Why We're Investing $59 Million to Make it Easier for Social-Service Groups to Do More Good

Consider an American family struggling to experience the American Dream of economic mobility, yet repeatedly running into setbacks. Mom is working three jobs and must constantly find new ones because unreliable public transportation often makes her late. Dad was arrested once as a teenager, and his record makes it hard to find work. Gentrification in their neighborhood forced them to choose between rent and food so they had to move.

They are interacting with multiple public systems — education, child welfare, housing, food stamps, health care — and the kids are going to several local nonprofits before and after school to fill in the gaps.

Surely someone is connecting all the dots for this family, right? And each system can figure out whether it is helping them?

Unfortunately, that is not often the case. An overworked social worker with limited resources in a county agency may have a thick folder with multiple reports from various departments that are often outdated. It’s unlikely that anybody will raise flags about problems clients are encountering, and even less likely someone could intervene in real time as more challenges emerge.

Without technology or data analytics and with too few social workers, it’s nearly impossible to have a well-rounded view of the actions that will make a real difference to clients.

To help change how this system works, we have decided to embark on a project we hope will rally businesses, nonprofits, grant makers, and government to build momentum. We consider our $59 million commitment, announced today, to be in line with the work foundations have done to accelerate research and development in medical science for generations.

We want to apply that same energy to advance technology and the use of data in the crucial work to help alleviate poverty in the United States.

Data Is Key to Understanding
Every year, federal, state, and local governments spend $1.3 trillion on services for disadvantaged people. But without a consistent method to monitor the results, we can’t really understand whether people are any healthier or their lives any more stable as a result. Government spending of tax dollars is hard to connect to outcomes.

The United States relies heavily on social-service nonprofits. One in five American families receives critical services from the 218,000 community-based organizations that offer human services, according to a study by the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Numerous government agencies deliver services as well.

Quality service delivery depends on many things, including effective leadership, adoption of proven approaches, compassionate and capable professionals, stable funding, and community support.

Technology enhances many of these aspects of quality service. It also brings efficiencies that enable social-service workers to move beyond just reporting data as required by bureaucratic rules to actually using that data to make a more meaningful difference in people’s lives. Unfortunately, service providers, and the government agencies that contract with them, can often lag many years behind private companies in their use of data and technology. They can’t achieve their potential, and children end up falling through the cracks.

Software and Analytics
Concern over this lack of data is raised in nearly every meeting we attend with other donors, community and government leaders, and grantees. This shared angst and desire to attack this problem is a good sign; there are several efforts to bring about change emerging as a result.

At Ballmer Group, we are starting with a very specific focus on deploying case-management software and analytics because it is most essential to improving services to clients.

Case-management software allows an organization to track which services are being delivered, to whom, and how often. It helps clarify the effectiveness of programs over time through reporting and analytics.

If no progress was made, was the right service delivered? Was it ineffectual? What can be done to fix that? The use of technology and data can help professionalize social-service organizations, helping fight a misconception that they are "charities" instead of businesslike organizations that provide complex services.

When small, local nonprofits buy today’s case-management software off the shelf, they are frequently disappointed. This emerging market suffers from limited investment, contributing to lagging improvements and customization in the software. By today’s standards, products often have a clunky design or missing features, making them difficult to use.

Desperate for the tools they need, nonprofits frequently divert scarce grant dollars to design boutique solutions that look good initially but present long-term challenges.

We had personal experience with this several years ago when we funded a center at a local university to develop software for social-service professionals in the child-welfare system in Washington State. The need was high because until then nonprofit providers had been using paper forms filed in boxes. Once they could put the new data to work to provide better care for their clients, they eagerly adopted the new system.

But as the pool of people using the software expanded and more complex integration with the state system was required, it became clear that the needed upgrades, marketing, and training were unsustainable in an academic setting.

Custom-made software often can’t share data with a school or child-welfare system or other government service providers that are also serving a family. In contrast, if a nonprofit or government agency were able to license affordable, off-the-shelf case-management software, it would benefit from all the functions of a larger software company, including marketing, upgrades, and training to ensure employees can take full advantage of all the features.

Affordable and Up-to-Date
In our philanthropic support of social-service nonprofits, we encourage grantees to allocate some of their funding to data management. We explored the market, looking for the best options to recommend. That’s why this week we announced a partnership with Social Solutions, a medium-size software company in Austin that shares our vision and is one of the largest providers of case-management software to social-service organizations.

Our support will allow Social Solutions to accelerate development of Apricot, an off-the-shelf software package, and allow it to better integrate with data from other sources to provide a 360-degree view of a family’s challenges. Because our financial stake will help ensure the product is sold in high volume, we can be sure it will stay up-to-date and affordable. As with any data-management system, data-sharing agreements protect the privacy of individuals and families.

Why are we doing this?

Better software. We want to help raise the bar on the capabilities of software offered to social-service organizations. We are putting money into Social Solutions from one of our Ballmer Group LLCs to accelerate the pace of R&D over five years for Apricot, and our LLC could see a financial return. It’s capitalism being given a chance to advance the complex work of addressing poverty.

Broader usage. A portion of our funding enables Social Solutions to discount licenses to encourage broader usage, leading to more comprehensive feedback about the software that will spur progress for the entire market. It also means more agencies and case workers can more efficiently serve their clients with data about their specific needs.

Viable market. In demonstrating there is pent-up demand, we hope that broader usage will draw in other tech companies. Those 218,000 community-based service providers plus government agencies in the United States provide a viable market with room for software companies. For example, we’ve also been talking with Salesforce.org and Microsoft about their investments in products to serve social-service organizations.

While it takes a philanthropic investment to spur this kind of progress, we will all need to do our part to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable Americans. We believe:

  • Technology companies should bring their tools, innovation, and expertise to this market.
  • Grant makers and individual philanthropists must invest in the ability of social-service organizations to use data analytics.
  • Government systems at all levels must share data with nonprofits and each other, while respecting the privacy of clients and others.
  • Nonprofits should orient themselves more toward tracking outcomes and showing results.

There are many ways to help social-service organizations bring stability to families and children. We think data is ground zero for improvement, and we are encouraged by the growing focus on this need. We chose to speed up the development and deployment of a specific case-management tool. There will be other important ways that we and others can play a role.