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Adventure to a Better World: Tiffani Ashley Bell is patching up the social safety net through water access

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Well, we’re still stuck at home. And we don’t know when we’ll get to come out. But more than ever, imagining the future is key to creating it. So I hope you’ll join me for the Adventure to a Better World.

Today I’m thrilled to share the story of Tiffani Ashley Bell, Founder and Executive Director of The Human Utility. Tiffani is a 2017 Technology & Democracy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, a 2014 Code for America Fellow, and certainly the most visionary technologist I know.

Tiffani, I know it’s a messy time with a big impact on your mission. Thank you for taking the time with me to explore the work of building the future.

No, thank you for talking to me about it, and always supporting. Thanks for having me.

So why don’t we start with something simple here to get everyone up to speed. What is the elevator pitch for The Human Utility?

The Human Utility is an organization that brings people together who, in the United States, can’t afford their water bills, with people who can afford to help. We help those people get their waters bills paid, to either turn the water back on or prevent it from being shut off. In the United States, we have many, many cities and water systems where, when you can’t afford your water bill, instead of helping in some useful way, they will just turn your water off when you don’t pay. That has a lot of secondary effects on people and their quality of life. In order to help people avoid some of those issues, we connect donors who want to donate to people who need the donations. Over time, we’ve been operating going into our sixth year, we’ve helped over 3000 people. A good number of those were kids. Either getting their water turned back on, or preventing it being shut off in the first place. We do that in Baltimore and nearly 30 different cities in Michigan.

So walk me through what happens when someone loses their water. Why is this is a big deal for the families you’re helping?

It’s a traumatic sort of thing, just starting with the concept of not being able to afford to pay your bills in the first place, and the kind of shame society likes to heap upon people when that happens, especially men. We find that men tend to be very uncomfortable asking us for help. There’s that concept that men are supposed to be able to provide for their families and whatnot. You know, it’s a very shameful experience people have, and often it’s through no fault of their own. So someone, for example, might lose their job, and they were already perhaps in a precarious financial position, so they can’t pay certain bills, so they start triaging. They pay their rent or their mortgage, pay for food and transportation, and then after that, certain bills like the utility bills go. So water gets shut off, next thing you know, you can’t take a shower. You can’t bathe. You can’t do laundry at your own house. Conditions start going downhill really quick after that. So you’ll have grown men bathing with bottles of water. You’ll have senior citizens, for example, who will dig a hole in their back yard and defecate in plastic bags in their back yard. And that’s how they will have to live until they get their water turned back on.

So this can shatter people’s families altogether if they can’t stay ahead of their water bill.

Exactly. Exactly, and so because the US Department of Health and Human Services has a guidebook on child welfare situations, when you have a house that does not have basic utilities—especially electricity and water—that house is thought of as unfit for habitation. And if you have a child in a house like that, they are considered neglected from a legal perspective. So even if they never end up going to school dirty or hungry, they’re still considered legally neglected. If someone finds out you have a child in a situation like that, they can come and take your child and put them in foster care. We have literally had people where that has happened to them. Either, you know, they had guardianship of a grandchild or something, or it was their own actual child, where someone told, or where they were perhaps being looked at anyway, and the water got shut off, and the next thing you know the child is being put in foster care. There’s other things too, like you losing your house. It’s just crazy, the side of it is if you don’t pay your water bill, in a lot of places that gets added to your property taxes, and if you don’t pay those, the house can be sold from under you, even if the house itself is paid off. So that contributes to homelessness and the destruction of neighborhoods. This happens, more often than not, to Black and Brown people.

So there’s racial inequity baked into this.


And you take this small—is it a small bill generally, that just gets out of hand, or are water bills very expensive in the markets you’ve been serving?

Well, in a lot of places, like Detroit, for example, I think the average bill is somewhere around $100 a month.

Oh wow, that’s more than cable.

Exactly. It’s totally more than cable. And for a lot of people who are living on fixed incomes, for example, which we all are, in a way—but it’s just levels of magnitude. For someone who is getting social security disability, sometimes those checks are no more than $700-800 a month. If you’re looking at someone owing $100, that’s a seventh of their monthly income that they’re having to dedicate to the water bills. So what happens is that sometimes people end up falling behind because something has happened money-wise, like a child gets sick or they get into a car accident, they lose their job and they can’t pay their bills like they previously were able to, and so everything spirals. One of our previous donors would call it a “cascade,” where it’s just a cascade of things happening one after another. Next thing you know, you have this $500 debt you owe the water department that no matter what you do you can’t pay back without someone else’s help. That’s where Human Utility and its donors come in.

