Over three million workers filed new claims for unemployment insurance in the United States this past week, representing a record-breaking surge in economic need as the COVID-19 pandemic forced families into seclusion. Even as the need grew, the pandemic forced government and private social services to close their offices, disrupting the normal channels people use to seek help. Even digital systems began to fail—for example, unemployment claims sites in several states reportedly crashed due to high web traffic.

The capacity to operate digitally and to quickly reconfigure support systems has become a critical lifeline.

Amid this unprecedented disruption, the capacity to operate digitally and to quickly reconfigure support systems has become a critical lifeline. While the original intent in building these capacities was to deliver better service to more people, they are proving key to resilience in an emergency. Three examples from our grantees illustrate this well:

  • The Digital Services Collaborative (DSC) at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Innovation + Impact was founded with support from The Rockefeller Foundation in 2019. Their mission is to support government innovation and service delivery in a digital age. They have seeded networks of leaders—like the State Chief Data Officers Network—that serve as critical infrastructure for coordinating the digital response to COVID-19. Within days of the pandemic hitting the United States, the DSC’s leader Cori Zarek had co-launched the U.S. Digital Response to COVID-19, connecting over 1,000 volunteers with digital skills to high-priority government projects across the country. One example is ProjectN95, a digital clearinghouse for medical equipment including personal protective equipment and the N95 masks that are in short supply across America’s hospitals.
  • Another great example is the work of Benefits Data Trust, an organization that uses technology and data science to reach out to and connect people with critical benefits and enrollment support. BDT has been investing in their technology stack—supported by grants from The Rockefeller Foundation and others—to make it modular and, using advanced data science, scalable. BDT’s dynamic team staff maintained their operations and shifted their call center staff to remote work even as many peer organizations have been forced to close—making BDT’s services even more critical. Over the coming months, BDT’s phone and web-based tools will only grow more important, as few people will be able to access in-person support.
  • The closure of physical operations at social service centers causes an array of problems, increasing the demand and highlighting the critical need for digital support tools. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit America in the middle of the tax season. Filing taxes is the gateway for families getting refunds, tax credits, and—possibly, under proposed legislation—stimulus payments to offset the impacts of the pandemic. Many people need assistance with filing taxes, and one of the most important sources of help is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) network. We’ve supported Code for America in piloting a tool (getyourrefund.org) that allows VITA volunteers to deliver that help digitally. At this point, most VITA sites across the nation have had to close, putting low-income Americans at risk of not filing taxes at all during this cycle. Code for America is now working to rapidly expand that pilot—from 5,000 filers to 50,000 or more—as both the demand for and importance of the VITA service grow.

We’re inspired by the way each of these organizations is using their digital capacities to respond to the challenge of this moment. Their rapid responses prove the value of investing in capacity and innovation, in good times and bad.

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