This post was originally featured in the Huffington Post on April 1, 2013.
In the late 90’s, I had a friend named Natasha who knew all of the hippest restaurants and the coolest bars. Natasha was the archetypical maven, an expert in the tasteful social scene. Everyone knew you could go to her to get a recommendation for an exquisite date night spot.
Back a decade or two ago, we had Natashas for everything, like travel, dentists and contractors. We relied on experts — those men and women with critical knowledge about specific and narrow subjects — to lead us and guide us. They typically were the ones who had been there before; they navigated the system so we didn’t have to or because we couldn’t. But back then we also didn’t have widespread broadband internet access. No smartphone ubiquity. No “big data.”
As we have advanced technologically, we also evolved the way we think about our Natashas, our experts. We needed Natashas in a small town context, when people were concentrated within communities and people identified with each other geographically. Our concept of community has changed. Over the last two decades, technology, democratized information, and crowdsourced data has liberated that paradigm. The way we conceptualize our own “community” is no longer confined to our geographical location.
Rather than turning to experts, we turn to Yelp to find a date night spot, and we turn to Wikipedia for the right answer. The power dynamic has shifted, and everyone (with an internet connection) now has the tools to get the information they need because of the onslaught of data. You can be your own expert.
However, the social sector seems to be stuck in the internet dark age, 1.0. We still ascribe to the expert power dynamic — where a select few people hold the cards and the keys to the information — particularly when it comes to serving people in low-income communities.
The Social Sector Also Needs to Evolve
We have a good problem on our hands. In some cities across the country, we have an overwhelming abundance of services for low-income families.
But why can’t everyone be the expert of these community resources? Navigating the social safety net is notoriously difficult even for professionals like social workers, counselors and case managers. How can we expect people to do this on their own when the current system isn’t even easy or accessible for the professionals?
We launched One Degree to shift this paradigm. One Degree is a nonprofit tech company that is building a Yelp-like platform for nonprofit and social services, so that anyone can easily search for critical life-saving services.
Consider the story of a grandmother who used the One Degree service last fall. She had been caring for her small grandchildren because her daughter struggled with addiction. After losing custody of her grandchildren to Child Protective Services and finding out she was diagnosed with cancer (treatment for which she was unable to afford), her life was veritably in pieces. She didn’t know where to turn to start finding help.
By using One Degree, she was able to connect to an affordable health plan — a small, yet important step that empowered her. Subsequently, using One Degree, she was connected to counsel to begin the process of reuniting her family. Before accessing One Degree, she did not know where to go to find information about these critical resources.
How to Upgrade to Social Sector 2.0
The One Degree prototype is just the first step of many that are required to get to Social Sector 2.0 and to truly change the power dynamic in the social sector. It’s our first step to make it easy and accessible for people to find and access services. It’s not enough that we are providing services for low-income families anymore. Families should be able to navigate and share their voice in how these services are run.
We imagine a time when people can be their own experts in their own community and experts in what the community has to offer them. And to get to this vision of Social Sector 2.0, we need to join the digital age. We need to streamline data and information about our services. We need to create data systems that work with and talk to other organization’s systems. We need to figure out timely and effective ways to cooperate with fellow social services because families need a lot more than what one organization can provide. And most importantly we need to let go of the antiquated notion that we who work in the social sector know more than the people we serve. That time is quickly coming to an end, and we need to embrace it, evolve, and serve people in the new ways they need to be served.
The social sector has a huge opportunity right now to dramatically improve and shift the way we fight poverty in this country — a way that is inclusive of the people and voices in low-income communities and tears down barriers rather than erects new ones. We can make this happen, and in fact the shift to Social Sector 2.0 has already started.