Author: Tomás Quiñonez

San Mateo Neighbors

Neighbors Showing Up: The Story of the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund

A few weeks ago, the MAF team received a Slack message we didn’t expect to see. Our Programs Team had just disbursed the sixteen thousandth cash grant to immigrant families in San Mateo County. Over the course of a year, we were able to touch the lives of one of every two undocumented immigrant households in the entire county by providing unrestricted cash grants of $1,000. These dollars helped families keep a roof over their heads and food in their refrigerators when the federal relief efforts excluded our neighbors in their hour of greatest need.

The San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund was designed to provide aid to those left out of the first CARES Act and began with a total sum of $100,000. It ultimately grew to a $16 million lifeline for those left last and least. Yet it almost didn’t happen.

By many accounts, it should not have. Only through the dedication and conviction of a diverse group of partners, old and new, was the fund willed into being. Against many odds, we came together with leaders across non-profit, philanthropic and civic sectors to weave threads of connection into a fabric of support for those left in the financial shadows. 

It was, put simply, a moment of neighbors helping neighbors. Here’s how it happened.

In late May of 2020, MAF CEO José Quiñonez received an unusual email. It was a request to support a rapid response fund being stood up by a local organization. He considered declining and moving on to the mountain of other urgent messages coming in. The MAF team, after all, had our hands more than full. We were focused on helping people across the country survive the pandemic through the Immigrant Families Fund, providing cash grants to families who had been overlooked again and again by federal relief efforts.

We knew, immediately, that immigrant families would be left last and least in this crisis. We moved quickly to create the Immigrant Families Fund to support families around the country who were facing higher rates of unemployment, eviction and death from COVID-19. This work pushed our team to its limits as we navigated the uncertainty of the pandemic and maintained our existing operations. There was no room for another feather on the camel’s back.

Something, however, pulled at José to respond to the request. For one, this message came from a long-time friend and ally, Stacey Hawver, Executive Director of The Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County. In addition to being a leader in the immigrant rights field, Stacey had been an instrumental partner in 2017 when we created the nation’s largest DACA application fee assistance program. We’d gone through the gauntlet together and knew she shared our values in working tirelessly to support immigrants with dignity and respect. We trusted one another.

Beyond the weight of Stacey’s word, this request hit close to home for José. It was personal. Since MAF’s founding fourteen years ago, our team members, partners and clients have called San Mateo County home. The county is simultaneously one of the wealthiest regions in the country and also has one of the highest rates of income inequality. When the weight of the pandemic was applied to this uneven social fabric, the consequences were devastating.

In an instant, the pandemic evaporated immigrant families’ most basic financial pillar: income to support their families.

More than one in three immigrant households in San Mateo County had no income at the height of the pandemic, a 10x increase from before the pandemic. This strain was particularly hard on immigrant families with young children. Nearly one in three immigrant families in San Mateo County have young children, and among these families, three in four reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during the pandemic.

While we might not have known these statistics at the time, we knew, intimately, the challenges our clients there have faced over the years. The relationships we maintain with clients last through triumphs and sorrow. Ever since California’s stay-at-home order was issued in March, our phones rang daily with clients reaching out for help. José had heard one story that he couldn’t get out of his mind.

“I myself am a recovered COVID-19 patient,” said Rosa. “It struck me emotionally and I also lost my job because of it. I’m currently unemployed and have a son I have to look out for. I’m desperate and am in really need of some financial income to support my son and myself with food and rent. The pandemic has struck my life emotionally and changed my way of living, all for the worse.” 

He had never met Rosa personally. He didn’t have to. MAF was created with the mission of providing timely, relevant services to those left in the financial shadows. Knowing that people in our own backyard were being left to suffer through the most extreme crisis in living memory was enough to act. We had to show up for our community, to do more, even if that meant pushing to the edge of our limits and beyond. It’s who we are. 

Amidst the urgency of the moment, there was no time to waste. José fired off a response to Stacey, setting up a call to learn more.

The journey had just begun.

Soon after, José logged on to a Zoom meeting. It was the first time this group was gathering and there was a palpable feeling of potential and urgency. It turned out that the rapid response fund that José had spoken to Stacey about was one of a few funds being germinated simultaneously across the county. One leader at The Grove Foundation, José Santos, had the foresight to see how this could confuse families and turn away potential funders. He convened the groups together in the hope of uniting them in a single effort. 