I think a lot of people would look at this problem and be reasonably horrified that it’s possible for something like this to happen to people—for it to happen to one person, much less thousands—and they would shake their head and shrug their shoulders, and kind of move on with their day from there. That is not what you did. You looked at the situation and decided maybe I can help. How did you get started helping with this situation?

At the time I was a consultant in the City of Atlanta, in a position where I had access to all of the cabinet-level members of the mayor’s administration. We got to shadow the mayor. The point of that was to help them figure out ways to use a piece of technology to improve service delivery for their citizens. That whole engagement moved slow, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. At the same time I was seeing the cliche, how the sausage was made. Seeing how those decisions came together, I read one morning in summer 2014 I saw what was happening in Detroit. Based on everything I learned from shadowing people in Atlanta, talking to folks, it made me wonder what decisions had to be made in Detroit for them to decide to turn off the water of people—you know in visiting them, they don’t have anything. It’s not as if they’re taking their money and going shopping and being irresponsible. They literally don’t have anything. And so I read this article in The Atlantic about how 100,000 were about to have their water shut off. Mostly because they couldn’t afford it. I just started tweeting about it, which is what I always do when I find something to be sort of ridiculous. But my co-founder at the time, Kristy Tillman, we figured what if we could pay the bills of people who we knew the stories of. With more digging, I found a PDF on the water company’s website that was 400 pages of accounts who they supposedly couldn’t deliver the bills to through the mail. So they posted this list to the website.

So they’re publicly shaming people whose water accounts were in arrears, for some reason.

They didn’t have names in the files. So it wasn’t quite shaming but it was just there for some reason. What was there was what they owed and also their account numbers. The way the website worked for the utility at the time, if you took one of those account numbers and plugged it into the website, you could access someone’s account information without a password, username or anything. But also the way they were structured they didn’t have names attached to most of the accounts. But you could see their full consumption, billing and payment history. Also what was there was a “make a payment” button. So I thought to myself forget this PDF, we don’t know the stories of these people, but what if we put up a website to find people where we knew what was going on with them, connected them to people, and said “if you want to help donate and pay this person’s water bill, we’ll give you this person’s account, you can log in, pay what you want to pay, and send us the receipt for having done so. That’s how we got started.

So that worked?

Yes. In the first 30 days of us doing that, we had paid $100,000 in water bills for people. There was no goal. We didn’t even expect it to work, actually. 

You didn’t expect people to care?

Not to care, but just, it’s sort of a weird thing to pay someone else’s water bill. So we didn’t expect people to actually jump up and do it. But you know, people did it. They realized there was a need. Again, I was living in California and I didn’t have a water bill. I didn’t understand any of the things I understand now, how important this is. I’ll just say I was taking it for granted until I read about this myself. I thought other people would think of it that way. But no, people piled in and totally wanted to give.

Keeping this accessible for the layperson, you talk about seeing a problem and seeing that maybe you could solve it through technology. Can you tell me a little bit about how complex the technology was that you started with to try to solve this problem?

<laughs> That’s the beauty of what we did to start off. It wasn’t complex at all. It literally was a website that was hosted on Heroku, which is like a web hosting service. It was designed with some ready-made user interface design templates. All we did was put together the copy describing the problem, here’s how you can help, and there was no actual backend. The website was designed to look like a form that went to a database. But everything just filtered into a Google spreadsheet that we used as the backend initially. So even when someone applied, they applied through a Google form. And everything was managed that way. Because Kristy and I at the time had full-time jobs and didn’t have any way or time to build some overly-complicated thing. We didn’t even initially take money at the beginning. We had to put everything together really quick using existing tools. It wasn’t complicated.

You weren’t taking money, you were giving people account numbers and instructing them to log in and pay the bill?

When you would pledge your amount we would send you an email with instructions and then the account number, and then that’s all it took at that people to help people.

So you start off with something straightforward, you build this super lean, because you don’t know at the start how well people are going to respond to this call to action. You don’t know if people who are in need are going to feel comfortable accepting the help, but as you said, you got $100,000 of bills paid in the first month. How did you evolve from there?

