Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Community Voice Mail and Google's Project CARE (redux)

From time to time, Google provides free voice mail numbers to homeless people at events in San Francisco or most recently, Washington, DC. Google is such a large animal that whenever they do anything, everyone writes about it. And when they do something to help the homeless with voice mail, we get asked questions.

This happened again this week on one of the NTEN groups, and we posted the following response today to someone asking about Google's Project CARE and Community Voice Mail:

Hi Joe. Steve from the Community Voice Mail (CVM) National Office here. In our experience, there's not a lot that is "easy" about providing voice mail services to anyone; any time you deal with phone companies *and* a lot of computer technology, there are...ahem, issues. After offering voice mail services all over the country to homeless and low-income people since 1993, we've learned a lot about this however. Just giving someone a phone number is great, but it's only a small part of the value. The bigger part is what you do with it, how you take advantage of the ability to reach people directly, and what the overall service is connected to.

For the past few years, we've been concentrating on sending broadcast voice messages to our 40,000 clients around the country. We have local people on the ground in 45 U.S. cities (and one in Canada that's poised to launch!) who distribute phone numbers to social service agencies, who in turn give them to those clients who don't have a reliable way to be reached. These managers, being part of the local community, learn about resources that homeless and low-income people need (jobs, housing, health care, training, benefits, etc.), and record voice messages that are delivered to every client in their area. Nationally, we work with entities like the Centers for Disease Control and AIDS.gov to send messages to all our clients about H1N1 flu, food product recalls, HIV testing resources and other things. Last year, we sent about 2,200 of these message to our clients, creating what we feel is a direct, highly effective communication resource for this usually hard-to-reach population. Clients can also reply to these messages, and we use this feature to gather data, solicit feedback and comments, and learn more about what kind of information our clients want to hear. It's amazing to listen to messages from people all over the country who may be homeless or in crisis; every day, we're astounded by their strength and determination to make a better life for themselves. It's awe-inspiring stuff...

None of this connectivity and information richness would be possible without having local managers in each community, and the network of social service agencies that are providing the voice mail boxes to their clients. We know from years of doing this that if you don't sit down with someone and walk them through the enrollment process (literally, by handing them the phone and telling them when to record their greeting, enter their password, etc.), it's not likely that the voice mail box will ever be used. Our local managers support the agencies that give out boxes by providing them with training and other resources. They also provide them with monthly reports showing which of their clients have (or have not) used their boxes in the past month, and this becomes a tool they can use with their clients ("Hey, I left you two messages about job opportunities, and you haven't checked your voice mail in three weeks. What's going on?"). The agencies give us demographic data about each client so we know who we're serving, and they also track goals and outcomes, so we know if we're being effective. Without this network of 2,000 social service agencies around the country, and the information they give about the people using our service, we'd never have any idea how effective we're being. The system is not without its problems, but it works pretty well.

We're really glad that Google is providing some phone numbers to people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco and recently in D.C. People in this life situation need as many resources as they can, and a phone number is a great thing to have. We've kind of moved beyond this, however, and have created a system that we believe does more to meet the specific needs of the people and agencies we're trying to support. We wish we had the resources that Google has to do this on a huge scale (and we've talked with Google about this in the past), but for now, we'll keep improving and offering new things that have value.

Sorry for the long post! Google is such a huge entity that when they do anything, everyone in the world reports it, and I thought it would be worth while to talk in more depth about what we're doing.

Steve (Community Voice Mail)
http://communityvoicemail.blogspot.com (blog)
cvmnational (twitter)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great information Steve.