Social service charities still struggle with a spotty system of referral networks for social service needs and inconsistent adoption of the 2-1-1 phone number. But United Way is pushing for a major increase in funding for the system.
Over the last few weeks there has been a thought provoking discussion on the nonprofit research email list Arnova-L about the need for an on-line system to identify and map local nonprofit organizations. There was some question about the real usefulness of such a system to anyone other than nonprofit researchers, and it led me to look into what already exists. I was surprised at what is and isn't being done, and where.
Since the mid 1970s, there has been an organization, the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems (EIN 23-7235032 Form 990), that has tried to set professional standards for social service information referral centers across the US. Currently there are about 30 affiliates, but a scan of a few of them shows that this is not a particularly well-funded group. The national organization has a budget of about a half million a year, mostly for a national conference and an accreditation program. There is no paid staff.
But the local organizations are closely aligned with local United Way organizations, and they have been behind recent efforts to establish the phone number 2-1-1 as a standard for access to local social service information and referral (in the US at least, possibly Canada as well). In 2004, there was a cost-benefit study in Texas that laid out the benefits and relative costs of different models of statewide 2-1-1 referral systems (based on various assumptions of centralization or decentralization of services).
The map above shows that there has been some success in implementing such systems, but many states still remain un- or underserved. Surprisingly, Southern states, including Florida, Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia seems to be in forefront. Efforts are lagging in some large (and one would think socially conscious) states like California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Missouri is in the process of implementing its system, leading to some of the rare press coverage of this project (by Columbia Missourian reporter Jennifer Gerling).
The latest push by the United Ways is for federal funding of the 2-1-1 system via the 211Calling Act. The act envisions receiving $150 million to $200 million a year for five years for nationwide implementation, to be matched by equal levels of state funding.
But what do 2-1-1 call centers have to do with mapping? It seems to me that any map project has to be based on accurate information, and only a network of this scale and depth would be able to create and maintain a reasonably accurate database infrastructure. The key to the long term success of the project, it seems to me, is a system to ensure that the data is kept up to date. A national 2-1-1 system would be the only organization with both the incentive and the means to maintain records on tens of thousands of service providers at a tens of thousands of sites.
The alternative of relying on IRS Form 990 data as the basis for such a project seems to me absurdly inadequate:
- Form 990 data is never timely—nonprofits often don't even file until eight months after the end of their fiscal year, because the IRS allows them to do so without penalty. There is some time after filing before information is available to the public.
- Form 990 focuses on small organizations. Large, multi-site organizations like Salvation Army and Catholic Charities provide a large share of the social services, and they don't even file Form 990.
- Form 990 only provides a single address, which again is inadequate to track multi-site organizations, which provide a large portion of social services overall.
- The IRS allows an organization to identify no more than three areas of mission focus, which would be inadequate for a real-world referral system.
- Another noteworthy aspect the 2-1-1 project is the apparent rejection of funding through private philanthropy. This is probably a realistic strategic decision, considering that social services a well behind churches and higher education as preferred beneficiaries of the very wealthy. And the project is of a scale beyond that which private philanthropy can easily fund.
- If the goal is to help those who need it, a telephone-based system still makes more sense than an online system. Those who need the help won't have access to a computer system and won't have the skill to navigate the Internet. An online network (or better yet, plugging the database of service providers into an existing map projects, like Google Maps) will be increasingly important as Internet literacy spreads, but I doubt that it will be the first choice service delivery for people in need for quite some time.