The consulting engagement that I had with Atlanta was only for a year. Toward the end of that I needed to figure out what to do after that. I had intentions of doing something totally different, but I saw the demand for what we were doing was still very great. As I learned more about the problem, I realized this is not a thing that’s going to stop. People are not going to stop applying for help, people are not going to stop giving either. It was one of those things where fate lines up in terms of something you clearly should be doing. The same week that engagement happened, we ended up getting a grant for $100,000 from a funding organization called Y Combinator. And they’ve funded companies like Stripe, Dropbox, Airbnb, Instacart, companies like that, but they also gives grants to non-profits that some kind of technology angle to them. So that lined up perfectly and that allowed me to go full-time. That was at the end of 2014 that we got that funding. And I’ve been doing this full-time ever since.

What was it like going into a community like Y Combinator where I’m guessing the bulk of your peers were trying to raise money, to make money, to ultimately get rich, on one side, and here you are not trying get rich off of any of this. How did you fit in with that culture?

For a number of reasons I did not fit in. But I tried to learn a number of different things as part of that program. Regardless of whether you’re a for-profit or non-profit, they want you to have a focus on metrics as much as you possibly can. I adopted certain software to better keep track of how much money we’re raising, and the impact that has on people. One of the other things they emphasize is growth. That’s not always good, but in our case it was important to grow our donation volume in order to help more people and be taken more seriously. And there were techniques I learned in that program that definitely helped us out. I previously had a for-profit startup background so there were a lot of things that were no unfamiliar for me. So it’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. But I just tried to take what I could from the program and apply it as best as it could be applied.

I have seen you talk about how challenging it is for a non-profit to raise money. And the kinds of hoops you have to jump through in order to continue solving the problem that you’re solving. Can you walk me through the basics of those hoops?

The concept of fundraising itself is a problem that you’re trying to solve alongside the actual issue that you’re working on. With me, previously, I worked at a non-profit for barely a year, before I started this, but there was no insight into how the non-profit really operated. I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect as far as fundraising goes. When I would approach foundations, you realize there’s a whol process for “approaching” a foundation that is itself bureaucratic. Foundations are sitting on billions of dollars of assets to give to non-profits in different causes. But one of the things you have to do is write what’s called a “letter of intent” or LOI if you want to apply for a grant. It’s a letter you send to tell them you want to propose to ask them for a grant. <laughs>

This is like Victorian courtship.

