South Oakland Shelter (SOS) is probably quite a bit like the homeless service organizations you may be familiar with in your own community. We were founded in the mid-80s by a few local churches—a grassroots response to the lack of resources available to assist our neighbors living on the street. Over 30+ years, we have evolved into an increasingly complex non-profit organization, balancing a variety of stakeholder interests and approaches to addressing what should be a relatively straightforward problem. Government agencies, professionalized family and corporate foundations, congregations of various faiths, volunteers, donors, local businesses, residents, academic institutions, other service providers, and more all have varying reasons for working with us, and differing priorities and approaches in how they do so.
In 2014, our staff leadership envisioned a tool to put our clients’ own needs back at the center of our efforts, empowering them to tell their own stories and have a higher degree of self-determination in their journey towards stability and a decent quality of life. We wanted to develop a platform that would allow our supporters to identify specific gaps that our current grants, contracts, and referrals were not addressing in order to unlock a brighter future for people who so often are offered only disparate pieces of what they need. We reached out to a couple foundations in our community with a concept for an online crowdfunding tool, and in our efforts to put together a proposal, we accidentally stumbled upon HandUp.
Rose, Sammie, and their colleagues were in the early stages of implementing the very tool we had imagined, and they had invested considerable time, talent, and venture capital in building one far more capable than anything a grassroots non-profit like ours could have produced. And so, we jumped on board their initiative with great enthusiasm.
Two years later, we realized that fundraising on HandUp meant a lot more than just the monetary figure achieved. HandUp was concurrently making our other services more effective, as our complicated web of restricted funding sources was finally beginning to untangle. It occurred to us that many more in our community could be helped with HandUp, but we did not have the capacity to make it happen alone. We sought grants to launch the HandUp Detroit collaborative that would leverage this resource across our metropolitan area. More agencies on the platform meant more client profiles, and more client profiles meant a more enriching donor experience, leading to more resources for the people we all serve. We recruited ten partner agencies serving a similar population, but over a broader geography. When we started fundraising together for all of our clients’ needs instead of each of our agencies’ operations, we dissolved the competitive dynamic that had so often dominated our relationships with one another.
As we were discovering that HandUp was transforming the way we could all work together in our community to address poverty, and the potential for other communities to do the same, Rose and Sammie were beginning to realize that the HandUp model was unsustainable as a for-profit service. While this was initially a hard pill to swallow, we were thrilled when HandUp approached SOS to steward their social enterprise into its future as a strictly philanthropic venture.
Of course, we had many of the same questions that you probably do. Can a human service agency successfully operate a thriving web-platform? Will attempting to do so distract us from our core services? Can we really bring this product to its fullest potential? We found that the answer to most of our questions was within our very reason for considering the opportunity in the first place: we are not fundamentally interested in solving technological problems, we are working to innovate our sector’s response to poverty by unabashedly putting our clients and mission at the forefront, even above the perceived needs of our own agency.
To homeless service agencies like ours, we invite you to join us in this effort. We know it is scary. We know you are regularly assessing the technological needs of your organization and that HandUp does not and will not meet all of those needs. Of course, we were nervous when we started marketing specific client needs to our donors that we might be left without badly needed unrestricted gifts to underwrite our operations (spoiler alert: the opposite happened). We took the leap anyway; because it is our mandate to prioritize the needs of our clients, and it turns out that our donors agree with us.
To us, HandUp is much more than a platform, it is a movement. We hope that like-minded agencies and their donors in cities and communities across the U.S. will stand with us. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to support all of your efforts.