For over a decade, we at Simon Solutions are often challenged when people ask us what we do as a technology company. It’s hard to explain when there are few examples that vividly paint the “big picture” of the use and value of our technology tools.
Perhaps this is because we are engaged in what some might call continuous innovation — a constant state of experimenting, learning, evaluating, and improving. Each week, our development team strives to keep pace with the innovative ways helping agencies are using our tools in their communities.
This all began in October 2006, following the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Community and faith-based organizations in Northwest Alabama (where we live) came to us seeking a low-cost, simple-to-use solution for increased communication and cooperation among all helping agencies in our communities.
Hurricane Katrina challenged the disaster preparedness and response of helping agencies in our communities. Fortunately, diverse agencies did a remarkable job of meeting the crisis needs of hundreds of displaced individuals and families. However, resources ran dry quickly because of duplication of efforts, miscommunications among helping agencies, and our lack of unity in disaster preparedness.
So, we combined our technology skills, along with insight from helping agencies, and co-created a web-based technology tool that was only meant to be used by helping agencies in our communities. None of us envisioned that this local solution would achieve national acclaim — impacting communities across the country.
Thousands of helping agencies in over 1,300 U.S. cities (45 states) now use our networking tools, which are starting to be used in other countries. Our growth rate averages about 100 new cities each year. The different types of agencies that use our tools include: charitable nonprofits, churches, food banks, schools, hospitals, and government.
These agencies use our tools to combine their strengths and collectively tackle tough community challenges such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, and health disparities.
Agency leaders have suggested that what’s happening in their communities is amazing and unprecedented. Others have gone so far to say that it’s “revolutionary.”
With these affirmations in mind, we decided to describe the remarkable use and value of our technology tools as Distributed Transformative Networking (DTN).
We use the word “distributed” because it is considered a highly efficient and effective form of sharing mass communication across a network of people or organizations. Knowledge and information can be equally managed and broadcasted with adaptive scalability.
This was brought to light many years ago by Paul Baran, a pioneer in the development of computer networks. His research involved evaluation of three types of networking (centralized, decentralized, and distributed) and their ability to provide the best communication network that would withstand a nuclear attack.
In his book entitled On Distributed Communication Network (1964), Baran found many advantages to distributed networking. These include: speed, more streamlined, decreased cost, more inclusive, and lower risk of single-point failures.
DTN makes it easier for helping agencies to work together to build a stronger community-wide safety net and effective referral system that keeps people from “falling through the cracks."
DTN enables helping agencies to quickly find and coordinate resources, from across a community, in real-time. Mobilizing resources for people in need, a process that can take days, is now reduced to minutes.
Diverse helping agencies use our technology tools to create well-connected and broadly-distributed Resource Networks. These networks are proving to be a better way to find, mobilize, and coordinate resources for individuals and families.
Agencies believe that "moving the needle" on poverty, hunger, and other complex challenges can only be realized if the whole community gets involved — the public, private, and social community sectors. Agencies realize that getting all community sectors to work together for common good and greater impact sounds promising; yet can be, quite challenging.
Regarding this, Peter Block (renowned community development consultant) writes: "The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities into connectedness and caring for the whole. We begin by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community." (Community: The Structure of Belonging, 2009)
Using our innovative technology tools, along with other new capacities for transformation, many helping agencies are meeting this challenge head on. They realize that increased communication and cooperation, among all agencies, enables them to combine their unique strengthens and collectively tackle tough community challenges with greater force and success.
Agencies want to do more than just help people get by; instead, they want to help people get ahead to a better quality of life and brighter future.
To make this happen, agencies are working together to advance a more comprehensive (holistic) approach to transforming lives and their communities — a reality made possible by systemic change. Diverse agencies are learning how to work together to transform their community-wide Helping Systems (social service delivery systems) — making them more resourceful, efficient, and effective.
Distributed Transformative Networking is a new capacity for systemic change that supports agencies' innovative and collaborative efforts to move beyond a social service to a social change model for transforming people's lives.
Most communities have a large host of helping agencies: charitable nonprofits, churches, healthcare providers, government services, and more. Each strive to do their part in making a difference. But due to a lack of resources, most agencies are limited as to the services they provide and the number of people they can help.
Limited resources force many agencies to adopt a single-focused approach to addressing complex community challenges — including poverty, hunger, un/underemployment, and more. Some agencies will specialize in emergency relief: food, clothing, and shelter. Others will specialize in medical services, education, or training. But the reality is that no one or two helping agencies in a community has all the knowledge, information, and resources that can help everyone with all their needs.
