May 3, 2023

Harnessing Minimum Viable Communities to Scale Public Benefits Solutions across the US

Key lessons learned from developing minimum viable communities to scale digital products that strenghten our social safety nets.

We’re excited to revisit a presentation shared by two Exygy product managers who are working on two critical social benefits platforms: Bloom Housing and CiviForm. One important thing to note is that both of these platforms are open source – Exygy believes that technology for the people should be governed by the people. To dig into that belief further, we will discuss the importance of community building in developing social benefit products. 

Note: this recording is from the 2023 Opportunity Project Summit on Feb 22, 2023. Exygy is proud to have participated in the Opportunity Project, and our founder, Zach Berke, has been an advisor to the Opportunity Project in their early years.

What is a Minimum Viable Community?

The concept of a minimum viable community (MVC) is about coalescing the smallest meaningful group of stakeholders as quickly as possible in order to build something that meets the needs of their shared purpose. It’s about filling seats around that first metaphorical table to allow for meaningful debate. 

The concept of an MVC has been around in one form or another in the community organizing space for quite some time. But, as technologists, we also find it to be an incredibly valuable parallel for how we like to build products. 

In agile product development, the concept of a minimum viable product rules all. In essence, an MVP is about asking ourselves over and over again: what is the smallest thing of value we can build in order to learn more? In order to kick off and maintain a feedback loop with our users?  

Over the years, the best analogy for this has remained this skateboard to car visual.

In this product scenario, the problem you need to solve is getting from point A to point B. As opposed to assuming we need a car, agile says: let’s build a skateboard and ride it to point B and see what else we may need.  

In the same way that the MVP is about getting the right functionality in place in order to iterate and build towards a robust product, the MVC is about getting the right people in place in order to iterate and build momentum towards a movement. They both understand that you have to start somewhere. And emphasize creating feedback loops as the key strategy for success. 

By assembling the first pass of the “right” people in the room, you start your work grounded in needs and with a sense of shared ownership. And, from the very beginning, you kick off the virtuous cycle of value creation required for scale. 

Scaling Access to Affordable Housing with Bloom Housing

It’s no secret that the United States is facing a housing crisis, and this is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where Exygy has its roots. This is a problem characterized by scarcity of housing units and by decentralization of resources. There is no centralized point of entry for a home seeker in need of housing, meaning that it can be hard to figure out where to start. And then, even once you find the starting point, housing applications are reliant on lengthy and complex paper applications that vary from property to property and even unit to unit. It takes a lot of work for even a slim chance at housing.

As such, Exygy envisions a world where applying for affordable housing is easy, user-friendly, and barrier-free.

The makeup of our first minimum viable community who helped support the launch of DAHLIA, the first San Francisco Housing Portal in 2015.

When we set out to realize this vision in San Francisco, we knew that we had to scope down. Many of you may know that there are many types of affordable housing, so we started with one piece: inclusionary units built by market-rate developers. By focusing on that group, we were able to more quickly understand what problems they were facing, and identify members of those groups that were working to solve them. Our first MVC began with city and county staff, 1 developer that built inclusionary units, and 1 nonprofit counseling agency that assisted with applications to those units.

This group constituted a diverse set of perspectives and was able to enact change quickly within their organizations, leading the launch of the first San Francisco Housing Portal in 2015. This portal enabled all properties to be listed on one site, and featured a streamlined digital application that was the same for all properties. Agreement between developers and local government were essential to enabling the creation of the common application.

This process was night and day when compared to the disparate, paper-based process folks were used to. So very quickly, we could show a vision of what the affordable housing application process could be. Soon after, we were able to demonstrate the value. Since launch, we’ve received over 400,000 applications through the site, 97% of which took less than 15 minutes to complete. 

Our original MVC in San Francisco allowed us to build relationships and connections in order to enact a change in the larger Californian affordable housing landscape. Our MVC members began to evangelize the work to other people in their networks, allowing us to bring in more developers in San Francisco and eventually expand to San Mateo County, then San Jose and Alameda County. Then in 2022, we expanded nationally, with our first implementation outside of California in the City of Detroit!

Lessons Learned in our First Minimum Viable Community:

  1. Begin with a diverse set of enthusiasts: Our first convening brought together a variety of people who were already interested in solving the problems facing inclusionary unit applications. This was the first opportunity they had to address these issues in this particular way, leading to the foundational agreements around key product features, such as the common app.
  2. Show vision and prove value: We have to show what government could be - an invitation for community members to join together in working towards something. 
  3. Show value to the community and create advocates: The advocates have been key for us in making connections that allow us to scale our work. 
  4. Build momentum: our MVP is building towards a product, but your MVC builds towards a movement. This is how we will realize our vision of a frictionless affordable housing application process. 
  5. Bonus - be patient! Community building takes time! We spent two years understanding San Mateo County’s unique context before bringing them on board. 

Increasing Access to Social Benefits with CiviForm

Every year, more than $80 billion in food, financial aid, healthcare, and other assistance go unused in the US. And we know that only 5% of low-income, working families with children receive the full benefits package for which they qualify. 

CiviForm is a free, open source software that provides residents, community-based organizations, and government teams with a one-stop-shop for public assistance applications. CiviForm was originally built by fellows in partnership with the City of Seattle, and is currently stewarded by Exygy. 

Photo credit:

Here are how some of our MVC learnings have mapped back to increasing access to social benefits via CiviForm:

  1. Begin with a diverse set of enthusiasts: The first two things the CiviForm team in Seattle did were ensure project buy-in and understand the landscape of available programs and how residents interacted with them. This set them up to build a coalition of highly invested stakeholders and understand where their needs converged.   
  1. Show vision and prove value: In very concrete terms, the team can say that by using CiviForm, the time needed to complete a Utilities Assistance application dropped from 33 mins to just three minutes. 
  1. Show value to the community and create advocates: By entering a virtuous cycle of value creation, you will naturally create advocates. Our advocates in Seattle are helping cities and states new to the platform think about the types of problems they want to solve in CiviForm.
  1. Build momentum: two essential elements for us here are making our work as accessible as possible and building awareness. That’s why it’s important that this is a free, open-source tool, available to the public. Storytelling is also essential: bringing your MVC into the larger conversation moves us all forward.

We are incredibly proud of the work done to ensure that many can reap the benefits of the collaborative nature of Bloom Housing and CiviForm, and see a minimum viable community as one way to frame this collaboration. If you’d like to learn more about our social benefits work, subscribe to our newsletter for project updates and more content like this, or subscribe to our podcast: Undoing the Digital Divide. As always, we’re here to chat about your projects:

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Isabel Shaw
Director of Product
Isabelle Hirschy
Product Manager II

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