Thursday, July 21, 2011

Austin Free-Net

Last night, Erine and David Neff, author of a great new book about non-profits, showed our website to a group of people to test our guarantee of being "simple and easy".

We did it at one of the most cutting edge non-profits in town, Austin Free-Net!


This is what their communications director, Sheena, had to say about what they do:

Austin Free-Net is a non-profit corporation established in 1995, Austin Free-Net (AFN) helps community organizations launch free Internet access sites for the public. AFN provides technical expertise, services and equipment to community organizations, to build computer labs that are technologically and economically self-sustaining over time. We provide free computer/Internet access and training at 15 sites in Austin.

New technology promises an opportunity for all, but only on an equal playing field, with equal access to information, education and involvement in the community. Anyone that has the desire should be able to access the Internet to improve their lives and contribute to society.

With these facts in mind, Austin Free-Net exists to make equal access to computing resources a reality.

Austin Free-Net is bridging the digital divide!

We are proud to work with this organization and look forward to further collaborations.

Go check them out now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Progress is Personal: Aunt Bertha's Roots (Part II)


I can still remember lining up for lunch in elementary school. I would dilly-dally and always be the last kid in line. I did this every day. You have to get creative figuring out how to be the last one all of the time. You tie your shoes. You act like you forgot something.

I knew all the tricks.

I didn’t want my classmates to know that I was getting free lunch. In New York, it was obvious if you had free lunch. You didn’t give the lunch lady money - kids with free lunch had brightly colored cards that were kept on the wall behind her. You would have to tell her your number. It held up the whole line - for what seemed like an eternity.

At 9, in small-town-USA, I experienced the stigma associated with government programs. The stigma is still there - loud and clear - but there’s a little more dignity to the process now - thanks in part to technology and better public policy.

Ask yourself this: how many kids in this country didn’t want to go grocery shopping with their mother because they were worried about their classmates finding out they were on food stamps? How many mothers go shopping in the middle of the night with this same fear? Life’s too darn hard to worry about stuff like that. But millions are worried - millions are becoming anxious about things that aren’t that important in the long run. And you can't help but wonder if that anxiety about these things is keeping people from doing other things - more important things - like getting new skills and applying for that better job. I believe it's all related somehow. 

At the age of 35, I’m thankful for the safety net of social service programs. It helped my family through some pretty difficult times. My first home was in the projects. A couple years later my parents saved up and bought the house I grew up in. Financial aid and subsidized loans helped me get through college. Social security disability helped my mom after she got sick, lost her memory, and had to rebuild her life again.

I remember my dad used to say: “Erine, there ain’t nothing you can do about it so it makes no sense in worrying.” 

Twenty years later, I finally understand what he means. And on most of the things I worry about, he was right. But I spent a lot of years not accepting that there were things I just couldn't change. That stubbornness helped me make some pretty big changes when I was a government consultant. Changes that I’m proud of. But I worried more than I really needed to.

My dad was right, but I don’t accept that I can’t do anything about the messed up human service delivery system in the United States. 

We have consulting firms hiring expensive lobbyists to get gigantic software contracts - only to over promise and under-deliver. We read about major fraud cases at least once a month. We create policies that are well intentioned, but through poor administration and follow-through, actually hurt people.

Aunt Bertha can’t save the world. I realize that. But if we can help a 9-year-old kid be a little less anxious about something, that’s pretty good stuff.

Erine Gray is the founder of AuntBertha.com. An avid runner, former human service delivery consultant, and proud resident of Austin, TX. Read more about Erine here.

This is Part II in a series of posts explaining the reason for Aunt Bertha - a friendly human service directory connecting people to programs. Read Part I here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Auntie B's News

Team Bertha has been busy!

First, if you haven't already, take a peek at the new layout and process for our human service directory serving Austin, TX at www.auntbertha.com. The big changes include:

-No qualification quiz: The quiz included five questions that we used to determine how much and what programs someone qualified for based on income, demographics, and family size. We figure that people should have a choice on whether or not we tell them how helpful help can be so the quiz is now optional if folks decide to sign up via e-mail. The qualification quiz still exists, but it is no longer a requirement to see programs.

-No email requirement: In the past, we required an e-mail for folks to access the database. Now, it is open to anyone that wants to take a peek at what do-gooders have to offer in their community.

-State Programs: Vicken, Lyn, and a wonderful cohort of interns have been busy the last 2-3 weeks chipping away at SNAP(food assistance) and CHIP(free to low cost health insurance for kids) for all the states in the Union. We are proud of their persistence and hard work. If you see them around by 'em a cold root beer.

