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government innovation

Picking Up Where Uncle Sam Leaves Off: An Interview with Erine Gray

Erine GrayIn this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Erine Gray. Erine is the founder of Aunt Bertha, an online Benefit Corporation that matches people in need with federal, state, county, city or nonprofit services to specifically address their situation. Erine studied economics at Indiana University, public policy at the University of Texas and spent the better part of eleven years consulting (six of which were spent helping governments operate more effectively).

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: Aunt Bertha essentially exists to fix an inefficient system of connecting services to those who need them. It seems to me your model is at the heart of an ongoing debate about whether there are some public goods that simply cannot be turned into marketable items. Obviously you believe there is a market for you, but why? What sorts of public goods can be turned into a market?

Erine: I’ve always been kind of a public policy nerd and understand that government has a vital role in the social safety net. Having graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, I understand that government programs don’t have the luxury of catering to a certain segment. Programs like Food Stamps (now called SNAP) and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) don’t get to choose who they serve because they *are* the safety net.

The private sector is different. A consulting firm can choose to only serve telecommunications companies with 200 – 500 employees. A shoe store can focus on high-end running shoes. These types of organizations can survive if they hustle and convince enough people to become customers.

When you start to look at the amount of money spent by both government social service programs and charities, the figure is spectacular. It just takes a little research and a few clicks in Excel to see the enormous amount of money that is spent every year either telling people about these programs or determining whether or not people qualify.

If we accept, for a moment, that the public social safety net should exist (and I believe it should), we then must ask the question: is the public doing a good job of administering these programs?

I’ve spent the last 10 years working in this industry, with six of those years working on projects with city and state governments. My answer to this question would be: there’s plenty of room for improvement.

We don’t need to start over because government does some things very well. But we should break down the problem and see what should be outsourced to qualified vendors.

Should governments build their own marketing teams to tell people about their programs? Or should governments work with professional marketing firms to get the word out as needed? Should charities build their own fundraising software or would Blackbaud [fundraising software] do the trick?

Nell: The fact that you are a for-profit company is fascinating to me. Can you explain how your business model works and how you make money in a space that has traditionally been dominated by the nonprofit and public sectors? And do you envision those public-run services (like 211) eventually going away?

Erine: Aunt Bertha picks up where Uncle Sam leaves off by making it easy to find and apply for social services online and through mobile devices. Our service is and always will be free for people in need or those working on their behalf. Our users include everybody from the homeless (yes, they definitely have internet access in many cases), working moms, family caretakers, social workers and case managers.

We list every government and charitable program we can find on our site for free as well.

Many charities and government agencies don’t yet offer a way for people to apply online. We offer a software platform that allows them to accept and process applications online. Charities pay us a monthly fee for this service. Our customers are housing programs, churches, government agencies, charter schools or any other organization that provides need-based services to people.

In your question you refer to the 211 service, I would hope that there will always be a place for these call centers. The 211 call centers are staffed with committed volunteers that help people navigate very difficult circumstances, 24-hours a day. However, if Aunt Bertha is successful, more people in need will be able to find social service programs themselves (without needing to call someone). We believe that if more people find help themselves, the cost of running a government funded call center will go down – which is better for everyone involved.

Nell: Any social entrepreneur just starting out struggles with the question of whether to organize as a for-profit or nonprofit. How and why did you make your decision?

Erine: I went back and forth about this one. Our mission is to make human service information accessible to people and programs. To truly be successful at this mission, I believe we need to be a sustainable business.

With our software, governments and charities are saving money over the way they currently work. They are willing to pay us a monthly fee to help them provide a better service to people in need. We think this is a better approach and more importantly, we never wanted to be in a position where we are competing with our customers for donations. That’s why we chose to be a certified Benefit Corporation (a business that meets higher standards of mission and accountability).

Nell: How widespread is Aunt Bertha? How many people are using the service now and what are your goals for the future?

Erine: Aunt Bertha is available in every zip code in the United States. Our service is both on the web and available on most smart phone browsers. Although our service works everywhere, our focus so far has been in Texas – where we have a critical mass of programs in most zip codes.

So far we’ve helped more than 20,000 people find help and we believe we’re just getting started. Right now we’re focused on making our service as intuitive and user-friendly as possible. We think we’re on to something big, but we don’t want to skip the important steps of listening to our early adopters.

Nell: You were part of the Austin Technology Incubator and an Unreasonable Institute fellow. Have you been able to attract investment capital and if so what about your model is attractive to them?

Erine: We were fortunate enough to have been accepted as an ATI company this year and it has provided us access to coaching, introductions and inexpensive office space. ATI is a joint initiative between the City of Austin, the State of Texas and the University of Texas and it feels like they’re all behind us. Whenever you can be in an environment where more and more people are rooting for you it’s always a good thing.

