A Spark in the Darkness: United Way Bay Area Helps SparkPoint Centers Adapt During the Pandemic

The synergy of collaboration

Collaboration brings together two or more parties to create something new—just as two surfaces coming together can result in a spark. This idea informs 23 SparkPoint family services centers supported by United Way Bay Area (UWBA), which has offices in San Francisco and San Jose, CA. SparkPoint Centers in eight counties provide free financial and career coaching for low-income families, bringing together multiple nonprofit partners and resources into a one-stop service.

“The idea with SparkPoint is that you go to one place with the collection of resources from your own community to tackle the issues of that community,” explains Norman Cheng, a program analyst for UWBA. The support can range from help creating a budget and credit counseling, to assistance with resumés or legal concerns, to free tax filing. “It's a collaborative effort, and there’s a lot of synergy,” he adds. “That's what makes it unique and special.”

Cheng points out that given the region’s high cost of living, “It’s not enough to have a job. You’ve got to be able to manage your finances, have the connections and tools and financial education. That’s how we make it easier to get out of poverty.” In fact, a quarter of the region’s population lives in poverty.[i] The SparkPoint program annually serves about 3,000 clients. Since each client can represent a whole family, many more lives are improved.

SparkPoint Centers are just one of the UWBA’s efforts to fight poverty, a cause that has become its focus over nearly a century of service. Another UWBA service aimed at improving lives is a telephone helpline known as 211. This helpline follows the model of 911 emergency services but for a much broader range of emergencies, from solutions to sudden homelessness to information about wildfires and where to go to be safe.

“Two-one-one is the go-to source when emergencies happen,” explains Nicole Harden, UWBA’s director of regional learning and partnerships. “It’s designed to be responsive to needs immediately.”

A voice on the other end of the line

Roughly 150,000 people call this helpline each year. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck California, the helpline was able to quickly adapt to a call volume that jumped some 70% in March. Although stay-at-home orders make volunteer training more challenging, the 211 service was able to quickly pivot to providing callers with COVID-19 information and resources.

“Things were shifting so fast, a lot of the work was pushing out information like what could be done and how to access related resources,” says Harden.

Cheng adds, “We are also a voice for them to talk to. A lot of folks have called in when they're scared. They get the information they need but also that little bit of hope.”

The SparkPoint Centers, on the other hand, were designed for face-to-face support. “We needed to start providing virtual services,” says Harden, noting that such an evolution offered other benefits, too. “It was long overdue.”

Fortunately, the UWBA’s nonprofit partners involved in SparkPoint were able to shift immediately to a more virtual model.

“The nonprofit partners we work with are truly amazing,” Harden says. The necessary changes were aided by an F5 Global Good Tech for Good COVID-19 Response Grant of $10,000. This infusion of funds helped expand the digital infrastructure of the SparkPoint Centers and supported virtual training for helpline volunteers.

“Our response was quick,” notes Cheng. “We were able to pivot to remote work from home. Logging in, getting secure access to data, and being able to record and report on data have not been problems.”

Back to basics

That was important because the more than 50 people on the UWBA staff quickly realized that the pandemic had shifted the community’s needs toward basic survival. Many SparkPoint clients work in the service industry, which was particularly hard hit by business closures. The UWBA team has identified almost 1,100 client households that have been impacted.

“The conversations are different now,” explains Harden. “The first question asked is ‘How are you feeling?’ This is a scary time.”

The second question is often, “Is there anything that we can do?”

“We do participate in a coaching model where we’re encouraging our clients to move forward in financial health,” Harden notes. “But we’re not talking about goals or credit scores anymore. At this point, the conversation is about whether all of their basic needs are being met.”

That includes help obtaining pandemic-related benefits available through labor unions, unemployment programs, and federal relief efforts. Many families also have been struggling with the closure of schools.  

“When everyone gets healthier and shelter-in-place is lifted, we’ll probably go back to long-term financial coaching,” Harden says. “But right now we are trying to solve for services we don't traditionally offer, like making sure their kids have access to all the things they need for school. We want to make sure everybody in the household is taken care of so clients can focus on how to make decisions.”

Staying ahead of the demand curve

As successful as UWBA has been at transitioning to virtual service delivery, challenges continue. Cheng says, “Digital literacy is a huge thing we're facing.” Not everyone knows how to use the technologies that permit teleconferencing, for instance. The UWBA team is hoping that volunteers can help solve this problem.

Cultural norms also come into play. “In some cultures, I can only establish trust by having the face-to-face interaction,” he explains. “We hear, ‘I'll just talk to you guys when this thing is over.’ That’s what our staff is faced with.” A solution is still in the works.

Similarly, not every service UWBA supports can be done virtually, and the pandemic has made some activities more costly. “Our shelters, who may have relied on volunteers to provide cleaning services, can't do that anymore,” explains Cheng. “They have to hire paid staff, which no one was anticipating. So the grant funding has been able to help those nonprofits continue to operate.”

Stani Peycheva, UBWA’s senior director of corporate engagement, says, “We’ve received at least 260 new applications for funding from our nonprofit partners. Four major themes emerged: Hazard pay for people who have to show up while we’re sheltering in place, direct assistance for clients such as gift cards and money, hygiene and sanitation support, and the main thing was tech infrastructure.” The F5 grant helped UWBA respond to those increased demands.

“We're working really hard and it’s paying off,” she says with satisfaction. “We’re staying ahead of the curve.”

About F5 Global Good Tech for Good grants for COVID-19 Response

F5 Global Good is built on three pillars: supporting the causes that employees are most passionate about in communities around the world, helping to build the pipeline of tomorrow’s changemakers and future leaders through STEM education impact grants, and supporting nonprofit organizations with their digital transformation efforts through Tech for Good impact grants. F5 recognizes that grants to help nonprofits with tech-specific needs are crucial—especially now that we’re relying on technology to keep us all connected while we practice social distancing. As part of its COVID-19 Response efforts, F5 has awarded $250,000 in Tech for Good grants to nonprofits in Australia, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Singapore, and the U.S. Grant recipients are using these funds to bolster their technology infrastructures, making it possible for them to streamline administrative efforts, improve data security, and—most importantly—expedite their missions so they can do even more to help those they serve.