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social services

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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