On the surface, HandsOn Central Ohio is the great connector: Through its 211 hotline, it links people in need with those who can help, whether it’s food, emergency shelter, or assistance with other issues.
But beneath the surface, HandsOn is much more than the community’s primary referral service. It is an increasingly sophisticated organization that collects information helping social and human service organizations across the community better respond to current needs—and anticipate those in the future.
“What people don’t understand is that the true power and major engine of our organization is data,” explained Ernest L. Perry Jr., HandsOn’s president and CEO. “Community data. That’s what powers our 211 operation and our ability to be a strategic partner with policy makers, donors, philanthropic leaders, and other nonprofit partners to serve the community.”
It is this data, and the new ways they intend to use it that captured the attention of the Columbus Foundation, which recognized HandsOn Central Ohio as one of its “5 Nonprofits to Watch” in 2016.
“They have a strategic plan and they’re launching this effort to clearly understand and analyze their data to inform the community about pressing needs and to serve as a predictor of what needs are likely forthcoming,” said Lisa S. Courtice, Ph.D., the Foundation’s executive vice president.
HandsOn has been in existence for nearly five decades under other names. It was known as CALLVAC until 1995, when it became FIRSTLINK. It got its current name in 2010 after strengthening its relationship with the national HandsOn Network.
Perry said information is gathered each time someone calls in for help – food assistance, emergency housing, etc. – as is required to get family assistance. The primary goal will always be providing assistance to those in need as quickly as possible for the family, but gathering the underlying data is tremendously important for the community, he said.
“We collect data on what the needs are in a community. We collect geographic or locational data on where certain issues have the most density or are the most acute. We collect data on the relationship between individuals and service providers. We collect system capacity data – how much is available, how much is used and unused. We collect a range of data on the system as a whole and individuals collectively to create the opportunity to paint a clear picture of what is happening in our community.’’
Having the data gives the community a baseline. Harnessing it is what Perry believes provides the community with a roadmap to change lives.
For example, the data pointed to three areas in the city where food pantries were under-utilized but had high levels of “food insecurity” (the term government applies to people who don’t always know whether they will be able to provide meals to their families).
With the help of a city grant, residents of Franklinton, Linden, and the South Side are now able to text a hotline number to get food. They text their name, address and describe their needs, and HandsOn schedules an appointment that leads to them getting food from a nearby pantry. By analyzing the data over a period of time, HandsOn and organizations it is affiliated with can identify trends – and take steps to get ahead of them.
“The data holds power in two very important ways,” Perry explained. First, it can help providers be more efficient with resources. “Second, if we do the right analysis and modeling, you can get a picture of what the future forecast looks like. In doing that, it gives you the opportunity to get upstream on the issues we face in this community.”
The Columbus Foundation is recognizing HandsOn for the important work it does and what it is poised to do as it gets more sophisticated with its data analytics. HandsOn is elated to be one of the Foundation’s nonprofits to watch this year.
“This recognition denotes organizations that have achieved a level of significance in terms of their role in this community,” Perry said. “HandsOn was created in central Ohio. It is home grown. We have always viewed our mission to be the improvement of greater Columbus. To be named one of the five is validation that people recognize our commitment and achievements.”