Note: This article appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy in April, 2017.
John White (not his real name) came to Skyland Workforce Center in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2015. He was in his early 40s and had just been released from prison to a local halfway house. Unable to find work on his own, he became a regular at the center, using its computer lab to search and apply for jobs online while chatting with staff members about his passions: playing saxophone and knitting.
John did not know that the programs at Skyland represent a collective effort by several local nonprofits utilizing a shared jobs database called HIRE DC (Helping Individuals Reach Employment). The communal space in Southeast Washington (where poverty and unemployment rates have historically been significantly higher than in other areas of the city) and the database create significant benefits for clients, the nonprofit partners, and the donor groups that fuel the project.
Many people like John have multiple employment barriers — low literacy, addiction issues, criminal records, homelessness — and require the services of several organizations to get job-ready. They must often fill out lengthy and detailed intake forms at each nonprofit to get help. The goal of the Skylandcenter is to coordinate several workplace-development programs and make it easier for the clients to get help and land jobs.
Initial coordination and funding for HIRE DC came from the Jovid Foundation, which one of us leads. Jovid supports small organizations that help low-skilled and low-income Washingtonians acquire the skills they need to get employed and continually improve their job prospects. Jovid knows its grantees well and understands their impact, but getting solid data on their effectiveness was difficult: Many lacked the resources to develop sophisticated, multifunctional databases to collect information and generate reports.
Shared Data, Shared Impact
HIRE DC was conceived in 2011 by a group of Jovid grantees exploring how workforce-development groups could share data to improve services. What emerged from this conversation was a commitment by four organizations — Byte Back, Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington, Southeast Ministry, and Skyland Workforce Center — to design and implement a shared system that would accomplish five goals:
- Improve collaboration among participating groups to improve coordination of services.
- Reduce the burden of the intake process, alleviating the need for clients to repeat the same information for multiple service providers.
- Allow partner organizations to collectively report on impact.
- Provide an economical and easy-to-use data solution for small, community-based organizations to better track clients’ needs and achievements and share success stories.
- Create a model that would enable the system to be self-sustaining.
For the nonprofits, the third goal was particularly important. Organizations that do the crucial work of helping clients stabilize their lives and develop the people skills they will need in the workplace struggle to demonstrate results; the groups that do job placements, the final link in the chain, typically get to claim success. By enabling the partner groups to share goals and impact data, HIRE DC helps them share the credit for contributing to all of a client’s achievements.
John’s story illustrates this process well.
After substantial work with Skyland’s staff, John was hired as a crew member at a popular doughnut chain. He was referred to and enrolled in a local hospitality-education program. He seemed excited about his future. Shortly after that, he started meeting regularly with a Samaritan Ministry caseworker, who helped him secure stable housing and identify other jobs that fit his qualifications.
By late spring of 2016, John’s enthusiasm was waning. He was frustrated that his hospitality training had not led quickly to a better job. He also revealed he wasn’t getting paid for all the hours he worked at the doughnut shop. Skyland staff helped him report the wage issue, which was satisfactorily resolved, and additional work by the partner groups helped him land a new job in food service at Reagan National Airport. All of this was recorded and tracked in the HIRE DC database, and everyone shared in John’s progress and achievements.
System for Sustainability
To shape the concept and guide the development of HIRE DC while keeping costs low, the groups tapped into the expertise of their own employees and utilized pro-bono services from outside experts: consultants to choose and configure the database platform (Salesforce was selected), lawyers to ensure collection and sharing of data met local and federal privacy regulations.
After a five-year journey and sustained commitment by the partners, HIRE DC was officially launched in 2016. Today the database enables partner organizations to collectively track every step of each participant’s journey. While it remains a work in progress, it has accomplished a great deal since its launch:
- More than 3,000 client records have been entered onto the system.
- The number of staff using the system has increased to nearly 50.
- Money was raised to hire a part-time system administrator; the partners are seeking additional support to make the position full time.
- Regular meetings of a key group of users have resulted in continuous improvement and quality assurance.
On top of these gains, HIRE DC is on its way to achieving the holy grail of foundation-funded ventures: financial self-sustainability.
Each organization that joins the database will pay an entry fee and will be responsible for annual maintenance fees. When the number of partners reaches 20, maintenance fees will cover the system administrator’s salary and other expenses related to the database, and the system will be completely self-supporting.
Coaching for Harmony
One of the challenges of such shared-impact programs is sustaining the relationship among partner nonprofits with their own purposes, practices, strategic goals, boards, and financial needs. Balancing those within the collaborative framework is not always easy.
To address this, the HIRE DC partners used Jovid Foundation grant to hire a leadership coach. The coach will facilitate peer relationships, helping the partners refine their business model, clarify decision-making processes, and identify a new spine organization to take Jovid’s place.
Until the system transitions to being self-sustaining, though, foundation support is crucial. A couple of grant makers have joined Jovid to fund HIRE DC’s development and launch, but others have been reluctant to invest in nonprofit infrastructure.
This reluctance is ironic for a couple of reasons. First, projects like this, though seemingly far from the human touch of direct program work, actually increase program coordination and improve clients’ chances for long-term success.
Second, while foundations like Jovid base their funding decisions on impact, small nonprofits often don’t have the database capability to gather, track, and report the data to show impact. Investing in an innovative effort like HIRE DC expands that capability, enabling Jovid and other backers to better assess the return on investments for a particular grantee or group of grantees.
The investment in John is paying off. Along with is new airport job, he began earning extra money off his musical talent, performing with his new saxophone — a gift from his Samaritan Ministry family — in downtown Washington. By the fall of 2016, John was still employed and in the process of moving to permanent housing; he’d also managed to save several thousand dollars to put toward a car.
Like John, many of the individuals in the HIRE DC database face struggles that cannot be mitigated by simply getting a job. The shared database enabled several nonprofits better communicate about John’s needs and progress, more skillfully support him, and, in the end, contribute to his long-term success.