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Lyft is teaming up with nonprofits to get people in need where they need to go

If you can’t afford a car or access public transit, how can you make crucial appointments like doctor’s visits or job interviews? United Way is helping, with an assist from Lyft.

Lyft is teaming up with nonprofits to get people in need where they need to go
[Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images]

It’s been a tough couple of years for George Zavela. The 77-year-old Houston resident and Vietnam veteran was laid off twice, and has had to depend on Social Security. On top of that, he had back surgery earlier this year. Now on the mend, his doctor wants him in regular physical therapy, but Zavela doesn’t have a car and even if he did, he couldn’t drive himself. He’s in no condition to get to public transportation, either.

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“So I did some looking on the internet for senior citizen transportation help,” Zavela says. That led him to the United Way, a large nonprofit network with local offices that help connect people with resources like health services and education. When he called the 211 hotline, the representative, Tonya, told him that through a new partnership with Lyft, they’d be able to send him a car to drive him to and from his PT appointments, free of charge. So far, Zavela’s used Lyft through the United Way around five times, and he says its been very helpful for his recovery.

When Veronica Juarez, Lyft’s VP for social enterprise, and Larissa Rydin, the United Way’s VP of strategic partnerships and innovation, first met in 2017, this was the type of outcome they envisioned if they collaborated. “Lyft has this superpower of transportation, and we, through our 211 hotline, have the superpower of being able to identify people in need of transportation,” Rydin says. This past June, Lyft and Untied Way launched the pilot program that people like Zavela have used in 12 cities, including Houston, Cleveland, and Denver. So far, United Way has dispatched nearly 13,000 Lyft rides through the partnership, Juarez says.

[Photo: Lyft]

Next year, Lyft and United Way plan to reach 25 metros in total. At the same time, Lyft is also building out partnerships with many other nonprofits, like the American Cancer Society, Be the Match Foundation, and Sister Friends, Detroit–a nonprofit that helps pregnant women and new mothers access health services and financial support–that have unmet transportation needs. Lyft drivers earn the same on rides delivered for nonprofit partners, though the company does not disclose how much money it brings in from its nonprofit partnerships.

Transportation–whether it be to a job interview, a doctors’ appointment, or another essential service–is one of the main requests United Way fields through its 211 hotline. While the nonprofit’s local offices have small budgets to provide transit for people, they don’t always have reliable outlets for the money. In some cases, 211 dispatchers can deploy a shared van to collect people. Or they can offer people discounted public transit passes. But in many cities, bus and light-rail systems don’t run frequently enough, or close enough to where people need them. In many cases, Rydin says, the United Way was simply not able to help people calling in for transport-related aid. In 2017, an average of 25% of the requests for transport made through 211 were not filled. In cities like Denver and Cleveland, that unmet need was even greater.

The Lyft partnership, though, has helped. In Denver, unmet requests decreased from 35% to 7%, and in Cleveland, they dropped from 37% to 11%. The way it works is fairly simple. A couple of years ago, Lyft rolled out Concierge, which is a dashboard that enables organizations to hail and pay for rides for people. Some medical institutions, like Denver Health, use it to get patients to and from important appointments. Because institutions take care of all the ride scheduling and payment on the platform, passengers don’t need to download the app–they’re just sent a text message or given a call telling them where to go to be picked up. United Way has found this to be helpful in assisting people who don’t have smartphones.

When United Way launched the partnership with Lyft, they wanted to focus on three use cases that would capture some of the more vulnerable populations in cities: people traveling to and from non-emergency medical appointments, people going to and from job interviews, and people accessing veterans services. The most pressing need, they found, was for medical transport. Around 42% of Lyft rides dispatched through 211 so far have been to and from doctors’ appointments.

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The need for more robust medical transport with no cost to passengers is also evident in Lyft’s other nonprofit partnerships. With the American Cancer Society, for instance, Lyft has provided over 10,000 rides. People in treatment, Juarez says, are often not able to drive themselves, and their immune systems are often compromised, making public transportation risky. For them, free, on-demand rides fill a real need.

It’s also proven helpful for people trying to get back into the workforce after homelessness or unemployment. That’s another area where Lyft has seen a lot of interest from partner organizations. Without income, even taking public transit to a job interview can be financially challenging for people, Juarez says. Lyft recently launched a partnership with Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, an agency that gets low-income people to and from jobs and interviews. Along with its work with United Way, Lyft wants to make the early stages of getting a job less stressful for people.

While all of Lyft’s partnerships with nonprofits have been developing over the past year or so, it was only recently that Juarez was appointed to head them up and develop a team to manage them. As the company moves into 2019, it plans to scale up their existing partnerships, and establish more with smaller, more localized nonprofits in places where Lyft has a presence.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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