As Zoom profiles populated across José’s screen, familiar and new faces greeted him. In addition to Stacey, another long-time MAF ally on the call was Lorena Melgarejo, Executive Director of Faith in Action Bay Area. Lorena and her network of community leaders had also played a critical role during our 2017 DACA campaign and we respected their grounded commitment to lifting up the strengths in the immigrant community. Not only that, but Lorena had actually worked at MAF previously, and José knew she was a fierce advocate for our clients.

A brief round of names at the start of the meeting introduced two new partners: John A. Sobrato, a philanthropist based in San Mateo County, and Bart Charlow, the CEO of the non-profit Samaritan House. John, we learned, is a prolific donor who has joined the Giving Pledge and has a history of showing up for families in his community. Family plays a large role in John’s philanthropy: not only does he support causes that support families in the Bay Area, but his own family gives back to the Bay Area through Sobrato Philanthropies. John was also a long-time supporter of Samaritan House and was determined to lead a rapid response fund for immigrants in San Mateo after seeing a similar fund created in Santa Clara County. 

Each partner was fully on board with delivering the grants as quickly as possible. The unspoken question on everyone’s mind, though, was: can we come together to make it happen?

The first call was a dive head-first into just that. José shared with John the details of MAF’s financial technology platform, explaining how we were leveraging our infrastructure to deliver direct cash assistance to immigrant families on a national level. The challenges in doing so were substantial, so MAF’s ability to hit the ground running in San Mateo County situated our team as the natural lead for disbursing funds. José reaffirmed a commitment he made to Stacey that MAF would manage the disbursal process at no cost.

Our goal, first and foremost, was to help people keep a roof overhead and food in their refrigerators.

We heard repeatedly that our neighbors in San Mateo County needed help, people like Milagritos.

“I have been struggling to feed my child who is 10 years old and as a family, we have had a hard time paying our bills and rent,” shared Milagritos. “I have been very stressed because of the job situation during COVID-19. I don’t know when I will be back to normal work hours because I clean houses and people do not want anyone in their homes.”

With Milagritos’ story in mind and the meeting coming to an end, there was a sense that the first hurdle had been cleared. Under normal circumstances, a collaborative might take months to form and a funder might require several rounds of requests for proposals, applications and interviews before making a funding decision. But we were operating in crisis mode. There was no time for business as usual, and John respected and trusted our organizations to serve families in San Mateo County quickly.

We leveraged existing relationships to rapidly forge bonds of trust. José began working the phones to speak with partners, funders and allies who already knew John and Bart in other contexts. He also communicated with both directly, scheduling 1-on-1 calls to get to know them better while emailing back and forth at two in the morning to keep the fund moving forward and get cash into families’ hands faster. The others did the same. 

Within a week of José’s first call with Stacey, the new team convened a second time. We would go all-in on a single effort, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund. The partners had arrived at this decision from a shared desire to serve the people in our community. There was no time to waste. Collectively, we had the capacity to serve people with dignity and respect. Our partner organizations would leverage their relationships and grounding in the local community to invite as many families as possible. John would lead fundraising and rally the philanthropic community in San Mateo County to support our efforts. MAF would manage the application, approval and disbursal process. Samaritan House and the Core Agency Network would follow up with grant recipients to provide wrap-around services beyond the initial $1,000 grant.

John then blew us all away. He raised our target from $1 million to $10 million and personally wrote a check for $5 million.

The grant was in our account within a day, much to the shock of MAF’s Finance Director. This was the largest individual donation we’d ever received. We weren’t alone in the surprise.

“We’ve never worked on anything at this scale, especially at this pace,” recalled Stacey.

Undaunted and energized, we all moved quickly. By the time we formally launched the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund in July, John had delivered a total of $8.9 million from individual donors, corporate foundations and the County’s Board of Supervisors. While this level of tenacity dropped our jaws, we came to learn it was par for the course with John.

“Here’s a man willing to shake the tree so that people he considers neighbors are taken care of,” shared Bart. “You could see it in his eyes.”

With funding secured, our partners hit the streets to get the word out to families, sharing information through strong networks of church congregations, hospitals, community resource centers and legal aid providers and through television, radio and more. MAF began hosting weekly Facebook Live sessions for clients and provided FAQ materials to partners. With a surge in COVID-19 aid scams rising at the same time, our focus on a single message from many trusted voices was instrumental in cutting above the noise.

