At first glance, the tech problem James Rudyk, Jr. was facing might have seemed minor, yet it was taking time and resources from the mission of his agency, the Northwest Side Housing Center (NWSHC). Thanks to the support of Civic Leadership Academy partner Microsoft, NWSHC has a solution that not only improved how the agency operates, but it will soon be replicated at similar housing nonprofits across Illinois and eventually the country.
Rudyk’s organization helps residents in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood avoid foreclosure, buy their first home, learn to manage a household budget, negotiate with a landlord, and more. Like many community-based organizations, NWSHC’s mix of services is funded by a patchwork quilt of grants and government programs—more than 50 in this case, ranging from the City of Chicago to private foundations to the U.S. Department of Housing and Development (HUD). To keep track of clients and meet different reporting requirements, staff used three different databases, three Excel spreadsheets, and a Word document—often inputting the same information in multiple places.
“For the State of Illinois, we have four different grants, for instance, and they each require different reports and measurements,” said Rudyk, NWSHC’s executive director and a 2015 CLA fellow. “Counselors would have to make choices sometimes between entering data or seeing a person who came in for help because they can’t make their mortgage payments.”
So when Microsoft hosted a CLA panel discussion on civic tech and data analytics, Rudyk asked a question at the end: How could he think about opportunities like geocoding and data-driven decision making when his agency was still using a cobbled together system and had a full-time staffer whose sole job was data-entry?
The question caught the attention of Microsoft’s Adam Hecktman and Shelley Stern Grach, who met with Rudyk to learn more. The result was a new project to create an integrated database that can serve all of NWSHC’s needs, supported by volunteers at Microsoft and Microsoft Philanthropies and led by Hecktman and Grach’s tech and civic engagement team.
“The team from Microsoft interviewed all the program staff. They literally Skyped in while we entered data to see how we worked, and they trained all of our users when it was ready,” said Rudyk, who used the new database as his CLA capstone project. “There is just no way we could have accomplished all this with our own time and money.”
The new system, which went live earlier this year, is easy to use, with a simple dashboard and single record for each client. Staff can add fields as necessary and run reports for whatever a funder or program needs to know—from the average loan modification amount to the demographic mix of the clients served by any specific program. Connected to MS Outlook, it can send calendar appointments to clients and export addresses for the newsletter. “It might sound hyperbolic,” Rudyk said, “but we can do anything.”
HUD is nearly ready to approve the use of the database for its programs, a huge leap forward from the current options, which in tech years are generations behind the state of the art. The other 52 housing agencies in Illinois with a HUD contract are awaiting the certification from the federal agency as well, and the hope and plan is to make the software available to local housing agencies across the country.
“It started for us with, ‘Let’s fix this problem.’ We’re always excited by replicability, though, and the opportunity to help many agencies increase their capacity is very attractive,” said Grach, the director of civic engagement at Microsoft. “This is exactly the kind of project we’re talking about when we work with CLA—unleashing the potential of emerging civic and nonprofit leaders by putting new resources to work.”
Joanie Friedman, executive director of civic leadership in UChicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, said that the impact of the Microsoft partnership is a great example of how the academy connects fellows to opportunities and new ideas. “Every day, agencies like the Northwest Side Housing Center are helping people in communities all across the city,” she said. “When they have the resources and systems to do their jobs better, it’s better for all of us.”