Yes! If you don’t send this LOI you can’t even send them a full propose for a grant. Of course first, they have to say in response to their LOI, yes we want to hear more. And if they don’t respond then you’ve wasted time writing a letter. But that’s how a lot of foundations work. That’s regardless of how much money you’re asking for. A foundation that’s giving you $10,000 can make you jump through the same hoops that a foundation offering $1,000,000 can make you jump through. In a lot of cases I’ve actually not taken foundation money because of stuff like that where, especially early on, I was still getting the hang of things, I didn’t have a lot of time to do things like write 20 page proposals for $10,000. I ended up saying “this process doesn’t work, thank you for your consideration but I actually can’t do this.” That was a foundation that reached out to us. So even if they reach out to you, they still have you jump through these hoops. Some non-profits are funded with a total mix of sources, so some non-profits are funded from government grants, and they have their own sort of requirements and hoops to jump through, and we don’t take any of that, so I can’t speak fully intelligently to that. But the other side of it is, in addition to foundations, there’s money from individual donors. That will be your high net worth philanthropists. A lot of that is relationship driven, so if you’re not in certain circles, you don’t have access to those people and their money, even if you’re running an organization that’s totally deserving of it. If you don’t know somebody who knows somebody who knows a super wealthy person who can write you a check for $1,000,000 and not blink, you’re cut off from that sort of funding. Even if you do know people like that, because the non-profit sector, a lot of people operate on sort of a scarcity mindset even though—to me, there’s trillions of dollars on earth so you shouldn’t need to think that way, a lot of people still do. So they’ll find reasons to not make intros to people for you. So a lot of it, again, is driven based on relationships and your usual human biases around money and who should have access to it and who shouldn’t. Going back to foundations, even, I’m a Black woman who does not come from money, who is not connected to a lot of people, in the sense of “oh yeah, I can just call so-and-so and they’ll just make a phone call for me.” In the moments where I have tried to fund-raise from foundations, it mostly has not gone well. I think some of that comes down to basic biases that people have in the non-profit sector. Most philanthropic organizations you’ll get in front of are run by white people, it’s a white person’s money being distributed, and if we’re completely honest, most non-profits are run by white people, they are funded by white people, and in a lot of cases where it comes to foundation money, and a lot of them are used to writing grants to each other, to serve people who look like you and I, Black and Brown people. So when I come sitting in front of them asking for some amount of money, they’re kind of like “well, who are you?” There’s a certain awkwardness that happens and I think some of it comes from not being used to having to write grants to people of color. I forget exactly what the stats are but most non-profits do not have a person of color at the helm. I think the number is less than 10% of non-profits have a person of color running them. And that number is even smaller when you’re talking about extraordinarily well funded non-profits. That’s a lot way of saying that’s why I really lean on everyday individuals to fund the work that we do. I think that I get better traction that way and people really understand they have their personal stories for why this work is relevant to them and why they want to give. They’re very disinclined to make me jump through hoops for a donation. I actually prefer that versus having a foundation or one ultra high net worth person funding everything. It’s the case for a lot of non-profits right now in the middle of this financial crisis, where if you have one foundation that suddenly has to pull the plug on you, your mission is in jeopardy. Whereas if you have thousands of smaller dollar donations, you’re better able to predict what you’re going to have in six months, and your mission is protected because there’s no one person who can pull the plug on you. And this reminds me of a conversation I had in 2015 with an investor who does a lot of non-profit giving. He told me “foundations and other entities are not going to be your best source of money. So don’t even make budgets on the basis of getting their grants. Cultivate individuals and build a monthly giving program.” And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

So you’re an outsider in both the universes of people in tech trying to make themselves rich, you’re an outsider in the universe of non-profits and their administrators. In any case you’ve found a way to make this work through the pursuit of individual, small-dollar donations. Why do you think that you have been able to be successful in cultivating those donors?

I’ve been a very visible person in my career, just because being a Black woman in tech, and then having a following from talking about my career, I think people have appreciated that, and especially the transparency I’ve had with certain struggles I’ve had. A lot of people have been following me for years and they to support that. Other people they just want to have something they’re part of that’s meaningful, that they can relate to on some level. A lot of donors are people who are actually in tech. They see the same tech they use at work being used for another purpose, that they can rel ate to. “Oh yeah, I use that programming language to do this, and you’ve built this thing that uses it for something else.” There’s actually a ton of reasons. We ask people on the donation form why they give. A lot of has to do with “I think what’s happening with people, and their water being shut off, is completely wrong, and my way of fixing that is donating.” Some people it’s as simple as “I used to date someone from Detroit, and I want to give because of that.” There’s a bunch of reasons but I think at the end of the day, we’ve given people a way to be a part of fixing an issue that shouldn’t be an issue in the first place.

You’ve had some conversations high net worth individuals. How have their inclinations toward giving been the same or different from, I dunno, everyday folks who are part of your regular giving?

For some of them, they have not always been wealthy. And so those are the people I’ve found, even though they’re wealthy now, they are more generous with us than some other people have been. Other people, like investors, venture capitalists, they know that there are people just like them that are becoming wealthy off of things that are, perhaps, not as good for society, so they want to dedicate some of their largesse toward things actually are good for society. Other people, it comes down to—a lot of high net worth donors, I’ve noticed, and this is everybody, but I think for some people it’s more common and more important to them, they seem to latch onto causes that are sort of the cause du jour. Where I’ve seen a lot of people who have ever donated to charity before in a concerted way really jump on this Coronavirus situation, for example, who has given a lot of money recently who I’ve noticed over time he really gives to whatever cause is in the news that’s really a big deal, but you don’t see his philanthropy otherwise. I think for some people that’s what’s driving them. I have my opinions on that, but as long as people give, even if it’s not to us, if you’re contributing in some way or another, that’s a good thing. I’m not one of these people who’s like “if you didn’t give to us, you know, you’re terrible.” I think people should give look for something to give to if they have the ability to.

Obviously you’re happy to be a recipient if they are so moved.

Of course! Of course.