The strategy worked. Within the first month, we had received more than 17,000 pre-applications, with more coming in each day.

It was a challenge handling the high volume of applications with limited staff resources, but our commitment to putting the needs of our clients first never wavered. We centered our clients’ experience throughout the application process, providing tireless, individual support to each applicant as needed. 

“If you put out money, and in the middle there are flames and dragons, the money doesn’t matter because people cannot get to it,” explained Carolina Parrales, Faith in Action’s Lead Community Organizer for San Mateo County.

We designed every aspect of the client experience to be relevant, timely and grounded in their reality. We hired translators to translate the application into four languages, refusing a simple Google translate widget to ensure it was accessible to all San Mateo County immigrant communities. We developed two methods of delivering grants to people without checking accounts so the barriers many already faced—lack of a bank account—wouldn’t keep them from getting the relief they needed. And throughout the year, we checked in regularly with our partners to share updates and make sure we were getting the word out to families.

Together, we worked to overcome the “digital grand canyon” for some families. It was one thing to remind an applicant that they had forgotten to upload a photo of their paystub. It was another entirely to walk an applicant through creating their first email account, securely saving a password, filtering junk folders and explaining how to create online profiles. Hundreds of applicants needed this level of support and, together with our partners, we showed up. The Legal Aid Society team even hired a full-time staff person to focus exclusively on assisting applicants in this way.

Our partners provided hands-on support to clients, staying in daily communication with the MAF team to ensure no one was falling through the cracks. It was demanding work. We made it happen, refusing to let go of our conviction that every client feel respected, seen and supported through the process, regardless of whether we could provide a grant immediately or not.

“Help is about more than money,” shared José. “It’s about showing that we care, showing that we see them, that they’re not being left behind.”

One year later, the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund ultimately raised more than $16 million to distribute in its entirety as 16,017 grants to families.

The collaboration between our lead funder, John, and partners MAF, Faith in Action Bay Area, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and Samaritan House has touched the lives of half of undocumented immigrant families in the county. For comparison, California’s initial $75 million disaster relief assistance funding reached about 5% of undocumented immigrant families across the entire state. 

We would not have been able to achieve this level of impact without John’s persistence in pitching, advocating, calling in favors, twisting arms and challenging even existing donors to step up again with more. He was as relentless as he was clear-eyed in his primary argument.

“If not now, when?” John shared. “Many of these people have helped us for many years. Now is the time for us to help them.”

It is difficult, though, to celebrate a job well done when it was born of the unspeakable, unjust suffering of the people we work with, who live in our neighborhoods and who we greet on evening walks. Words to describe this experience live somewhere between enraged sorrow and humbled gratitude. Yet even that falls short.

As the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund closes out, we know the work is far from over. The light at the end of the tunnel so many of us are looking forward to is dimmer for immigrant families. In San Mateo County, one in five immigrant families depleted their savings during the pandemic, while one in four had to borrow money to pay for basic living expenses. The mountains of debt families have incurred will take years to pay off.

For San Mateo families who had a household member get sick with COVID-19, they face an even longer road to recovery. They were more likely to have fallen behind on rent and utility bills than those families who didn’t get sick. Families who had COVID-19 were also 60% more likely to have skipped meals to make ends meet. 

This financial devastation for immigrant families isn’t unique to San Mateo County. Through our work with the national Immigrant Families Fund, we know that families across the country are struggling financially. In our national survey of more than 11,000 grantees, eight in ten people reported that they were unable to pay at least one of their bills in full during COVID-19. Three in ten respondents have had to borrow money to pay back later, including carrying balances on credit cards. We’ll need to continue to support these families in their financial recovery, listening to their needs and working together to maximize impact for immigrant communities.  

This will require more support, smarter strategies and more active collaborations. To inform these actions, we’ve distilled four insights from our successes and challenges with the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund, which can be applied to serve communities across the country.

1. Client-centered design produces services that treat people with respect and dignity.

“There was always someone applicants could reach,” recalled Stacey. “This was a commitment on José’s part to design a process that makes people feel respected throughout.”

Centering clients in service design comes from our conviction in lifting up the full, complex humanity of the people we serve. This means that from the way a client completes an application, to the way they receive services, to even the language used in every email, we center the lived realities of our clients. We know we’re succeeding when a client feels seen, heard and spoken to, in addition to feeling supported. 

