When storms or wildfires hit San Diego, the message from politicians and TV announcers is clear: Call 2-1-1 San Diego for help.

But the nonprofit best known for disaster response has a broader mission. Whereas calling 911 connects callers with emergency workers, 2-1-1 connects callers with social service agencies that address homelessness, poverty, health issues and countless other needs.

The nonprofit’s growth has exploded over the last decade, and it’s now looking to expand its reach even further.

2-1-1 San Diego holds a slew of county, state and local contracts, including with other nonprofits, to aid 1,200 callers a day with everything from CalFresh food stamp applications to referrals to health care or veterans’ groups.


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Since the 2007 wildfires, which helped draw more contracts and local awareness for the agency, 2-1-1’s gone from an organization of less than two-dozen employees to more than 140. Its budget has more than tripled in that time to more than $9 million.

In more recent years, the Kearny Mesa-based nonprofit’s been invited to weigh in more in local conversations about homelessness and food insecurity.

It maintains a database with details on thousands of local nonprofit programs, and who’s getting referred to them.That database has grown rapidly along with the nonprofit, and the group’s leaders believe it can serve as a roadmap for how to help more people and organizations in the future.

2-1-1 can spit out reports on the major issues its callers face. It also increasingly follows whether callers end up using the services they’re referred to and the roadblocks they and the nonprofits who serve them face. The information the group collects is often shared with nonprofits getting the referrals and even in regional reports about major community needs.

“We’re a data engine,” 2-1-1 San Diego CEO John Ohanian said.

2-1-1 San Diego recently unveiled its vision for a community-wide sharing system that allows agencies across the region to exchange real-time data and resources.

Over the long haul, Ohanian said 2-1-1 hopes to collect callers’ data – with their permission and privacy protections – and share it with local nonprofits they’re referred to so those groups can better address their challenges.

The goal is give 2-1-1 callers, many of whom are repeat customers, more personalized service and help the agencies that serve them learn more about who they’re trying to help.

For example, the collaboration would allow 2-1-1 and the nonprofits it works with to know their client is the young mother of a developmentally disabled child who’s repeatedly struggled to keep a full-time job and has sought food assistance at a handful of agencies.

That sort of information could help 2-1-1 connect her with programs that specialize in teaching job skills and helping her child in addition to a nearby food pantry.

The data-sharing could not only ensure the woman is routed to the best program for her needs, but also save time and resources at multiple nonprofits she might have visited to see if she qualified for help.

“Then we’re not starting from scratch every time,” Ohanian said. “It’s to provide a better service for people who are looking for help.”

Last month, 2-1-1 San Diego took over data-sharing nonprofit Community Information Exchange, which helps track clients of several health and homeless-serving organizations, to help ramp up.

Laura Deitrick, who leads the University of San Diego’s Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, said that increased data-sharing could be a powerful way to identify community issues that may not be on local leaders’ radar.

“The idea would be to understand where needs aren’t being met,” said Deitrick, who analyzes 2-1-1 data in USD reports on the nonprofit sector.

She said additional data-sharing could also be pivotal in a fundraising climate where philanthropists want to see nonprofits can offer evidence of results.

Some local nonprofits are getting a preview of how data-sharing with 2-1-1 can work.

One of them is Susan G. Komen San Diego, which awarded 2-1-1 a $50,000 grant to educate callers with breast health concerns and refer them to community clinics and other organizations that can help.

Lizzie Wittig, Komen’s director of grants and public policy, said 2-1-1 calls helped reveal confusion over the correct verbiage to use when making cancer-screening appointments. Some women were ending up with co-pay charges they couldn’t afford after requesting a mammogram instead of a so-called “well woman exam.”

“It’s something we wouldn’t necessarily have seen as early if we didn’t track it with 2-1-1,” Wittig said.

Dana Toppel, chief operating officer at Jewish Family Service, said 2-1-1 has allowed her organization to track whether callers referred there actually contact them. One of the two nonprofits checks in with potential clients a few days later to see whether they’ve contacted Jewish Family Service, a step that Toppel said can help reassure those who may have gotten overwhelmed or even embarrassed.

“It give us a chance to reach out and see if that person is still in need of services,” Toppel said.

Ohanian envisions even deeper data exchanges in the future. 2-1-1 might be able to identify a single client’s contacts with multiple nonprofits and tell Jewish Family Service about the woman’s history with others.  2-1-1 might also be able to fill out program applications for a client based on information she’s provided in the past or email and text her with updates.

The idea, Ohanian said, would be to give 2-1-1 callers a similar experience to the one they have with a bank, which tracks their activities and makes suggestions based on them.

2-1-1 is starting to build the infrastructure it believes can make that happen over the next several years.

The agency recently moved into a larger space with a goal of encouraging more collaboration and gatherings with nonprofits the call center refers clients to.

“The dream is really to create the 2-1-1 to be the nonprofit hub of San Diego,” 2-1-1 San Diego board member Emily Einhorn said.

The nonprofit’s working to raise $3 million to support their new space and beef up their technological resources.

Lisa Austin, who oversees the 2-1-1 program for United Way Worldwide, said she considers 2-1-1 San Diego to be among the most entrepreneurial in the nation.

“They’re going out and leading the pack,” said Austin, who said she keeps tabs on happenings at San Diego 2-1-1 despite the organization’s split from the United Way more than a decade ago.

Yet there’s still a long way to go. Ohanian said research has shown just one in three San Diegans knows about 2-1-1 and the organization must work to increase awareness of both its current offerings and potential to help in new ways.

“We’ve just kind of scratched the surface,” Ohanian said.

    This article relates to: Must Reads, News, Nonprofits/Community

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    2 comments
    Irene Grumman
    Irene Grumman subscribermember

    I just experienced a helpful call to 2-1-1.  I jotted down the categories such as age which will help me in future when I call to find a resource for someone.  The agent was courteous and asked intelligent questions.  I am a little worried that your laudable intention to compile personal data to help non-profits better serve clients will have an unintentional result.  Could someone find themselves excluded from one non-profit if another non-profit has a negative experience with them?

    Megan Scollay-Casillas
    Megan Scollay-Casillas

    Hi @Irene Grumman, Thank you for calling 2-1-1, we are so glad you had a positive experience with our staff and our service. You pose a valuable question about sharing client information across nonprofits and possible negative results. Your concern is valid; the intent is not to share information about a non-profits experience with a client, but instead to share only information that is required for a service provider to coordinate care for the client as part of a community care plan. In addition, client information will only be shared with their consent. Our goal is to provide a client-centric approach so individuals and families are receiving the best care in the region. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this with you in more detail. Please feel free to contact me at CIE@211sandiego.org.