In East Palo Alto, a short drive from the headquarters of Google, Sun Microsystems and Facebook, a high school student without housing was contemplating where she’d sleep that night. The girl asked Rey Faustino, then an employee at the nonprofit BUILD, an incubator for low-income entrepreneurs, to help her find a shelter. Faustino located a dusty binder whose plastic sleeves held flyers about social services. But most of the information proved outdated or incorrect, he recalls. “It took us all night to find one shelter for a student and her family, and it took us weeks to get them into stable, affordable housing.” The support net, it became clear at that moment, had holes.
Social services, provided by charities and government, largely haven’t kept pace in today’s hyper-connected world. Most nonprofits have websites, but that doesn’t mean they’re SEO-friendly or that they’ve been updated recently. The absence of quality information online forces struggling families to rely on what they hear through word of mouth. That leaves the most disconnected individuals in the most vulnerable position.
“How do you find the best Indian restaurant in San Francisco? By using Yelp or Google,” Faustino says. “We’re doing all these amazing things to advance life for the middle class, but we weren’t using any of these technologies and assets for the most vulnerable families. I thought that was ridiculous, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Five years ago, Faustino founded One Degree. A comprehensive directory of the 20,000 social service resources in the Bay Area, the online database is searchable by location and proximity to public transit, language and entry requirements, like age, household size and income. The platform works on both computers and smartphones, making it easy for most people to connect. (Surveys by Pew Research Center have found that nearly two-thirds of Americans own smartphones, and the number is expected to keep rising; for 13 percent of low-income earners, the devices are their primary way to access the internet.) Once a user has identified a match, One Degree helps with the intake process, such as scheduling an appointment or filling out an online application. That extra info might save someone a bus trip to the charity’s doors, only to find they’re not accepting applications.
So far, One Degree has connected more than 140,000 people in the Bay Area to the right agency. After a national competition, Faustino’s work was recognized by Inherent Group in November, when they presented the organization with the $50,000 grand prize at NationSwell’s Summit on Solutions. (Jukay Hsu, the founder and executive director of Coalition for Queens, which trains a diverse and underserved population of NYC residents to be app and web developers, snagged the second-place $25,000 prize.)

Read more about the Inherent Prize and the 2016 finalists

Faustino knows firsthand about the necessity of social services — and the difficulty of finding the right ones. As new immigrants from the Philippines, his parents worked multiple jobs to afford the rent in Los Angeles: his mother as a hospital administrator and, later, a nurse; his father, a salesman at Home Depot and a handyman on the weekends. They got the extra support they needed with naturalization papers, healthcare and summer school from local charities. Faustino became his family’s connector, finding out about programs from his teachers and translating for his parents. One Degree, he says, is the program he wishes he had as a kid.
Like Yelp, Faustino envisions that One Degree’s users will rate nonprofits and write about their experience. While that feature sounds simple enough to people who are used to streaming movies on Netflix and reading books on their tablets, it would upend the way nonprofits work. Forced to reckon with users’ commentary, a nonprofit might be more responsive to community needs, Faustino believes.
And, in a further boon to efficiency, collecting search data might give a more accurate picture of how disparate parts of the sector should fit together, he adds. Currently, many cities and counties focus only on the constituents who live within a district’s limits. But One Degree might register a fuller scope, picking up on the need for services where people work or where they hope to move. In the Bay Area, for example, you might see San Francisco residents looking for cheaper housing in nearby Contra Costa or childcare in San Mateo where their kids go to school. That could allow government agencies to better allocate services where they’re actually needed.
“In the past, nonprofit social services were transactional. You go to a place, receive a service and then go home,” explains Faustino. “Now we have the opportunity to make it more relationship-based, to see it not as a one-time change to a person’s life, but as a whole constellation or web of services” that a person has at their disposal.
In fact, these groups find that interconnectedness so valuable that one-fifth of One Degree’s revenue comes from social-service organizations that pay Faustino’s team for sophisticated referral tools. Some of these assessment tools direct users to other resources, like to a hospital for a screening of diabetes risk; other tools track where else clients go for help, enabling a caseworker to see, for instance, that her client visited a food bank, shelter and workforce development program. “No one agency can do everything for every client, so they’re always relying on other resources to help,” Faustino says. “One Degree makes it easy for them to access those other resources and stay organized.”
One Degree’s model could change the way we think about impact. Because social-service recipients get help from multiple organizations — a dozen, on average, Faustino says — the reviews could establish which programs actually helped, as described from the user’s perspective. “A lot of impact reports and messaging says that so-and-so went to a shelter, and we changed her life. Part of that is true — the shelter did help — but it wasn’t the only thing,” he says. “We take away a person’s agency when we say it’s just the organization that helped. She’s the one who made the choice, the one who went and found the shelter and other services. Funding streams are very competitive, and organizations have to paint themselves as the savior. But I fundamentally believe that holds back the nonprofit sector from seeing huge impact in our communities.”
Traditionally, social-service nonprofits have lagged behind in these high-tech times, but with One Degree, they’re finally starting to catch up.