The follow-on impact of this success is services with high engagement and satisfaction rates. However, these measurements should always remain secondary to a focus on remaining timely and relevant to the lives of clients.

2. Coordination requires trust between collaborative partners.

“Collaboration and coordination are not the same animal,” explained Bart. “Collaboration is a good foundation for coordination. But coordination requires mutual trust.”

Effective partnerships begin with a shared vision but succeed only when they come together and deliver. Trust is required to navigate the inevitable challenges any partnership faces and we’ve learned that trust can be built when all partners see, value and respect the strengths of each other. When John stepped up with the first $5 million, he trusted that we would disburse it equitably and with dignity. We, in turn, trusted that John would respect our processes, team and technology. 

Each partner trusted that the others would carry their weight, drawing on their expertise to accomplish our shared goal of serving our community. That’s precisely what happened.

3. Community begins with seeing the humanity in our neighbors.

“Growing up, I attended a Jesuit high school that espoused values in consciousness, competence, and compassion,” said John. “Those values have always stuck with me. We need to treat the neighbors in our community with compassion and respect.”

Language matters. It is no coincidence that today’s political discourse is fraught with ways of dehumanizing those left in the shadows. Language such as ‘aliens,’ ‘illegals,’ ‘foreigners,’ or even ‘janitors’ and ‘baristas,’ all serve to place distance. Yet each person has a name, a story and a place they belong. When we choose language that celebrates connection instead of separation, a thriving community is possible.

MAF has always been adamant in pushing for this shift in discourse, and John consistently carried this sense of community, compassion, and empathy into meetings with other funders. This is a shift we must continue to push.

4. Business-as-usual doesn’t work in crisis. We’re not out yet.

“The reality is that immigrant families face a long and arduous journey to financial recovery,” reflected José. “We’ll need more collaborations and public-private partnerships like what happened in San Mateo County to meet the needs of families.”   

As any organization grows in size, there is always a temptation to focus on maintaining the status quo for its own sake. However, community-based organizations that exist to provide services have an imperative to never lose sight of the realities of the people they serve. If a legacy process is getting in the way of responding to a crisis, a new approach is required. This willingness to do things differently, to move swiftly and boldly, was essential to the formation and delivery of the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund.

And the crisis is not over. We must continue pushing ourselves to respond to the moment, to show up, do more and to do it better.

Paying It Forward : Nancy’s Story

Nancy Alonso is no stranger to the unexpected.  The Southern California native has faced more than her share of challenging and tragic storms.  Through them all she’s kept moving forward, a captain doing what she must to steer ahead with her two children in tow.

Nancy’s story, at its core, illustrates how the financial system can distort itself into shackles on the dreams of hard-working people.  It also shows how community can be the key to set them free.

Since having their first child when Nancy was 21, she and her husband had dove headfirst into the race of life.  

They stretched each dollar to the next month’s paycheck, sometimes, making it through with breathing room. Most often, though, there were hurdles to overcome. Should they pay for the latest medical bill or the week’s groceries? 

Nancy and her husband both worked hard, and both hustled to make ends meet. He would pick up cardboard outside his cousin’s restaurant to sell. She would take their two kids’ outgrown clothes to the flea market for extra cash. They did what they had to.

Yet far beyond the edges of the next immediate hurdle, a horizon of dreams beckoned them ever forward. Nancy and her husband saw a house of their own nestled on that horizon. One day, they knew, she’d leave her retail job to work as a medical assistant. Then they’d be able to breathe not only on occasion, but all the time. Day by day, year by year, they continued pushing ahead knowing that with each other no hurdle was too big.

Then, on October 9th, 2019, Nancy received a call from the hospital.

One month later, her husband had passed away.

In a daze, Nancy moved back in with her parents in San Ysidro as the world moved in slow motion around her. The shock gripped her as she shared a bunk bed with her son, entered the COVID-19 pandemic and helped her family through her father’s stroke in June 2020. Slowly, she began to pick up the shards of her broken life and build a new mosaic of her future.

Her husband, it turned out, had a modest life insurance policy. She’d never known about it because they never spoke about finances. Now, at last, she could afford to buy a home. But when she went to a lender to discuss a mortgage, she found out she had a poor credit score and couldn’t qualify. She’d never looked into her credit so this, too, was devastating news.  

Nancy was stuck. 