The Unreasonable Institute was a very memorable experience for us. I had a chance to live with 21 of the world’s most interesting social entrepreneurs and words can’t describe what I learned during that experience. I highly recommend people check out the site and try and figure out a way to get to know as many people associated with the Unreasonable Institute as possible. They’re making a big dent in the world.

We recently raised capital after bootstrapping the business for the first two years. We’re very excited about our future. Our investors so far have liked the audacity of our mission. We think we can organize the world’s social service information so people and programs can find what they need in seconds. And because we sell software-as-a-service in a huge industry, we’re an attractive investment with a scalable model.

Most importantly, we’re starting to see – in real-time – the supply of and demand for social services. That’s never been done before and we hope that this data will allow some amazing things to happen. It’s hard not to get behind this goal.

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Creating UnSectored Social Innovation: An Interview with Jeff Raderstrong

In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Jeff Raderstrong, founder and editor of UnSectored, an online platform for people interested in developing collaborative efforts to create social change. In addition to the online platform, the UnSectored community uses offline events and activities to identify intersections, facilitate discussions, encourage cross-sector collaboration, and promote cross-sector change efforts. Jeff is also a community engagement consultant and has worked for Venture Philanthropy Partners, among other organizations on the front lines of social innovation.

You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.

Nell: You and some friends started the UnSectored blog a year ago to encourage the nonprofit, public and private sectors to break down their walls and work together on social change. How has it worked so far? What are you seeing?

Jeff: The blog was a first step in changing the conversation around social change to focus not on individual components—social enterprise, nonprofit, corporation social responsibility, government innovation, etc—but to consider the entire ecosystem. Social change is a complex task and, to us, it seemed silly to have all these conversations separately, with people not really paying attention to what those with similar (or identical) goals were doing.

In that way, the blog has been successful in providing that space. The response we received was way more positive than we were expecting, because our core message is a pretty simple one—that social change is the responsibility of all individuals, organizations, and sectors, and that everyone should work together. But there had not been a place for discussion around that idea, so it resonated with people.

There’s still a lot more work to do, obviously, and UnSectored can’t do all of it. We are providing the platform for the community that believes in this idea—what’s next is up to the people who join that community.

Nell: Your fellow bloggers at UnSectored are all part of the Millennial generation. Do you think the notion of “unsectoredness” (is that a word?) is a particularly Millennial one?

Jeff: Answer to first question: Yes! You just put it on the internet, so it’s now a word!

Second question: I do not think there is anything inherent about the ideas behind UnSectored that make it explicitly a millennial endeavor. The work on UnSectored has been done primarily by millennials, but I think that’s just a function of the people I reached out to (my peers) rather than who the idea resonates with most. We have gotten response on this from people of all ages and backgrounds—I think it’s a universal idea.

That being said, I do think it’s a relatively new idea, born out of the more collaborative and connected nature of the brave new world we live in. The new tools available to people make it much more easier now than ever before to work together. For millennials, this isn’t “new,” this is the way we were raised. Because of that, we get it a little quicker than others, but I don’t think that makes it “ours” at all.

Nell: In addition to the blog you are also doing UnSectored Talks and Working Group Actions. What are these and what are you hoping they will accomplish?

Jeff: We have four components to UnSectored: Blog, Talks, Actions, Campaigns. The blog is relatively straightforward, as are the Talks: Both are ways to engage with open and intentional conversations around social change. The Talks are offline, the blog is online.

The other two components are trying to leverage the power of the UnSectored community to move from discussion to action. The Actions are the offline, coordinated version of this, and the Campaigns leverage the online platform of UnSectored. By giving people the option to engage in discussion and action, both online and offline, we hope to meet people where they are and get them to engage the best they can.

Nell: How geographic is your movement? Is it growing beyond the D.C. Metro area?

Jeff: It’s centered on DC, but we’ve been talking to people around the country. Because we aren’t funded and rely on volunteer time, it’s hard for us to have events in other places. But, we are looking for creative ways to partner with other organizations around the country. If you have some ideas, let us know!

Nell: Many of your fellow bloggers work for high-profile organizations within the social sector space (Venture Philanthropy Partners, Calvert Foundation, Council on Foundations, etc.). Do you find that your employers buy into the UnSectored idea and if so what are they doing to make it a reality?

Jeff: They definitely do. I think we all get inspiration for UnSectored from our other work. More and more, people at all types of organizations—high profile or not—are beginning to see how working together can produce better outcomes and create more transformative change. Personally, I’ve worked on the Social Innovation Fund initiative from the Obama administration, a great example of “unsectoredness” at work: The federal government partnering with funders and service providers to better leverage resources and encourage innovation. This initiative, which many of your readers are probably familiar with, is a great example of UnSectored’s core principle: That by working together, we can do much more than working alone.

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Can Government Lure Social Entrepreneurs Back?

