In March 2020, the City of Philadelphia released the Poverty Action Plan to lift 100,000 city residents out of poverty over five years. As the first major step toward meeting the plan’s goals, the city committed $10 million to United Way of Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey through its Poverty Action Fund to take the lead in planning and overseeing an effort called The Promise. In December 2020, The Promise launched Family Stability Challenge (FSC), focused on connecting underserved populations with public benefits and refundable tax credits, investing in interagency data sharing and collaboration, and improving service capacity.
United Way’s key assumptions in planning the initiative included that (1) community-based direct service organizations would be best placed to engage hard-to-reach populations and (2) lack of precedent for coalition-based benefits access approaches meant flexibility around the initiatives goals was necessary. With these considerations in mind, The Promise selected four coalitions of community-based service providers—each focused on a unique combination of populations and geographies—to implement FSC.
Early Implementation Findings
In 2022, United Way engaged the Urban Institute to conduct an evaluation of FSC’s early implementation. Key findings from that evaluation include the following:
- The coalitions served 53,400 households throughout the City of Philadelphia in the effort’s first year, connecting them with a wide variety of benefits and services.
- The coalitions all engaged in a range of new activities that contributed to improved client engagement and service delivery.
- All coalitions derived value from coalition relationships.
- The newness of the FSC coalition approach within Philadelphia’s service ecosystem and inherent challenges with new collaboration, combined with the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scale of material hardship in Philadelphia, and built-in administrative hurdles to benefits access, meant challenges were inevitable and understandable. Notable challenges included difficulties developing collaborative culture, administrative barriers to serving clients, and challenges using technology.
- Coalitions could aim for a structure that maximizes impact. Coalitions would benefit from considering how to develop activities to make sure they build on one another and make the whole partnership stronger than the sum of its parts.
- Coalition partners could focus on maintaining continuous communication. Evidence suggests that continuous communication is a core pillar of strong service collaboration.
- Coalitions could consider the pros and cons of assigning a backbone organization. FSC coalitions that lack a backbone organization coordinating the initiative and overseeing grant reporting without a direct service role might consider adding such a role to their coalition. Backbone organizations can take pressure off organizations whose priority is serving clients. That said, the role of the backbone needs to be carefully planned to be effective.
- Coalitions could consider designing and piloting a common intake process.
- The Promise and the coalitions could leverage learning from early implementation to systematize referrals. Staff in each coalition felt that the potential to refer across organizations to meet client needs for services they did not provide was an important asset of coalition-based work. However, coalitions did not all have referral platforms that would allow for streamlined and systematized referrals, and even when such a platform existed, many staff continued to use informal referral channels.
- The Promise and coalitions could focus on a smaller set of benefits and investing in enrollment and data systems that can track what happens after application and better capture impact.
- The Promise could produce formal documentation for FSC reporting as it evolves.
- Policymakers and administrators could prioritize developing an online application platform that supports easy and streamlined benefit application experiences. Improving Pennsylvania’s integrated online benefit application portal, COMPASS, is a good place to start.
- Funders could consider more comprehensive and longer-term funding commitments. Adding funding for a planning period, followed by a longer guaranteed funding commitment would allow partners to establish a working relationship, build up service flows and capacity, and troubleshoot areas of friction while still having a grant supporting their work together.