Tom Wolff, nationally recognized consultant for coalition-building and community development, writes:
"Our communities and our world face such complex problems that we no longer can solve them by gathering a few experts in a room and letting them dictate change. We need new ways to find solutions. Many of us now understand that the emerging problems that communities face have such complex origins that we can only fix them if we use comprehensive community problem-solving efforts rather than single-focused approaches. We need to meet and communicate and partner with each other, and we need to include representatives from all parts of our communities." (The Power of Collaborative Solutions, 2010)
Consider the following limitations of a single-focused approach:
Admittedly, a social service model can be quite practical and reliable at providing programs and services that make a difference. However, this single-focused approach can also be very dysfunctional where "good intentions are simply not enough."
A social change model can breathe "new life" into the heart of a community's Helping System — restoring hope and possibilities. This model builds upon the practicality of a social service model and lifts it to a whole new realm of effectiveness — providing more flexible and adaptive solutions for people's complex and changing needs.
This approach leverages the collective mobilization of community-wide resources and is driven by comprehensive transformative processes.
These processes are empowered by meaningful relationships and caregiving (not just service-providing). Care, unlike service, cannot be mandated, managed, or produced. It is freely given — driven by compassion and self-motivation.
Comprehensive care, with the help of Distributed Transformative Networking, can be constantly monitored for progress, accurately measured for success, and easily adjusted for effectiveness.
A social change model, empowered by Distributed Transformative Networking, helps people thrive — not just survive. Now, it is possible for all helping agencies, in a community, to collectively do their part in making a real and lasting difference in the lives of children, youth, and adults.
Using our tools, diverse agencies can partner with individuals and families — helping them map-out their own successful journey from crisis to sustainability.
This journey is empowered by a personalized and comprehensive (holistic) “action plan” that is coordinated by a well-connected network of helping agencies.
Distributed Transformative Networking (DTN) is powered by Internet technology which supports a mutually-beneficial exchange of knowledge and information that's safe/secure, HIPAA-compliant, and constantly updated in in real-time. This provides helping agencies, and the people they serve, with greater access to knowledge and information that supports a healthier, more productive, and meaningful life for everyone in their community.
DTN enables communities (regardless of size or geography) to create a well-connected and broadly-distributed Resource Network. This makes it possible for all helping agencies, despite their limitations, to never have to turn people away — empty-handed. Caregivers can say with all honesty and assurance, "I may not have exactly what you are looking for; but don't worry, I will help you find what you need."
A Resource Network supports agencies' efforts to provide personal and comprehensive care. Agencies can provide help, according to their specialties; and then, work together with other agencies to coordinate "holistic" care. Together, agencies can collectively monitor assistance, referrals, and outcomes. This makes it possible to track a person's progress from crisis to sustainability; and if needed, advise adjustments to an individual or family action plan.
Networking is also important for sustaining and advancing the mission of nonprofits. This was suggested by Jennifer Chandler, Vice-President of the National Council of Nonprofits, along with Kristen Kennedy, Senior Manager for Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. Their research was published in the Stanford Innovative Review in Feb. 2016 and entitled, Building Capacity Through Networks.
They suggested that “nonprofits that are part of a network can leverage resources and knowledge to build capacity more effectively than nonprofits that ‘go it alone.’” They also suggested that “the relationships within a network accelerate the growth of individual network members’ capacity and enhance the collective impact of a network, which can result in more sustainable and effective nonprofit organizations, and healthier and more vibrant communities.”
As to how positive changes get started and become sustainable, this is a remarkable story that’s unique to every community. For many years, we have been trying to discern what’s the “secret sauce” for making this happen. We do see some catalysts and innovative practices at work; but must admit, every community is different.
We do suggest that communities discover, develop, and deploy new capacities for systemic change. These emerging trends and best practices include:
We suggest that Distributed Transformative Networking is also a new capacity for systemic change that can work hand-in-hand with other capacity-building tools to help communities quickly adapt to constantly changing and complex societal needs. Working together, these new capacities can be part and parcel of collaborative solutions that really work and make great sense to all stakeholders.
We at Simon Solutions, along with the thousands of helping agencies that we serve, are very encouraged as to the possibilities of Distributed Transformative Networking.
We are very excited that what we co-create together is making a real and lasting difference in people’s lives and their communities.