Ensuring access to information and public programs
The economic downturn creates both an increased demand for services provided by nonprofits as well as an increased need for governmental programs while many of these programs are shrinking or facing elimination. The experience of nonprofits can help to guide service development. At WithinReach, a statewide nonprofit in WA that connects families to food and health resources, staff saw an increase in individuals and families who had never needed to access state or federal assistance. They contacted WithinReach in hopes of learning more or just getting clarity on what options may be available. These individual and families not only needed assistance in understanding the resources available, they needed assistance in navigating the complexity of ever-changing program eligibility requirements. The general public does not have knowledge of these various programs and with dwindling state resources, regular information sources such as the state’s community service offices have become overburdened and understaffed. Additionally, with the reduction or elimination of services and programs, the public is confused about what programs are still available or assume that assistance is not available.
Nonprofits and public health face a number of challenges: how to assure that up-to-date information is available about programs and services; create new avenues for the public to access that information via new and emerging technologies; as well as to provide assistance and navigation help to the public who may have very unique needs or language challenges. A dynamic area of change is the increasing use of hand held technology which is both a generational difference as well as more prevalent in some populations. Tracking this trend, building program and service access aligned with this shift as well as being mindful that there will always need to be “low tech” capacities is a critical skill needed at this time by nonprofits. The strength of nonprofits is that they are often able to be more nimble, innovative and flexible.
The challenge to inform, assist and connect to services or other resources during a time of dwindling resources has led to changes in approach and innovative partnership strategies. One example of this is the development of the WA Connection online application system. This system was launched last year and has a consolidated application for state social/medical services, some federal programs, and the capacity to build in local benefit programs. Philanthropy, state agencies, local nonprofits and public health came together to design this “benefit portal” that streamlines the application process and brings technological advances to individuals, families and the service agencies servicing those in need. The site can be used by a local nonprofit with outreach staff and volunteers or in working with other agencies or faith community organizations to help family’s access programs and services. Soon, the site will have the additional functionality to upload required documents and the ability for agency staff to track applications so that families can be assisted along the way. This avoids the age-old challenge for families of having to make multiple in-person visits to a state community service office. This example of innovation during these difficult economic times is only possible with the broad array of interested organizations and funders.
Nonprofits and local governmental public health agencies need to maximize such opportunities and assure non-duplication of efforts. State and federal programs often apply program specific requirements that are so restrictive that this level of coordination and innovation is not possible. Outreach funding targeted to one program and small marketing dollars for another program could be used effectively by a nonprofit if the funding is allowed to be knitted together at the local level with other resources that may relate to a different program. Restrictive federal and state regulations` often stymie this, but as nonprofits come together to address community access to services challenges, their collective innovative approaches are a huge potential that should be tapped. The WA Connection project is an example of how this can work.