My 2009 book, “Out of Reach,” examined why it can be hard for poor families to get help from the safety net. One critical barrier is the lack of information about local program resources and nonprofit social service organizations. Good information is key to finding help, but it’s also important if we are to target resources effectively and assess if program investments were successful.
As I prepared data for the book in 2005, my research team struggled to compile useful information about services and programs in the three major metro areas at the center of the study. We grappled with out-of-date print directories, incomplete online listings, bad addresses, disconnected phone numbers, and inaccurate information about the availability of services. It wasn’t clear families experiencing hardship could easily find the help they needed. It also wasn’t clear how potential volunteers or donors could know where to direct their energies, or whether communities could know whether they were deploying adequate and relevant safety net resources. In the book’s conclusion, however, I was optimistic things would get better. A mix of emerging technology, big data systems, and a generation of young entrepreneurs would certainly close these information gaps over the next several years.
Recently, I embarked upon an effort to again identify the social service organizations operating in one of the book’s original study sites. To my surprise, the work was much harder this time around. Print directories are artifacts of the past. Online referral tools provided only spotty coverage. Addresses and service information can still be quite out of date. In many local communities, it felt as if there was less information available now than a decade ago.
Lack of data about local safety net programs, particularly nonprofit organizations, has long been a problem for scholars, community advocates, nonprofit leaders, and philanthropists. Data about providers and populations served are expensive to collect, update, and disseminate. There are no easy ways to monetize data resources or find regular revenue streams to support data work. There are legal obstacles and important concerns about confidentiality. Many organizations don’t have the resources to do much analytic or learning work.
The result is striking. We spend tens of billions of dollars on social services for low-income households each year, but we have only the vaguest ideas of where those dollars go, what impact they have, and where unmet needs exist.
Into this information void steps the Salvation Army and the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University with a possible path forward. Working together and with an advisory board of scholars, the Salvation Army and the Lilly School have created a real-time Human Needs Index drawn from service provision tracking systems maintained by more than 7,000 Salvation Army sites nationwide. The index provides useful insight into consumption of an array of emergency services (e.g., food, shelter, clothing) at a given place and point in time across the entire country.
Data behind the Human Need Index reflect the kind of information most critically needed at a time when poverty and safety net program participation hover near historic highs despite more than five years of economic recovery. Dedicated resources ensure data are collected consistently and made available regularly. These data also reflect a strong organizational commitment to internal learning and to enhancing the learning capacity of local places. Finally, these data are being used in partnership with researchers, communities, and nonprofit executives, which ensures research is both rigorous and actionable.
In the end, the Human Needs Index is more than just a cool data visualization tool or source of information for academic inquiry into the measurement of need. It models how communities and philanthropy might collect, share, and use data to improve outcomes for clients, organizations, and community residents.