Logo that reads, "Pennsylvania 2-1-1 Get Connected. Get Answers. Southeast region."

Persistence Pays Off - Online Services Directory and 2-1-1 Call System

People who really need our services don’t know how to find us, and we don’t know how to help the clients we do have find other services that they need.

For years, the scores of agencies that provide critically needed health and human services to Montgomery County residents repeatedly voiced these concerns.

That gaping need prompted the North Penn Community Health Foundation to spearhead a six-year collaborative effort that resulted in a pilot for Pennsylvania’s first 2-1-1 health and human services one-stop call service – not just for Montgomery County but for the entire five-county Philadelphia metropolitan area.

If all goes well and a financial champion steps forward, the entire five-county region can benefit from a public launch of both the 2-1-1 call service and InfolinkPA, an online Web-based resource directory – which call center staff members, health and human services providers and the general public can now all readily access.

Collaboration is the Key

Reaching these milestones required both persistence and steady funding from NPCHF, which since 2006 has supported the project with three grants totaling $285,000. But it also required the buy-in and ongoing support of an evolving group of funders and/or collaborators that has included the Montgomery County Human Services Department, Montgomery County Foundation Inc., Montgomery County Community College, North Penn United Way, the United Ways in southeastern Pennsylvania and the NJ 2-1-1 Partnership, a subsidiary of the United Ways of New Jersey which is handling the southeastern Pennsylvania 2-1-1 call center.

“It wouldn’t have happened without these partnerships,” says Russell Johnson, the NPCHF president and CEO. “It speaks to the value of collaboration and demonstrates how small investments, when targeted in a thoughtful way, can have a much bigger impact than individual contributions. None of us alone could have figured out how to achieve this and pay for what we are now getting.”

The Challenge

Literally scores of different organizations are established to provide health and human services to residents of Montgomery County. But the challenge is people in need can’t find them, in part because of:

  • Printed, quickly out-of-date directories: Many county agencies and service providers maintained their own resource directories to give to clients. Most of these are printed but quickly become outdated – in part because it was such an onerous task for providers to furnish information about their services to so many different agencies. (There are still about 50 printed resource directories alone in Montgomery County.)
  • Provider data that often was difficult to verify
  • Agencies describing their services in terms that users cannot completely understand or are not familiar with

For example, Johnson notes, if a provider says it offers day care, does that mean for children or adults? If for children, what ages of children is the care provided? Do they handle children with disabilities? What hours, such as evenings and weekends? Are lunches provided? If a provider offers child care, is that the same as day care or pre-school services?

Alternatively, if the day care provider dealt just with adults, do they care for people with impaired memories? How about adults with disabilities?

“Yet when a provider indicated it provided day care, that’s all that was recorded in most directories,” says Johnson.

Initial Steps

The ultimate goal of the NPCHF and its partners was to move towards a single, Web-based resource directory that both potential service users and agency staff could easily access. To do so, Barbara O’Malley, then the project director for the Montgomery County Human Services Administration, formed a steering committee of about a dozen representatives from service providers, foundations and the county’s information technology staff. The county had received a $1 million grant from the federal Health Services Research Administration to improve access to health and human services which, in part, could fund their start-up efforts.

The group’s first strategy was to piggyback on to an earlier Pennsylvania Department of Community Development grant that had led to the development of a Web-based, jobs-oriented workforce development directory in the county. When those efforts languished despite an additional grant from the NPCHF, the Montgomery County Foundation, Inc. stepped in to incubate and manage the project.

Johnson, a member of the steering committee, recalls an early “aha moment” when they learned about the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems (AIRS). The Fairfax, Va.-based organization’s taxonomy, or classification of types of service terms, had become the gold standard for organizing health and human services data. The committee realized they needed to establish a central clearinghouse where information provided by each service provider could be “scrubbed” by professionally certified AIRS taxonomists in order to assure the information was both up-to-date and properly coded.

O’Malley, Johnson and Jack Pond, the county’s former chief information officer, then traveled to Howard County, Md., to see how a county-wide resources directory could operate. They came away impressed with Resource House™, an information and referral software suite developed by North Light Software Inc., of Iowa City, Iowa which Howard County, as well as Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and some California counties, were already using. (The software has now been implemented in 14 states, 800 counties and more than over 250 help-lines across the U.S.)

