Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a Public Benefit Corporation.
Aunt Bertha has been called the “Google of social services.” How did you come up with the idea?
I’m from a small town in Western New York and my mom had Encephalitis, a rare brain disease. She became disabled when I was 17 and she was 47. She could not work anymore and required 24-hour care. We were always a paycheck-to-paycheck family, and her illness made our situation even more complicated. Our family did the best we could to take care of her – we were fortunate to live in a small town with helpful family members nearby, and a low cost of living.
I’ve always been interested in public policy, and shortly after I became my mother’s guardian in 2002 I went back to grad school to get my Master’s in Public Affairs from the University of Texas. I worked in Texas helping governments better deliver on public services. I helped the State of Texas modernize how people find and apply for any of the 143 different State-based government services. And I thought, “How can you take all the agencies, county governments and non-profit programs and put everything in one place?”
OK, why Aunt Bertha and not, say, Uncle George?
We wanted the person in need to feel they were going to a trusted source. I worked in government consulting and so we wanted a play on Uncle Sam. So at first we wanted Aunt Sue. But that domain name was going to cost $3000. So we started using Aunt Bertha, never meaning for it to be permanent. But it stuck. And the best part was that domain name was only $13.00.
In Jersey City, leaders in government said asking people to claim their agency on Aunt Bertha has opened doors to new relationships and enabled cities to strengthen existing relationships. Was that your goal?
We want people to claim their agency and make sure all the numbers and names and services offered on Aunt Bertha’s listings are correct and up-to-date. But the building of relationships —that’s a great unintended side effect.
What is your sustainability model?
We’re a benefit-corporation. That means we are a business that serves to make a profit and also provide a social benefit. Our social benefit is to make this information available to people in need. If we get enough customers we can sustain our work. Many of our customers are grant funded, and some are large hospital systems and health plans that pay us monthly fees to fund our software creation and data maintenance. We currently have more than 90 customers and are adding new customers every month.
The Quality Institute’s Mayors Wellness Campaign is supporting Aunt Bertha in several New Jersey communities. How is working in New Jersey different from your work in other states?
One of the things I’ve noticed is that as we continue our work in New Jersey and with the Quality Institute we are seeing an uptick in search activity. We’re getting early traction from the health care sector and the ACOs (Accountable Care Organizations). People are working together collaboratively and creatively and we’re fortunate to be a small part of it.
Does Aunt Bertha activity provide a snapshot of local needs?
That is one aspect we envisioned all along. Since we started, we always logged our search data. Our goal was that – some day – as a community we’d see trends about what people are looking for, and what programs were available. Eventually, our goal was to give funders this information so we collectively would have a better understanding of what to fund.
With more than a million users now, we are beginning to see interesting trends. For instance, we see more searches for dental care in states that do not cover dental care for adults on Medicaid. Perhaps someday, our data can be used by communities to better match supply of services, with the demand for those services. That’s our vision for the future.