I recently watched Apollo 13 (probably for the fifth time), but it was the first time my two young boys had seen it. The movie chronicles the incredibly innovative and effective team of NASA scientists who overcame tremendous odds to get the ailing Apollo 13 spacecraft and its three crew members safely back to earth in April 1970.

But as I watched the movie this time, through the eyes of my two boys who are members of Generation Z, I was reminded that back then it was cool to work for the government. The youngest and brightest minds were recruited to give their all, and government returned the favor by offering them unlimited potential to envision and execute on exciting new ideas. These young recruits were social entrepreneurs in the largest sense of the term: they used innovative approaches to solve problems for the greater good.

The entire movie is about innovation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, as problem after problem plagues the crew of Apollo 13. During the Cold War, government needed the best and the brightest in order to keep up with the Russians. And that need created a culture of innovation within government.

But for my generation, Generation X, who grew up in the wake of a failed Vietnam War, Nixon’s resignation and an increasingly bloated and ineffective bureaucracy, government was something to be increasingly cynical about. Indeed “government” and “innovation” seemed like two completely incongruous words.

But it seems perhaps that tide is changing. Certainly the very successful recent Mars Curiosity Rover expedition builds hope that government can actually innovate again.

And then a recent article by Suzy Khimm in The Washington Post describes the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s drive to recruit the best and the brightest technology minds to overhaul Wall Streets’ deceptive financial practices that caused our current financial meltdown. As the article describes,

“CFPB has become a mecca for the young, creative do-gooders who still believe that new technology and the right open-source ethos can fulfill [President Obama’s] promise of a changed Washington.”

Twenty and thirty-something tech experts staff this two year old federal agency that “likens itself to a tech startup, with the goal of creating an efficient, participatory, transparent government that replaces ideology and partisanship with data and results.”

This is government in a whole new (or really old) way. It’s government desperate to lure young, bright minds away from the private sector and employ them toward the greater good. As Khimm puts it,

“This isn’t your father’s government agency: It’s a place that hosts its own lunchtime version of TED talks, serves Pabst Blue Ribbon at holiday parties and adopts a Silicon Valley method to managing its digital projects.”

And it reminds me of the golden age of government, before our idealism that government could actually create positive change turned to cold, hard cynicism. 

The CFPB may be an experiment, and it remains to be seen whether government can hold the imagination of these talented young social innovators. But maybe my sons’ generation can someday view government again as a place to go to change the world. I hope so.

Photo Credit: Ron Frisard, NASA team discusses potential solutions to one of the many problems facing the Apollo 13 spacecraft

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10 Great Social Innovation Reads: March

In our ongoing blog series, 10 Great Social Innovation Reads, below are my picks for what really stood out in the world of social innovation in March. These are the discussions, posts, articles, etc. that I think added real value to the emerging world of social innovation over the past month. You can read January’s and February’s picks as well.

As always, please add your picks to the list in the comments.

  1. 2011 State of the Nonprofit Sector Surey Results: The Nonprofit Finance Fund’s third annual State of the Nonprofit Sector survey results are out. It’s very interesting to see how the sector is faring 2+ years into the recession.

  3. How Non-Profits Are Utilizing Facebook: From the Social Earth blog comes a great infographic that demonstrates how nonprofits are using Facebook.

  5. An In-depth Interview with Sally Osberg, President and CEO of the Skoll Foundation: Sally takes a look back at the last 10 years of social entrepreneurship in this fascinating interview.

  7. 4 Core Approaches to Philanthropy: Sean Stannard-Stockton from the Tactical Philanthropy blog wrote a pivotal blog series in March on 4 core approaches to philanthropy.

  9. When you want to quit because it’s just not worth it: True social innovation requires an undying determination to keep going, keep building, keep creating in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles, so from the A Smart Bear blog comes a reminder to never give up.

  11. Google Launches ‘Google for Non-Profits’: Google launches Google for Nonprofits this month. Is this a revolution or an innovation? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s the start of bigger plans down the road.

  13. Social Impact Bonds Will Fail Without Solving the Evaluation Problem First: From Full Contact Philanthropy comes a caution about getting too excited about the next shiny thing in social impact finance, the social impact bond, which allows people to invest in nonprofits and receive a financial return if outcomes are met.

  15. 2011 Bright Ideas: The Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center announced its annual list of the 36 brightest ideas and programs in government. If you think government can’t be innovative or create real change, take a look.

  17. How Many Points Does it Take?: From the Nonprofit Finance Fund blog comes Craig Reigel’s argument that “nonprofits need a whole range of capital solutions.” I completely agree!

  19. 22 Nonprofit Mobile Websites: Are nonprofit orgs jumping into the world of mobile to build support? Slowly but surely. Here’s a list of the best nonprofit mobile sites from Nonprofit Tech 2.0.

Photo Credit: aithom2

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