Benefits Data Trust was all about data long before it was cool.
Launched in 2005, Benefits Data Trust, or BDT, is a United States-based nonprofit that harnesses the power of data, technology, and policy to increase access to critical public benefits such as SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid to help people live healthier, more financially secure lives. For more than 15 years, their team has watched in frustration as billions of dollars of benefits are left on the table because families either don’t know they are eligible or struggle to navigate the labyrinthine rules and requirements.
BDT realized that there needed to be more effective ways to identify and certify eligible households and that individuals and families needed more direct outreach and support in accessing benefits.
The solution, they proposed, could be found through data.
Even before the pandemic, more than $60 billion in public benefits went untapped each year in the United States. The lethal combination of a public health crisis, an economic downturn, loss of jobs, and increased isolation only exacerbated the problem, thrusting more families into vulnerable positions.
We have this extraordinary gap in the United States. We’ve created this social safety net, but it has unfortunately become a thicket of rules and paper and trap doors that put significant barriers in place.Trooper Sanders CEO Benefits Data Trust (BDT)
“We have this extraordinary gap in the United States. We’ve created this social safety net, but it has unfortunately become a thicket of rules and paper and trap doors that put significant barriers in place,” said Trooper Sanders, chief executive officer.
Deeply embedded in the organization’s mission is a desire to remove those barriers. At its core, BDT is about making it easier for people to access benefits and services that will help them eat, secure safe housing, and cover medical expenses.
“If you look at the full spectrum of what BDT is doing and boil down all the technical jargon, we are trying to save millions of lives through putting all these programs to work. That’s a pretty good reason to get out of bed in the morning,” Sanders adds.
It’s the inspiration behind BDT founder and Board Chairman Warren Kantor, who first noticed a problem when working with his mother to fill out a complicated benefits application.
He saw where traditional outreach methods fell short. Sitting in a health center and asking patients if they have insurance can yield small increases, for example, but it doesn’t come close to meeting the need. It was examining this inefficiency that got BDT off the ground, recalls Elisa Zygmunt, the deputy chief of innovation and product who has been with the organization from the beginning.
“Data has been a huge part of our foundation and it continues to be,” she said. “If you want to be a data-driven organization then by design, you are always evolving and innovating. It needs to be nurtured and we need to be constantly thinking about the questions around data governance, management, and quality.”
Data has been a huge part of our foundation and it continues to be. If you want to be a data-driven organization then by design, you are always evolving and innovating.Elisa Zygmunt Deputy Chief of Innovation and Product Benefits Data Trust (BDT)
BDT works in several different ways in diverse sectors to make benefits access easier, from on-the-ground support to big-picture systems change.
At the direct service level, BDT has Benefit Centers in seven states: Colorado, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and, most recently, Michigan. Through web, phone, text, and—pre-pandemic—in-person service delivery, BDT staff help families navigate benefits applications and work closely with state and local agencies to see the process across the finish line.
Driving this direct service forward are technology solutions that BDT continues to adapt and improve in order to increase outreach and create customized enrollment management software that work across channels and communities.
It’s data innovation, but not for the sake of innovation. Advanced analytics, leveraging machine learning—it’s all on the table—but they continue to stay anchored in the mission.
“There can be pressure in the nonprofit space to keep up with the ‘data Joneses.’ That may not save an additional life, so you really need to see data for what it is. Treat it as the ingredient to advance the mission. If it only takes a dollop, just use a dollop,” Sanders said.
Marta Miguel, the director of data analytics, has been with BDT for only six months, but has already been especially impressed by the talent strategy. Data and technology roles are not siloed—they’re integrated into all elements of the organization, and it’s common for staff even within the Benefit Centers to learn and grow into data roles.
“It is not back office. We are aiming to truly create an interdisciplinary organization. Data is infused throughout all of our work. We ask, ‘How do you blend folks who work in code and folks who work in prose?’ ” agreed Sanders.
That approach could be a model for government agencies, community-based organizations, health care providers, and beyond. These entities are far apart when it comes to where they are with data quality and accessibility. Therein lies the need for BDT’s support. Lack of capacity, lack of resources, and oftentimes, lack of political will, hold the public sector back from streamlining processes and creating a user-centered experience.
In 2021 alone, BDT facilitated more than 85,000 benefits enrollments. Since their inception, they have screened more than one million households. And the financial implications are significant. More than $7.5 billion in benefits have been accessed thanks to BDT’s help.
Those numbers provide credibility with states, communities, and public agencies, as evidenced by the more than 40 data-sharing agreements they have brokered. By closely tracking data and outcomes, BDT has been successful in building partnerships with the public sector, where they are better positioned to advocate for policy solutions to streamline benefits access.
But there is much work left to do, and until these public agencies make data more of a priority, Zygmunt knows that the need for BDT’s services will continue to increase.
“I haven’t seen massive data transformations at the government level and, to me, that just underscores that we are filling a gap for them,” she said.
The gap has never felt wider than during the pandemic. Agencies were shuttered overnight and essential services were delayed.
“A nonprofit should not be that essential during such a time of national emergency,” Sanders said. “It energized our thinking…how can we really be about improvements and modernization at a structural and systemic level?”
Which brings BDT to what comes next.
Today, they effectively cut red tape and streamline benefits access, transforming tens of thousands of lives each year in the process. And that won’t stop. But as the team looks to the future, they are excited to continue to go straight to the source, too, creating a cohort model for leaders who need technical assistance and will leverage that support to use public data in more proactive and productive ways.
From the grassroots to national policy, BDT will continue to break down barriers. They remain focused on dismantling, as Sanders says, the thicket of rules and paper and trap doors that stand in the way of benefits access and, by extension, the ability for families to thrive.
“Almost any major conversation that is happening today in the United States—be it around racial equity, be it about progress on gender and diversity,” says Sanders, “in all of those things, you can find a central role for improving access to benefits.”