Let’s Stop Tinkering and Talk About Purpose

A Call for Results-Driven Innovation in the Social Safety Net

This past January, Tami (not her real name) was facing the possibility of homelessness in the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in her life. She searched One Degree for housing resources, and found a number of possibilities. She circled back later to close the loop, and let us know that she was able to get a deposit assistance grant for her first month’s rent on a new place, thanks to a resource she found on One Degree, Swords to Plowshares.

At One Degree, we call this data point “Member Success”: The measure of whether an individual or family was able to utilize a resource.

We don’t stop at search results or referrals. We want to know that a person both found a helpful resource AND that they utilized it. That is the driving metric for everything we do at One Degree.

As CEO and founder of One Degree, I’ve been invited to dozens of meetings over the years for organizations that, like us, are playing some role in improving the social safety net. We all know that social service resource information is not centralized, and that puts a heavy burden on an already overloaded system of agencies and nonprofits to try to maintain social service, benefit, and resource data. We also know that it’s the low-income families and at-risk individuals who are paying a heavy price, navigating a broken system as they work to build a path out of poverty.

I recently attended one of these meetings in San Francisco organized by Benetech. The room was full of staff and leaders from 11 organizations including Kaiser Permanente, United Way Bay Area (211 Bay Area), Eden I&R (211 Alameda County), city and state agencies, and more.

Themes that Emerged from the Convening

This meeting felt a lot like past meetings ‒ there was good, hopeful energy. The professionals in these meetings were there because they care deeply about helping people. At the Benetech meeting, a few key themes emerged:

  • Our nonprofit sector has changed and demands impact. Funders are no longer settling for vanity metrics as proof of impact. The total number of phone calls received in 211 call centers or the number of visitors to a website are no longer enough. Funders want to see metrics that demonstrate outcomes and impact on real people. They want to see that their investment is making a real difference in the lives of people like Tami.
  • Web and mobile technology has dramatically changed how people find help and 211’s know it. Though call centers still meet a real need, 211’s are starting to see that they need to innovate… or get left behind. The 211 agencies at the event showed a willingness to collaborate and work together with organizations to evolve.
  • Getting funding to innovate is a challenge for the entire ecosystem. Nearly every organization at the event expressed that funding for general operating budgets is thin, and funders are unwilling make the needed investment in innovation, ecosystem building, and infrastructure development.

Challenging the Underlying Assumptions to Get to the Real Problem

The underlying assumption during the meeting was that finding a way to share community resource data is the right problem to focus on. But I (and my colleagues at One Degree) don’t share this assumption.

I realized our purpose was hugely misaligned: Not everyone agreed that sharing community resource data was the best use of all of our collective energy and time. One group was most comfortable focusing on the tactical level of work, such as data taxonomy and governance. Another group wanted to solve a more strategic problem: With all of the expertise of the 11 organizations at the table, how can we make a measurable difference for low-income families who are feeling the pain of our broken system today?

I was firmly in the latter group.

Let’s Start With Purpose

At One Degree, we firmly believe that fundamentally this is not a “data” problem. It’s a vision problem.

As I said to other attendees, I believe that we must first get aligned behind the “why” ‒ why we’re doing this work. Everything else, including the problems we choose to solve, should flow from that primary purpose. Then, we will be able to focus on the right solutions.

Here’s a draft shared purpose statement:

Anyone looking for help, no matter where they are or what device they are comfortable using, should be able to find and utilize a service that helps them build a path out of poverty.

This is what is sometimes called a “no wrong door” system ‒ no matter how someone comes into the system, they can find what they need. It’s where I think we should anchor all of our discussions about collaboration for a better system. More importantly, we should know whether the service made a measurable difference for them. Did they avoid homelessness because they got housing deposit assistance? Did the diabetes prevention program keep them out of the emergency room?

Toward the end of the Benetech convening, we started to work on the first step to get aligned. I gathered a group of folks to discuss and think about what shared impact could look like. We talked about different models, like Strive Together’s collective impact framework and the federal government’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative. And we’re planning to continue these conversations after the meeting. After that promising discussion, I’m optimistic about the potential to come together around a vision that includes measurable impact.

This is much bigger than building an interoperable database. This is about evolving the way we work to make a difference in the lives of our neighbors.

Let’s Stop Tinkering at the Margins

I don’t think we’ll make much of an impact on our community by tinkering at the margins ‒ and data sharing is on the margins. What are we getting for all the investment in time and resources by tinkering? Even after millions of dollars, and numerous pilot projects, these circular discussions about “making databases talk to each other” have not made a measurable difference in the lives of families. What if we instead invested the time and resources on solving more critical issues that serve our shared purpose?

Changing the system so that it makes a real impact is much more difficult than solving myopic data sharing problems. But this is the work that needs to get done.

Impact is the heart of One Degree’s work. One Degree’s technology bypasses the challenge of how to get hundreds of organizations’ databases, in varying states of coverage and quality, to “talk to” each other. More than 500 social work professionals, from hundreds of organizations across the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles already add or update resources on One Degree, improving data for each other and the entire community in the process. They are turning to One Degree to be their central source of resource data because it’s easier and more efficient for them, and they get added value from One Degree’s robust tools for professionals.

Our platform makes system-wide change possible right now, and it allows us to measure the impact we’re having on families. We will of course continue to partner with other organizations in the sector, and we will be a willing collaborator with others maintaining their own databases when the potential impact is clear. However, “making databases talk to each other” is a solution in search of a problem. I will continue to push the sector to think bigger — to not miss the forest for the trees.

Next Steps

I propose a few next steps for our ecosystem:

  • First, our ecosystem should come together and get aligned on a shared purpose.
  • Second, from that core alignment, we should start to find solutions (which could include data sharing, but might also include joint advocacy, impact metrics collection, or joint fundraising).

We’ll be following up with the co-conspirators from the convening and will be inviting other organizations and funders to join the conversation as well ‒ so we can all stop tinkering at the margins, and start building solutions that drive impact for more people like Tami.

Join the conversation in the comments.