Background

In the United States, we are fortunate to have a huge network of organizations that are sometimes referred to as the “social safety net” — nonprofit and government agencies that serve families who need some kind of comprehensive or supplemental help in meeting their basic needs. Unfortunately, figuring out where to go for help when we need it is still much more complicated than it needs to be.

The way most people find social services today is antiquated and time-consuming. Online versions of resource directories provide little more guidance than a simple Google search. Sifting through jargon-filled descriptions and irrelevant information requires a lot of time and effort on the part of the individual who is already struggling to make ends meet.

We have found that simply referring people to organizations is not enough. Furthermore, with that approach, there is no real way to measure whether or not we are providing a valuable service to people. We now go a step further by pulling out the “opportunities” that each organization offers.

If you are looking for “child care”, rather than getting referred to organizations, such as Mission Neighborhood Centers and Holy Family Day Home, we give you the actual opportunities that exist at these organizations, such as, “Get affordable childcare for children ages 4 months to 6 years.” We also give you the next steps so you are truly one degree away from finding the help you’re looking for

Two approaches

Our opportunity-based approach differs from the common organization-based approach that has been the sector-wide standard up to this point.

The “organization-based” approach

Until now, efforts to make navigating social services easier have been focused on incremental improvements on the “resource binder” concept. Since the advent of the copy machine, agencies have kept literal binders of photocopied lists of organizations and their contact information. In the last couple of decades, these binders have been turned into online databases, but they have the same design flaw.

Let’s say you are a single mom, working two part-time minimum wage jobs, and facing some emotionally difficult circumstances. You’d like to try group therapy, but there’s no chance you’ll be able to afford the high-priced programs you’ve heard about. Finding a group that you can afford, for your demographic, and at a time that works with your schedule is not so easy. It requires a lot of digging and, most often, a helping hand from someone who knows the terrain.

Like everyone else, you start with Google, and get back a list of organizations and their websites. Then what? You’d need to sift through each organization, determine which seemed relevant — probably based on their name, at first — and try to visit their websites and call around to figure out exactly which organization offers what and when.

There are a number of organizations that have put the “resource binder” online. We think tools, such as United Way’s 211, are useful to certain audiences: case managers, social workers, and other practitioners already well-versed in the network of local organizations and what they offer. But for an actual individual looking for help, they provide little more guidance than a Google search.

At One Degree, we often say we’re creating a Yelp for social services because of the rating and review system we have. While that’s a good starting point for discussion, the analogy only goes so far.

Yelp results contain companies in discrete categories, whose purpose is clear: at a restaurant you eat food; at a dentist’s office you get your teeth cleaned; at a salon you get your hair cut. But now imagine if Yelp returned a list of company names, mission statements, and jargon-filled paragraphs of mostly-useless information. More importantly, each company in the list might serve food, cut hair, clean teeth, serve alcohol, or repair automobiles — and some might do all of those things. (This is in no way a criticism of Yelp; it does a great job at what it intends to do. I’m just using it as a point of reference.)

Social service organizations don’t fit into discrete categories because their services are so varied. Saying that an organization is a “housing organization” or a “food bank” tells you very little about what exactly it offers, whereas saying that a company is an “Italian restaurant” at least gives you the basics of what to expect.

In the case of a search for social services, returning organization names, jargon-filled descriptions, or basic categorization is really only helpful to other service providers or social workers who are already familiar with what each organization does, and who can interpret the jargon to find something useful.

We believe a solution to this problem should be built for the customer, not the intermediary or service provider.

An “opportunity-based” approach

One Degree started as an organization-based directory, where people could find basic information about each one. But after talking with users and taking a hard look at whether or not we were making a difference, we realized we needed to try something new. We had a useful database, but it probably wasn’t going to change people’s lives. And from a practical perspective, we had no way to even measure our impact.

So we evolved. Now, we’re going a step further: rather than just giving out information about organizations, we’re serving information about what an individual can do or get. We call these “opportunities,” as they are precisely that: action-oriented, rather than information-oriented. We think this is more aligned with how individuals look for help.

Too much information is a bad thing. Our approach is to only provide information that is relevant to finding help. Most resource directories and organization websites are filled with extraneous information, such as an organization’s mission statement, tax-exempt status, staff bios, and funding sources. If I’m looking for an after-school program for my kids, I don’t care about when an organization was founded or the history of its management team. On One Degree, we show you only what you need to know to get help.

For example, the St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco has over a dozen fantastic programs for the community, including computer classes. It has one of the better nonprofit websites we’ve seen because it has so much information about its services. Yet the site is overwhelming, and it’s only one organization. An individual would need to browse through dozens of organizations’ websites — most of which are written for funders or supporters, not customers — before finding the help she needed.

If you’re looking to improve your computer skills, you could use One Degree to find computer classes. Rather than just giving you the name and basic description of the St. Anthony Foundation, we tell you exactly what you can do there — you can “take a class on basic email skills this Thursday morning”, or “take a workshop on Microsoft PowerPoint Saturday afternoon.” We also tell you how to sign up, where to go, and at what time.

We think this is a simple, yet fundamentally better way to connect people with community resources.

Measurability

Another advantage of this approach is that it’s inherently more measurable than the organization-based one. The latter, which is the industry standard, gives people information and leaves it at that. Agencies — or funders, for that matter — have not been able to track whether or not someone looking for information was able to find it.

By organizing data in atomic opportunity units, we have devised a system to track whether or not an individual found that piece of information useful, thereby bringing measurability to an area that has had no clear metrics in the past.

With One Degree, we are highly focused on using data to drive what we do. We want to see if this approach works and if it doesn’t, then try something else. Baked into our application is a mechanism to securely track what people are searching for and what they add to their list that interests them, while respecting their privacy and personal information.

However, tracking information in and of itself is not useful. We want to measure whether or not people are actually able to improve their lives with the information we’re giving them. Our approach is to ask them directly. We follow up with users, asking them to indicate whether or not they took an opportunity and if it fulfilled the need they had.

We know this is not a perfect system and recognize some of its inherent flaws: some will be reluctant to give us detailed information about their behavior, they may not be candid with their responses, and others may not know whether an opportunity has actually been immediately useful. But we think this system is better than not measuring the outcomes of automated resource connection at all, which is the situation traditional online directories currently find themselves in.

Our hypothesis is that if we can provide better, more relevant information, then families will be able to more quickly and consistently improve their lives. We’re still at the beginning of this experiment, but we are excited about our opportunity-based approach to data, in particular because we will be able to measure its results.