-Meeting the neighbors: Erine and I have been around town, the web, and the nation introducing ourselves to innovative organizations and letting folks know that we want to collaborate on making an impact on human service technology, but even more importantly, help struggling families. We have visited community based mental health clinics, shelters, churches, and other non-profits putting our ear to the ground and listening to stories. After two months at this job, I can honestly say that I have made tons of mistakes. The biggest lesson we have learned so far is that if we want to survive the business of hope it starts with listening before doing.

-Two members of our team have submitted applications to a little conference coming up in March! Send us good vibes!

ANNOUNCEMENT: July 20th at 7pm, We will be testing out our website LIVE at Austin Free Net a wonderful digital literacy non-profit in ATX, if you want some cash and ice cream stop by: click here for details

If you have any questions or want to know how you can be apart of our project, drop us a line!

Mozart is the community manager at AuntBertha.com.

PS: I would be remiss to not mention our phenomenal intern, JC Rodriguez, who has been a huge help doing outreach work and producing great ideas

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Why I Started Aunt Bertha (Part I)

My name is Erine. I started Aunt Bertha.

Part of the motivation was around my experience working in government consulting and seeing a culture of ambivalence when it comes to innovation. At times it was as if people forgot why we were doing the work in the first place. The initial exuberance of helping people, gradually, was replaced by, well, fear of screwing up.

Fear of rejection from a self-proclaimed "sage" who had "tried that before" 5 years ago.

Our goal is ambitious, no doubt. We want to organize the world's human service program information so people can find the programs that will help them in seconds. No navigating through virtual slush piles of paper just to find out about programs. No long lines at agencies only to find out you don't qualify - losing an entire day.

We want to add dignity to the process.

Life is hard enough for folks struggling to make ends meet. To think we live in a time when burial plots are still part of the application process shows how little the human services industry has changed with the times. I certainly can understand taking assets into account to determine eligibility, but when only a tiny percentage of people own a burial plot - why even bother wasting staff time and the client's time discussing it? What's the worst that can happen? Someone with a burial plot as an investment gets too much in benefits?

I would probably guess that Texas (a state that I proudly live in and love), has spent 10000 times more money for staff time discussing burial plots than the actual value of all burial plots applicants have owned since the Food Stamp program began.

It's time to re-evaluate what we're doing. It's time to evaluate why we're perpetuating policies that, at the end of the day, just don't matter that much - especially if the trade-off is spending money to administer and support these policies.

Can we imagine something better?

If Aunt Bertha can help educate people enough about these programs, what's out there, to the point where people can feel comfortable navigating the overly complex application process then we feel really good about it. Unfortunately, all too often, people get scared and don't want to apply because it's too complicated - too hard. Who needs yet another aspect of our lives to be confusing?

So what happens now?


People don't get help when the problem starts -- they get help when it gets real bad. It's more expensive to all of us when it gets real bad.

Aunt Bertha's the Aunt we all had growing up. She tells it like it is. She's the first one to give you a high-five when you make the honor roll. She's the friendly face that won't judge you when you get in trouble. She's who you call or visit during those times when you get real with yourself.

She (Aunt Bertha) may not save the day - that's up to you - but she can give you some perspective with a clear set of eyes and a full heart.

Learning About Leadership On A Date

Meet Katie.

She recently graduated with a degree in social work and taught me everything I needed to know about leadership while she was on a date with her boyfriend. Before I let you know about that magic, let's get some background information on this young woman.

Besides having a super attitude (attitude is everything), she also happened to be a student-leader at a 400+ person graduate school of do-gooders for the last two years. She led the charge as a student advocate and was the lead master of ceremonies, all while providing clinical services to adult sex offenders and as a professional working in juvenile justice.

Not easy stuff. So, imagine my surprise when I saw pictures of her on a date.

Where does she find the time?

The Date+Art

I don't usually spy on people. That was until I came across a picture of Katie at a painting class in Denver. When I took a closer look at the picture I realized it wasn't your typical "paint by numbers" class for beginners, It was real art.



My big takeaway from seeing this picture of a social worker on a date was this:


1. Leadership is the ability to give away the keys to your "art". This company has a packed room every week full of people who want to have a great time, tap into their creativity, and be Picasso for a day.

2. Self-Care: There is nothing more powerful than periods of intense rest and work. In the business of hope it's necessary to not fall into compassion fatigue. It's important to keep your innovation and creativity levels high.

3. Risk: I am certain that a good number of people that show up to this event are a bit skeptical that the teacher can guide them to mastery in one night, but if we trust the process... maybe it can work.

How do you get creative and stay innovative?


Have you checked out Aunt Bertha's new design?

If you're with a non-profit submit your program here. It'll take less than 5 minutes.



Mozart is a social worker, writer, and community manager at Aunt Bertha.