Training sessions were held at Montgomery County Community College and elsewhere to teach non-profit agency staffers how to input data, and former Lockheed-Martin data experts were hired part-time to screen and input the resulting incoming data in the AIRS-compliant formats.

“The biggest challenge was gathering all the different types of data bases that already existed and getting all the agencies to correct and update their data to make sure it was current,” says Virginia Frantz, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Foundation. “It was a massive undertaking.”

The result: www.infolinkpa.org was launched in September 2008 as a Web-based resource directory for the use of resident and health and human services professionals in Montgomery County. It listed 1,200 different organizations that provided health and human services within the county.

Exponential Regional Expansion

A year later, in the fall of 2009 the six United Ways in the Greater Philadelphia Region, which had been providing some support for the project, stepped up in a much bigger way by suggesting that all five metropolitan counties leverage what Montgomery County had pioneered into a five-county system. The Montgomery County Foundation already had the license for the database software that NPCHF had provided, which could be expanded, and UWSEPA figured it made sense to also consolidate several other similar nascent resource directories, such as the CONNECT 211.org resource directory it had launched with the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children.

Rather than invent a new wheel, the program proponents also decided to utilize the NJ 2-1-1 Partnership, which had been operating that state’s 2-1-1 call center since 2005, to also handle southeastern Pennsylvania’s 2-1-1 calls. At the time, Pennsylvania was one of only two states that did not have such a system.

“We were in effect leveraging existing services and infrastructures, both Montgomery County’s InfolinkPA and New Jersey’s 2-1-1 call service, to create a central data base for southeastern Pennsylvania,” says Sara McCullough, the director of the United Ways of the Delaware Valley.

Besides cost efficiencies, such consolidation made sense for a number of other reasons. “There are municipal lines, county lines and service area lines but people don’t live that way,” says O’Malley, now the community health facilitator for the Montgomery County Health Department. “Plenty of people could work in one county, live in another and their child care, or other family members, could be in yet another county” – or across the river in New Jersey.

“Given the live-work patterns, it makes sense for us to be sharing data with South Jersey,” says McCullough. “You could live in Bucks County and work in Philadelphia or Camden, yet be interested in finding elder care for a parent who lives in Burlington County.”

Finally, says Laura Marx, the executive director of the New Jersey 2-1-1 Partnership, the fact that the five Pennsylvania counties and South Jersey are in the same TV and radio media market could enhance the collaboration’s ability to promote the 2-1-1 call service throughout the two-state region.

With no publicity, a “soft launch” pilot during all of 2010 resulted in 14,000 calls, e-mails and Web directory users from southeastern Pennsylvania. “We know we could answer 400,000 calls a year once it gets launched,” says Marx. Last year also was an opportunity for Marx to train her staff to handle the Pennsylvania calls and to expand the database, which now includes data on nearly 3,000 agencies operating in southeastern Pennsylvania. The focus has particularly been on updating data for the 20 percent of the agencies for which 80 percent of the calls are targeted – those that deal with food, housing and utilities assistance.

Agencies can now direct clients to locate appropriate health and human services by using either the Infolink Web site or the 2-1-1 call center. Both agencies and residents can also search online and print out the information using a wide variety of search options to obtain the most relevant information – including searches by communities or service topic. Because providers themselves can update their own information in the database any time, the information that residents receive or download is always as up-to-date as the providers care to make it.

“It’s already such a great resource, says O’Malley. “And as the awareness among agencies and the general public grows, it could really explode.

“We want to make it THE place to go for people who need health and human services. Having all these people put time and effort into one regional database is so much more valuable, with fewer resources needed to create a bigger bang.”

For the North Penn Community Health Foundation, for which the resources directory was one of its first larger scale initiatives and, $285,000 later, the lessons learned are clear: “For any project that is this complex and spans so much time, the need to be persistent in focusing on your goal and the need to be flexible in collaborating with many other partners are both paramount,” says Johnson.


Funders for InfolinkPA and SE PA 2-1-1 have included the Montgomery County Foundation Inc., Montgomery County Human Services Department, North Penn Community Health Foundation, the North Penn United Way, the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation and the United Ways of the Delaware Valley. Funding is currently provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services and United Way of Bucks County, North Penn United Way and United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania.