Skip to main content

Author: Kara Holzer

“Change the World from Here” MAF CEO José Quiñonez awarded an honorary degree from the University of San Francisco

Graduation season is in full swing and we are thrilled to share MAF CEO José Quinonez delivered an unforgettable commencement address to the University of San Francisco’s School of Management graduates on Friday, May 17, 2024. In recognition of his lifelong commitment to social justice, José also received an honorary degree from USF. 

Dr. Nicholas Tay introduced José, saying “Your leadership, advocacy, and innovative approaches targeting financial inequality, serve as beacons of hope and inspiration for our graduates, that all may know of our great esteem for your heroic efforts to dismantle systemic barriers that unfairly keep people in need from building financial security.”

Echoing USF’s motto, “Change the World, from Here,” José shared his personal journey as a changemaker, from his days leading student protests to his role in founding MAF to serve low-income and immigrant communities with access to financial tools.

MAF (Mission Asset Fund) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping low-income and immigrant communities achieve financial success. Through award-winning financial services and programs, MAF helps clients increase credit scores, reduce debt, and realize their dreams – from homeownership to starting their own business. 

He shared three key lessons in his address.

Lesson 1: Embrace Challenges

“Don’t ignore, look away, or try to forget the challenges, obstacles, and hardships in your life. They may be painful experiences to recall, but find the courage to face and reflect on each and every one of them—for they are the markers of your journey, pointing you toward your purpose in life.”  

During MAF’s early years, while the organization launched its first financial product, Lending Circles, legislation became a roadblock to the success of the program. MAF worked to advance legislation that made California the first state to regulate and recognize nonprofit lenders for providing zero-interest credit-building loans to under-resourced communities.

Lesson 2: Stay True to your Values 

“Don’t hold on to fleeting passions or dreams or get distracted by chasing false shiny objects. Stay true to your purpose and let your core values be your north star, illuminating your path forward. Believe that your path will naturally unfold before you with every step firmly, confidently, and faithfully taken.” 

MAF broke with conventional approaches to working with low-income communities and people facing poverty by centering their dignity and treating clients with respect. MAF’s values allow us to meet clients where they are, provide services that are relevant and timely, while harnessing the power of finance and technology. 

Lesson 3: Have the Courage to Make a Difference 

“Our own personal and individual achievements are not enough when the world is full of problems screaming for attention – problems from devastating wars to alarming climate change to crippling social inequality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, loneliness – all preventing people from flourishing into our God-given potential, from becoming who we are meant to be as human beings.”

Millions of people live under the current broken immigration system, unable to become visible, active, and successful in their financial lives. José, like millions of immigrants, personally experienced the obstacles they face and has dedicated his career to alleviating barriers and creating change. 

You can watch José’s full commencement address here

Building financial resilience: Join the Lending Circles Network

MAF is inviting nonprofit organizations in Chicago, Florida, and Los Angeles to join our Lending Circles Partner Network. Selected applicants will receive valuable benefits, including training, technical assistance, and access to MAF’s loan platform to provide 0% interest credit-building loans to their participants.

Join the Movement

MAF’s Lending Circles program is a powerful tool for financial empowerment, transforming the lives of countless individuals and families across the United States. Over the past few months, our team visited Chicago, Miami and LA to meet with current partners and share how nonprofit organizations can join the movement to increase financial access and opportunity for all.

If you are interested in learning more about Lending Circles or becoming a partner organization, please visit MAF’s website or contact us directly at partners@missionassetfund.org. Together, we can create a more financially inclusive society where everyone has the opportunity to achieve their full financial potential.

Tandas, Susus, Lending Circles: A Powerful Tool for Financial Inclusion

In the ever-changing landscape of financial services, access to affordable and accessible financial products remains a significant challenge for many low-income and immigrant communities. MAF is a San Francisco-based community-centered organization dedicated to addressing these barriers.  Explore MAF’s transformative Lending Circles program and our innovative approach to financial empowerment.

Launched in 2008, Lending Circles is a unique social lending program that leverages the power of community to help individuals build credit, save money, and achieve their financial goals. Rooted in the tradition of social lending practices worldwide, Lending Circles brings people together to lend and save money, creating a safe and supportive environment for financial growth.

How Lending Circles Work

Lending Circles operate as peer-to-peer lending groups, typically consisting of 6-12 individuals. Each member contributes a monthly payment into a shared pool, and the funds are then distributed to one member of the group each month. MAF has formalized this existing community practice into a formal loan and reports monthly payment activity to the three major credit bureaus so people can get credit for what they’re doing in their financial lives. This rotating system allows participants to access affordable loans without the need for an existing credit score or collateral.

Benefits of Lending Circles

The benefits of participating in Lending Circles are numerous. Participants can:

  • Build credit: Regular and timely payments contribute to building a positive credit history, which can lead to improved access to mainstream financial products.
  • Save money: By setting aside a monthly savings amount, participants can accumulate savings and develop a habit of saving.
  • Achieve financial goals: Lending Circles can be used to finance various financial goals, such as starting a business, buying a home, or covering unexpected expenses.

Partnering for Impact

MAF’s approach to financial empowerment is deeply rooted in the communities we serve, but we didn’t want to go at it alone. We knew there are other communities across the nation facing similar barriers and organizations who are already supporting them to achieve their goals. MAF partners with organizations nationwide to equip them with culturally relevant financial tools that can be tailored to meet the unique challenges of their communities.

“It’s been really helpful to have Lending Circles when we are doing coaching for small business or for our first or home buyer classes for people who are interested in credit that may not be ready to take out a loan or maybe take out a credit card. Lending Circles has been really helpful to help build credit for those individuals and meet their financial goals.”

Elba Serrano, Director of Community Wealth & Services, East LA Community Corporation

“Lending Circles unlocks a new door to possibility, especially for the folks that we serve that otherwise wouldn’t have been eligible for mainstream credit building opportunities…yes, it’s a credit building; yes, it’s the savings, but it’s also creating an intentional framework with a familiar platform. Tandas in our communities are well-known and familiar.  Having that familiarity with the creativity and the innovation of MAF has been instrumental.”

Julio Pensamiento, Director of Strategic Partnership, Center for Changing Lives

If you are interested in learning more about Lending Circles or becoming a partner organization, please visit MAF’s website or contact us directly.

Funding for the Lending Circles Communities campaign is provided through a generous grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation. We’re thankful for their support to bring credit-building programs to more communities across the country. 

Welcoming the Education & Leadership Foundation to MAF’s Lending Circles Partner Network

At MAF, we are always on the lookout for partners who share our vision of a more equitable world for immigrant families. Today, we are thrilled to introduce our latest addition to the MAF partner network – the Education & Leadership Foundation (ELF).

Based in Fresno, California, ELF is dedicated to empowering underrepresented communities through a range of essential services, including immigration support, equitable education opportunities, and social justice initiatives. What makes this partnership particularly special is the personal connection that brought our organizations together. It all started when ELF’s Executive Director, Matías Bernal, first learned about MAF’s services in 2016 as a DACA recipient himself. Over the years, Matías has stayed connected with our organization and referred clients to MAF. Then, in the fall of 2022, Matías reached out to explore what a formal partnership and bringing Lending Circles in-house to ELF could look like.

ELF’s journey began 16 years ago, focusing on supporting undocumented students at Fresno State University through educational programs. Since then, they have expanded their reach and evolved into a Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited immigration services provider. ELF provides the community with education, civic engagement, and immigration services, as well as professional development seminars, leadership development, professional development internships, scholarships, and volunteer opportunities. ELF also initiates special projects like utility assistance and financial education workshops in response to community needs. Many of their clients are Spanish-speaking, English learners, or first-generation immigrants. Around 80% of the families they assist began their financial journeys with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), and approximately one in five of their clients either lack a bank account or have a deep-seated distrust of traditional financial services.

MAF’s Lending Circles program fulfills a crucial need for ELF’s clients, offering access to credit and capital when traditional loans and banking services are often out of reach or denied to the communities they serve.

At MAF, we believe that Lending Circles are a powerful tool for diverse communities across the United States. Our partnership with ELF is a testament to this belief, and we are excited about the positive impact we can create together in the years to come. We look forward to witnessing how Lending Circles will play a transformative role in ELF’s community, providing access to credit and financial education that can pave the way for brighter financial futures for immigrant families.

If your organization is interested in becoming a Lending Circles partner, we encourage you to reach out or join us for one of our upcoming Lending Circles Communities events. Together, we can continue to expand financial opportunities and empower communities across the country.

 

Research at Scale: Insights from our Latest IFRP Webinar

In our latest webinar, we pulled back the curtain to share how we are using technology and data with purpose in the Immigrant Families Recovery Program (IFRP). We provided a behind-the-scenes look at how we designed the IFRP program with a strong program foundation and data collection systems to ensure the reliability of our research results.

Christopher Dokko, MAF’s Evaluation Manager, gave an overview of our data collection process. He explained how we gather diverse data from our interactions with clients, including annual surveys, in-depth interviews, and administrative data from credit and asset reports.

At MAF, we use many technologies designed to work in harmony, ensuring a smooth research process and reliable data generation. However, the crux of our work is serving our clients. As Christoper noted,

“Data strategies require tech strategies to be intentional about not only what we’re hoping to learn but also how we engage communities.”

Trust is a vital element in our data collection process. Christopher emphasized that our research “moves at the speed of trust” and that our technology makes trust-building possible at scale. This trust has allowed us to collect vast amounts of data.

The team then dove into examples of the technologies MAF is using to collect and protect client data in the program. We covered how tools for client support ticketing, customer relationship management, email and SMS, and translation management were part of the overall system to ensure clients felt seen and supported throughout the process.

Using a support ticket platform to coordinate interactions among team members ensured that we maintained data quality. As context, the average participant in IFRP needed two instances of support, and our client experience team resolved a total of 4,616 tickets during enrollment. The system to respond to and resolve clients’ issues and ensure their data was correct formed the basis of trust as we began the research process.

As MAF’s Advocacy and Engagement Director Joanna Cortez Hernadez pointed out,

“Trust is a mutual process, and we build trust by actively listening to clients and responding to their questions about IFRP or other MAF programs. These interactions foster a sense of respect among our clients and provide valuable research insights. They help us understand clients’ daily challenges and how they navigate the digital world.”

The team also dove into the email and SMS messaging systems and how consistent engagement has helped increase response times and rates throughout the program. When clients first started interacting with MAF, they didn’t yet have a trusted relationship with us. Over the course of our program, we launched 147 IFRP-specific messaging campaigns, keeping our clients informed and engaged. Open and response rates increased as we developed our relationship through consistent and responsive communication. This led to excellent responses to short-form and longer annual surveys, with completion rates from 66-70%.

Joanna Cortez Hernandez, our Advocacy and Engagement Director, further expanded on how we use technology to foster trust. We use a translation management tool to ensure high-quality Spanish versions of our application for our predominantly Spanish-speaking client base. Using this tool allowed a combination of machine-generated and custom translation, which helped us streamline the process to better support clients.

Joanna also discussed how we embed trusted fintech tools into our application process. One tool we use allows clients who opt to set up direct deposit to also consent to release further data about their assets. This data provides a unique opportunity to understand the finances of the largely unbanked and underbanked community we serve.

Following the presentation, our CEO Jose Quiñonez led a fishbowl conversation with Christopher, Joanna, and Mariel Hernandez, MAF’s Communication and Engagement Manager. The team shared insights and anecdotes about how technology has made it possible to build trust and embed quality research into our programs. Mariel pointed out that organizations like MAF, with years of building trust in their communities, are uniquely positioned to provide research insights based on relationships and on-the-ground experience. José concluded by emphasizing the importance of integrating research into program delivery so we can continue to gather insights and further the conversation about financial equity for immigrant families.

Watch the recording here, and make sure to sign up for our newsletter to hear about our upcoming events.

Context is Everything

In our increasingly data-driven world, we often turn to numbers and data to understand complex issues, including the well-being of immigrant families. However, what data can’t always capture is the intricate context of people’s lives. This fall, MAF hosted the third webinar of our IFRP research series to dive deeper into the context of immigrant families’ lives, and what it means for nonprofits to show up and serve with intentionality.

“The only real difference between numbers and data is context.”

Christopher Dokko, Evaluation Manager at MAF, laid the foundation for the event by highlighting the significance of context in understanding immigrant families’ lives. Numbers can nudge us in the direction of learning about people’s experiences, but it’s not enough to get the full picture. Christopher pointed out that data collection should extend beyond what is traditionally considered to be an indicator of financial wellness. It should encompass various variables, including social conditions, identity, geography, policy landscape, and access to opportunities.

Taking it a level deeper, it’s important to understand that context and crises, like inflation or environmental disasters, don’t impact everyone equally, leading to uneven consequences. Christopher noted, “When we’re thinking about data within the context of the broader world, we’re not just thinking about what’s happening, but how it’s differentially impacting different people’s lives.” This holistic mindset allows us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of immigrant families’ lives, and how we can better meet their needs accordingly.

Graphic showing trends shaping financial security, including shifting modes of production, work and the value of money, and access to formal structures

How nonprofits show up in times of crisis

Given the ever-changing context of immigrant families’ lives, nonprofits serving those communities have a duty to listen intentionally to what families are experiencing and respond accordingly to meet their needs with dignity and respect. We were honored to be joined by three incredible nonprofit leaders doing this work across the US. In conversation with MAF’s advocacy and engagement director Joanna Cortez Hernandez, they shared their own learnings and experiences with us about how they show up for immigrant communities, and how they make it sustainable for their staff in the long run.

I think one of the most valuable things that we can offer the community is our commitment to listen, to be nimble, and to continue to create things that are actually meeting the expectations, the opportunity, the potential, and the needs.

Karla Bachmann, VP of Financial Wellness at Branches

For us, it’s really about focusing on an asset-based perspective. We know that there are lots of challenges; it’s easy to start off with all the things that, in our (Immigrants Rising) case, undocumented people cannot do. But it’s important to switch it up and say, what are the opportunities that do exist out there? Then, really focusing on those opportunities and meeting people where they’re at.

Iliana Perez, Ph.D, Executive Director at Immigrants Rising

One of the biggest things I’ve taken away is the space that we’re in. We have a kitchen, and we try to cook meals, como familia as much as we can… It gets us all in the same room to share stories, because those are the most powerful things that keep us moving and keep us doing what we do every day.

Lizette Carretero, Director of Financial Wellness at The Resurrection Project

In times of uncertainty, the context may shift, but our dedication to understanding, supporting, and celebrating immigrant families’ lives remains unwavering. We invite you to watch the recording of our most recent webinar and stay tuned for more insights as we continue this learning journey.

Starting over in a storm

Starting over is always difficult. Starting over after a ten-year marriage and with a two-year-old in the midst of a pandemic seems insurmountable. But this is where Diana starts her journey.

Diana had just begun a career in sales to be able to support herself and her daughter when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted her progress. In the early days of the pandemic, having a new career that required in-person interaction was especially difficult. Being unable to work, combined with the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, felt like trying to start her new life in the midst of a storm.

Finding her own way 

Faced with supporting her daughter on her own, Diana told us how she found the options for her very limiting.

In my case the job opportunities that I could aspire to, were not office jobs, they were hard jobs, restaurant jobs, cleaning jobs, those kind of jobs… So, the fact of considering eight to ten hours working at a job earning $10 (which I imagine is the average), I am talking about $80…What am I going to do with that money and I’m not going to see [my daughter] all day?

Diana decided to forgo her limited options and take on the challenge of learning sales and building her own career. She wanted to be able to provide for her daughter while also being present for her. Even though she received messages that she should do something safe, something predictable, Diana took the step to believe in herself. She shared that in the beginning, she had to overcome a lot of self-doubt, knowing that she was the only one who was there to support her daughter and to cover all the expenses for her household. But she found the confidence to move ahead and make her own way.

“When my daughter grows up, she will not complain to me, or maybe she will not even remember if I had or did not have money in the process, if I fed her, if I took her to extraordinary places. What she will complain to me is that I was not with her”.

Turbulent waters

Like many in our community, Diana was excluded from federal relief during the pandemic. Through talking with friends in her community, she found out about MAF’s programs—one of the few supports she could apply for as an immigrant.

“[MAF’s support] was the only economic support that I received in the COVID process, and it was a great blessing, maybe it was not thousands of dollars, but it was enough to give me peace in that process.”

As she was working through a difficult divorce, Diana had just lost her legal representation because she couldn’t continue paying. Her acceptance into the Immigrant Families Recovery Program came at the right time to help her hire a lawyer so she could navigate the divorce and custody process with a bit more peace of mind.

Just keep swimming

Diana’s dedication to her career as a way to provide for her daughter is evident as her eyes light up when she talks about her strategies to be successful.

“…My goal is every day to talk to everyone about my product, even if I go to take my daughter to the pediatrician. Wherever I go, I share what I do, I have my cards (I always bring them with me), and I share them with people, I go to a business and I put my cards there.”

Even though Diana was introduced to MAF through our COVID relief programs, she soon joined other MAF programs. Diana joined a Lending Circle in Houston with one of MAF’s partners. In community with other women, she participated in a Lending Circle for $200 per month and used the opportunity to raise her credit score from 400-500 up to almost 650 points.

Diana is always looking for ways to grow. She just opened her first office space to grow her sales team. She is excited to train a team in a way that helps them generate income and be successful themselves.

The next wave

We asked Diana to share her advice for others who may be facing similar difficult circumstances. Her resilience was evident as she shared what gives her the strength to keep moving ahead, even in the midst of a storm.

My advice would be to look internally within themselves, to look for help in faith, in God, no matter what religion they practice, what they believe, but to know that there is a power much greater than us, which is, in a manner of speaking, the hand that moves many things and that is much more powerful than us. Putting our trust in that power, in God, but also putting action to do the things that we have to do at the moment, not tomorrow, not what is coming in the future. I learned that doing things day by day will give you results.

Diana continues to work daily to provide for her daughter and build a better future for both of them. As she grows her business, she also shares her dreams for her family’s future. What she hopes for most is to see her daughter happy and fulfilled as she grows, and she hopes to one day be able to purchase a home to provide more space for her daughter to run and jump.

We’re grateful to Diana for sharing part of her journey with us after we met her through the Immigrant Families Recovery Program (IFRP). Learn more about the initiative here and how MAF is helping immigrant families rebuild from the pandemic.

Working with Annie Leibovitz and TriNet to uplift MAF’s story

We are honored to have the renowned portrait photographer, Annie Leibovitz, capture the image of our founder and CEO, José Quiñonez. Leibovitz’s work is well-known and respected worldwide, and we appreciate the attention her project with TriNet has brought to MAF.

A part of TriNet’s People Matter campaign, the video highlights MAF’s 15 years of improving the financial lives of low-income immigrant families with access to the capital they need to achieve their dreams.

With the support of a dedicated team, we have served over 90,000 people with emergency grants and credit-building loans. According to Leibovitz, what makes José a hero is not just his work with Mission Asset Fund, but his dedication to making the invisible visible. He understands that low-income immigrant families are often overlooked, and he is determined to help our community succeed.

Leibovitz’s powerful portrait of José captures his dedication and passion for his work. The image represents MAF’s work in the Mission District of San Francisco, where we help people who are often on the margins of society. It is a reminder of the power of helping others and the impact one person can have on their community.

José closes with the commitment to continuing our work to help improve the financial lives of low-income immigrant families nationwide. With the right support and resources, we can make a difference and help more people achieve their goals. And we are grateful to have such a talented and respected photographer as Annie Leibovitz help bring attention to our cause.

Transcript

José Quiñonez: Traditionally society thinks our poor people are just ignorant, they’re dumb. They’re doing everything wrong. That never really squared with my reality.

My name is José Quiñonez. I’m the founder and CEO of the Mission Asset Fund. What we’re trying to do is to help improve the financial lives of low-income immigrant families so that they can get a loan to buy a car, a mortgage, they can get a loan to start business.

As an immigrant myself, I came to this country when I was nine. I came here undocumented, so I know what the reality is like to be in the shadows. With the small business owners, for example, and they have very limited access to capital and all they want is just an opportunity.

When we started the mission as a fund over 15 years ago now, we were clear about our mission. The question was how to do that. So we brought a team together of young people.

Team member: What is staff engagement looking like?

José: Putting the best technology in the service of poor people. We were we’re constantly innovating. We’re constantly changing. Going from a local organization rooted in the Mission District in San Francisco to being a national player. It is quite the leap.

We were able to sort of expand at a blink of an eye because we have the support of TriNet. We’ve now served more than 90,000 people with emergency grants, with credit building loans.

I kind of feel like we’re just getting started.

Annie Leibovitz: José, he’s really like a hero. He’s an amazing man.

I knew these were going to be in environmental portraits. I really thought about how important it is to find the place that will resonate. It was a decision I made that the table was really his tool.

And they’re right out that window is people walking by the bus. You know, it’s the Mission district. I just felt like she was on the street. You know.

José: For a person like myself who has been at the margins of the world to get that type of attention of somebody like her, to be her muse for a half a day. I’m just completely in awe. This is a moment that we have been working towards trying to make the invisible visible.