Benetech, explains CEO Jim Fruchterman, is a nonprofit organization that aims to “take technology and knowledge that Silicon Valley has figured out and take it into the nonprofit sector.” Founded in 2000, Benetech is known for its online library system, called Bookshare, which makes over 600,000 print titles electronically available for people with vision disabilities and dyslexia, but the firm has worked in a number of areas. Last year, Bookshare’s service contract with the US Department of Education was renewed for a third five-year term; the contract, for which the US Department of Education pays $42.5 million, enables the nonprofit to provide digital materials to 500,000 students with reading disabilities.” All told, reported Ned Desmond last year in TechCrunch, “Eighty percent of the $13.4 million annual revenue the 70-employee outfit enjoyed [in 2016] came from operating projects like Bookshare.”
Benetech’s latest project is being called Benetech Service Net. The goal is to help poverty-alleviation nonprofits better coordinate their efforts, starting with developing a pilot in its home region of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We have a unique role to play,” Fruchterman says. “That’s Benetech’s job. Part of that is talking to nonprofit sector leaders, policymakers, people who run community-based organizations. How can we be of assistance?”
The opportunity, Fruchterman adds, is obvious. “The business net,” Fruchterman notes, “is visible.” But with social services agencies, asking Alexa or Siri to find a social service for you won’t do, Fruchterman explains. The goal, he adds is to “make the social safety net as visible as the business net is.” It should be, Fruchterman adds, as easy to find a food bank as a restaurant review on Yelp.
Anh Bui, a vice president at Benetech who directs Benetech Labs, notes that the way Benetech works is to “build and harness community.”
“We don’t try to solve a single problem,” Bui says. “We try to engage the ecosystem holistically and together. With Service Net, it is a great example of a collaborative technology solution. We are not simply building a new service directory database. What we are saying that a lot of organizations are building this, but they do it in silos. In California alone, there are dozens that are registered at information and referral services. Each of these organizations is often maintaining their data in a silo. What if we could create infrastructure to share that data?”
Benetech is working with partners such as United Way of the Bay Area and Kaiser Permanente to create a more common infrastructure. Making Fruchterman’s vision a reality is complicated. But, slowly, progress is being made.
The first stage, conducted last year, Bui explained, involved collecting directory data sets including regional 211 information services, and do an analysis of gaps, opportunities, and applications to identify where the flow of the information and the accuracy can be improved.
The second stage, which took place in February centered on a convening of nonprofits—as well some for-profit firms. All told, 21 organizations—including St. Anthony’s, health leagues, Alameda County 211, Kaiser, and United Way Bay Area—participated. “We had 21 groups and 11 data sets that we’ve analyzed from the San Francisco and Sacramento area to look for duplicated resources,” explains Bui.
In a blog post after the gathering, Bui wrote that a unique feature of the convening was its focus on “the analysis of aggregate data from eleven social service referral agencies and service providers from across the Bay Area.”
“Currently,” Bui says, “each organization has valuable yet limited information about the social services they refer people to, such as the location, hours, and qualifications. No one organization has all the information. That’s why the aggregate analysis and convening were so valuable. Together, the 11 organizations may have nearly comprehensive social services data for the Bay Area. Never before has a detailed view of the Bay Area’s social safety net been available to guide the individual and collective work of the organizations involved.”
Out of the gathering, participants agreed to follow up with four conversations, each of which has a working group assigned to it. As Bui explains:
One is governance. A second is around the role of funders and government around incentivizing the improvement of information infrastructure. For example, Google maps work for business because businesses have an incentive to make it easy for you to figure out how to get to their services. Social service establishments do not have the same incentives. One of the things we talked about is, because so many of these organizations are funded by government and foundations, how can these groups think about how they incentivize those services to provide timely updates and how does government incentivize this kind of collaboration and the measurement of the overall impact of it?
A third group is around the “north star concept,” which is, “What is the shared vision/outcome?” The opportunity for these organizations to come together is rare, and we should take advantage of it to think about other ways we can collaborate for impact.
The fourth is around accounting systems and value contributions, and how you value the contributions that come into a data exchange. That’s about triggering acknowledgement and compensation, if necessary, for the contributors to the system. That’s about understanding what the cost of maintaining all this data is now.
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Kelly Batson, Senior Vice President of Community Impact, United Way Bay Area, attended the gathering. Batson has been at United Way since 2006, but she only began to work directly on the United Way’s 211 program in 2015. She was introduced to Benetech by Greg Bloom, who had begun working with Benetech near the end of 2016. Bloom said to her that, “If there was a way we could share better data, people could get the services they need in a more effective way.”
Batson notes that Anh Bui began by asking her, “What are the pain points for 211?” Batson recalls that, “One of the ones I brought up is one where we are updating and maintaining resource data. I have a small staff compared to my service area; we’re a six-county 211…The field of information referral is growing and there are many players—we are all duplicating it and finding it very hard. I didn’t understand why we aren’t cooperating.”
“It feels like a solvable problem,” Batson says. “Who is looking at the future? What does the future look like for a 211?… Benetech is helping us do that for the field, not just me.”
For Batson, a common data system would give more capacity. “I see it amplifying or improving the work; I see it building a better system for all of us. It will help those who are seeking safety-net services. Also, if you can’t take care of your parent, you might call 211. There are so many reasons to call 211.” Batson adds, “If we could get the right information to the right people, it seems like that would result in a better system overall.”
Batson hopes that a common system would provide “core data,” such as the name of the organizations, their programs, the services available, and eligibility rules. Batson acknowledges that while each organization would surely retain its own nuances, “If the core stuff were there and we had that, that would be helpful.”
Still, getting there will not be easy. “For me, the main takeaway from the convening was that everyone is on the same page of what is hard to do, which is around the data. There is also a general understanding that comes from having all of the people in the same room. People know 211 is around, but other data sets are less well known—just knowing the landscape is good.”
Batson adds, “We walked away to work on specific projects. I was happy that it was going to lead some action.” Batson says she has committed to participating in two working groups—the one on shared vision and the one on accounting.
Batson is optimistic that progress will be made, but she is also aware that “many times in collaborations like this, people will lose steam. That’s probably working against all of us. Hopefully that doesn’t keep us down.”
“I think it is a conversation that had to happen…this won’t solve everything. But this is a step,” says Batson.
“Also, there are so many people in need,” notes Batson. Indeed, in the Bay Area, Benetech itself estimates that in the San Francisco Bay Area there are 1.3 million people who are too poor to meet their basic needs.
“We ought to spend our time reaching people better,” Batson adds. “I don’t know if we will get to a pilot changing how we do business. I hope this is true. But we have to start something. We have to collaborate. It makes sense. We should come to the table to have the conversation.”
In terms of the overall project, Batson express her vision as follows:
In three to five years, the data will be better. We’re going to have a really strong feedback loop, where the data is more accurate and better. It is richer. It has more uses. It helps different kinds of people. To me, the data is significantly improved, which means the end user is getting what they need in a better way. Looking for food or shelter, how are they finding information? Making that easier for people in need is what I envision. Some things are easily accessible, and the data is really good and helpful. In the really long-term, we track the end results.
Right now, Batson adds, “We make the information and referral, but we don’t know if they access the service. We survey, but we don’t really track that data. In a perfect world, the data is so good that we are figuring out our impact. And we are able to tell that story.”