told NPQ that Benetech’s methodology is to “build and harness community. We don’t try to solve a single problem. We try to engage the ecosystem holistically and together. With Service Net, it is a great example of a collaborative technology solution.”

“Service Net’s ecosystem is about better referrals,” Betsy Beaumon, Benetech’s CEO, explains. Beaumon notes that more than 20 Bay Area groups collect data that often overlap, so the opportunity for greater efficiency is obvious.

Now, San Francisco Chronicle business reporter Carolyn Said writes that Benetech is “almost halfway through a six-month pilot with six Bay Area social-service agencies to collaborate on maintaining their crucial databases of local resources through an open-standards data exchange.” Participating nonprofits are United Way of the Bay Area (UWBA), Eden I&R (which runs 211 for Alameda County), Health Leads, Legal Aid Association of California, San Francisco-based ShelterTech and San Mateo County Human Services.

Kelly Batson is senior vice president for community impact at UWBA, which operates 211 in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Marin, Napa, and Solano counties. Said notes, “Her goals in participating in Service Net mirror those of the pilot itself: improve the overall system, share the data United Way collects, stop duplicating efforts and make it easier for service providers to enter information.”

“Why are we all updating the same resources?” Batson said. “The platform Benetech is creating lets us look at each other’s data and see when a change has been made so we’re not all trying to update the same records.”

Said details how the system could improve data accessibility:

Collaboration will also ensure that records are more comprehensive. For example, four of the agencies in the pilot had a listing for a San Francisco shelter for youths age 18 to 24. But each of the records had different descriptions of the application process and only one explained about its curfew and waiting list policy. Two of the agencies didn’t explain that it also offered career counseling and mentoring, while one didn’t have its website address.

Other important information that not all records now cover for shelters is whether they accept personal belongings, only accept women and children (not allowing sons over age 18), are wheelchair accessible, have upper bunks requiring the ability to climb a ladder, or require state photo ID.

Not everything has been worked out. “There’s a trust factor to work through before we get to the point where (data) would be fully shared,” Beaumon concedes. Said adds that, “Issues around governance are still to be thrashed out.” Still, Said indicates that after the pilot concludes Benetech hopes to bring Service Net to the whole Bay Area and beyond.

One driver, explains Said, comes from nonprofit health care providers like Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health (now part of CommonSpirit Health), both of which have helped fund the pilot in part because new state laws make having accurate information on resources for their patients after release more important. Said notes that “California’s SB 1152, which took effect this year, requires hospitals to make post-care arrangements for homeless patients, discharging them to a residence or social services provider.”

Bill Soward, executive director of ShelterTech, which has already developed a portal called, funded by the city, to identify all local services available for homeless people, notes that Service Net meshes well with his nonprofit’s own open-source approach. “This is not a time to be proprietary,” Soward tells Said. “Working across a number of different organizations to share data and updates, and identify where there are mismatches in information, will help improve quality and reduce redundant work across organizations.”—Steve Dubb