For 20 years, United Way for Greater Austin has managed and operated the 211 call center for the Central Texas region, connecting callers with people who can help them find resources, such as food, housing, or transportation assistance. 211 is a nationwide service, but localities manage their own centers, often using contractors like United Way ATX, each according to guidance from individual states.
In August of 2019, United Way ATX, with support from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, partnered with findhelp to build an online component that mirrors and enhances 211, connecting more Central Texans with resources that improve health and wellness.
For the past decade, findhelp has worked with a wide variety of organizations — from health plans to school districts to county governments — to create customized sites that connect to findhelp’s vast directory of program listings.
Connecting Central Texans to Resources
The new site, ConnectATX.org, launched just last month, two weeks before the COVID-19 crisis kicked off an economic freeze that heightened public need for basic necessities like food and housing. As people began losing jobs and schools closed, call volumes at 211 soared. But ConnectATX.org was already running and able to carry some of the load.
“The website and the call line complement each other,” says Gyllian Garvey, director of ConnectATX for United Way ATX. “211 is for those individuals who may not have access to the internet or don’t really know how to use a computer. And then ConnectATX is there for those who may not feel comfortable having a conversation over the phone about the struggles they’re having. But they’re in a place where they’re ready to research and start helping themselves.”
The ConnectATX.org site welcomes visitors with the line “Help Starts Here,” then offers categories of assistance, including food, housing and utilities, transportation, job training and education, health, mental health, parenting and family, and child care and enrichment, with subcategories for each. The site uses icons and minimal text to make it more accessible to people at various reading levels.
Visitors to the site can search for and find programs in the Central Texas region to serve their needs, with options to save programs, share them, or contact programs directly. The site also allows United Way ATX staff, ConnectATX visitors, and nonprofit helpers to track the status of individual requests.
“That’s the piece that really differentiates ConnectATX from 211,” says Garvey. “Right now, we connect callers, and we do some follow up calls, but, for the most part, we just don’t know if they get help or not. With ConnectATX and with findhelp, [we can] visually see whether or not the person got help, where they got help, and if they couldn’t get help initially, were they connected with someone who could actually help them?”
United Way ATX is currently working with service providers and nonprofits in the region to further strengthen the network, allowing more people and helpers to guide the community toward resources. More helpers equals more connections equals a healthier community overall.
The Impact of COVID-19
Once the COVID-19 crisis hit Central Texas, a new feature was added to the ConnectATX site to highlight emergency food assistance, which is currently the top need nationwide. The City of Austin, as part of its wide-ranging effort to combat the crisis, designated ConnectATX as the go-to site in the region for resources related to food assistance.
Now, findhelp and United Way ATX are working together to keep the ever-changing list of food programs updated for a growing number of visitors. In the weeks following the city’s shelter-in-place order, United Way ATX has seen a 400 percent increase in usage compared to the first week of “pre-COVID” activity.
“I’ve been amazed by the findhelp teams,” says Amy Price, navigation center director for United Way ATX. “They’ve pivoted quickly to provide very creative and innovative solutions. It’s been astonishing. Everyone’s been amazed that we’ve been able to get ConnectATX.org transformed in such a short amount of time.”
Bianca Peterson, findhelp’s customer success manager for United Way ATX, sees the partnership as “a huge asset to the community,” partly due to the connections United Way has built over time with community-based organizations in Central Texas.
“We’re excited and proud to serve Austin and Travis County in this way,” Peterson says. “Going forward, our role at findhelp is to focus on optimization. Do staff feel comfortable using the site? Does everybody understand the most efficient workflow and how each of the tools work? Do we need to retrain? Now, with the site launched, we’re interested in maximizing the power of the platform to serve as many people as possible.”
Going Deeper with Service Navigation & Assessment
Because 211 is already an established call center designed to help the community, United Way ATX was able to add another layer to their service as part of the ConnectATX project.
People who call 211 seeking help of one kind might be forwarded to a ConnectATX call specialist, who asks a few questions to assess whether services in other categories might be beneficial. This same questionnaire is also available online and generates a tailored a list of programs once it’s completed.
“Our call specialists, even in the first week, said this was something they really loved about ConnectATX, getting to hear more of the stories from individuals,” says Garvey. “They got to spend more time on the phone with them and address more than one concern in one sitting, which they couldn’t do on the 211 side. They found that to be really impactful. They knew they were actually helping the caller on the other side because they were giving them more resources than in just one subject matter.”
This higher level of service — with call specialists shepherding the process — is temporarily on hold, so United Way ATX can commit its full team to the surge of 211 calls related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the online questionnaire is still available, and Garvey says people continue to find it, fill it out themselves, and receive a list of programs to suit their profile. But the effects of this tool could have far-reaching effects over time.
“The goal for ConnectATX down the road is really to create these longitudinal records of individuals. Somebody who might need help finding food might also need help getting transportation to their medical appointments and may also need help finding childcare for their kiddos,” says Garvey. “I would love to reduce the number of times these individuals have to answer the same questions and fill out multiple forms, and instead have one centralized platform where we can track and help people across the city in the healthcare space, in the social services space, the childcare space. I think that would be incredible.”