The financial system that had never been more than an afterthought was now the moat standing between her and a lifelong dream.  She even looked into private apartments to get back on her feet.  These, however, all required 2-3x income to rent ratios and she was not able to fill the salary gap her husband had left.  Her kids still needed to be cared for and her previous medical assistant program had been less credible than she’d hoped.  Nancy was finally at the doorstep of possibility, yet the hurdle holding her back was one of the biggest she’d faced. And this time, she was alone.

“That’s when someone told me about Casa Familiar,” Nancy recounted. “They mentioned a program to help me improve my credit score. But they are so much more.”

Casa Familiar, a San Diego-based community services organization, brought Nancy to one of their first Lending Circle programs.  

She joined an LC to raise her score and was quickly able to do so.  After 3 months, Nancy raised her credit score by 118 points. 

Then she started asking questions. And the Casa Familiar team had answers. They helped Nancy access Social Security funds she’d never known about, shared resources on financial planning and helped schedule COVID-19 vaccinations for her parents.

“Every little thing I ask, they help me,” she glowed. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

Today, Nancy is on track to increase her credit score enough to qualify for a mortgage and is working to secure a job as a medical assistant.

Even though her husband is not with her, she carries on the dreams they’d held together, moving day after day toward the horizon they’d seen so clearly. There are still many hurdles to overcome, and Nancy is resolute that none will stop her. After all, she’s not alone.

“Mariana at Casa Familiar called to tell me she had a surprise,” Nancy shared. “Because I’ve been making all my payments on time, she gave me a bonus of $500 from a Kaiser grant. I cried because I was able to help out my parents more. For all the bad things that have happened to us, good things have happened too.”

Nancy continues asking questions, learning how to navigate a new world while passing on hard-won knowledge to her children, 17 and 13. In this way, she hopes, they will have a head start on the race of life she’d sprinted through for so long. 

Regardless, the children already possess an invaluable gift of their own; grit and steel determination to chase after dreams. This inheritance was passed down by Nancy and her husband, together.

Studying Through A Pandemic: Marlena’s Story

Marlena sat at her desk in April of 2020, unusually unfocused as the biology Zoom lecture droned on in the background. She eyed her phone, blank where she was waiting for notifications. Her finger tapped to the rapid beat of her nervous heart as, for the first time in a long while, she felt the grip over her ambitions slip. She always held the reins to her future firmly in hand. The world, though, was shaken and so was she.

Marlena is not easily shaken. 

At the start of the pandemic, she was in her second year of studying biomedical engineering at Crafton Hills Community College where she blazed a path as a first-generation college student and woman of color in a heavily white, male field. She forged ahead in spite of prejudice, choosing to add it as fuel to her fire. 

However, when her parents both saw their hours cut during the pandemic, Marlena was suddenly uncertain how she’d pay for the next semester’s books. So she reached out for help. Then she waited. The waiting was the hard part.

“Not being able to control everything around me was really hard to process,” she said.

Marlena first learned how painful losing control could be when she was 12. 

Her father, the sole bread-winner of a family of six, worked for a company that got acquired. He turned down an offer to keep his job at a steep pay cut, which caused their mortgage company to come after them like a pack of vultures and sparked a lawsuit that left the family in financial ruin.

“We lost everything,” she recounted. “We lost our home, we had to move and it took us about seven years of living paycheck to paycheck to get back on our feet.”

Marlena’s experience taught her early that there is only so much your own two hands can influence. Sitting with her parents and siblings at their dining table through many hard conversations also taught her that finances are fundamental to building a future. She took these lessons to heart and threw herself into her studies, gripping the reins of her future with characteristic ferocity and discipline.

Marlena graduated with the highest honors from her high school as her class valedictorian and one year early. After completing her associate’s degree, she plans to transfer to a four-year university to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s in biomedical engineering. While her current accomplishments are remarkable enough, for Marlena, they’re just the preamble.

“My dream is to create the world’s first 3D-printed organs,” she shared. “I’m so passionate about my studies because I want to save lives.”

Anyone who knows Marlena understands that while she radiates passion for her field, her love for her family is, somehow, even more potent. She would never trade family for her own ambitions. So in typical Marlena fashion, she has gone about her academic journey with a mission to lift the financial burden of college on her family with unrelenting focus and dedication.

“I’ve probably applied to hundreds of scholarships,” she recounts. “I apply to the big ones and the small ones, too. I know every bit adds up. At one point, I was applying to two scholarships a day.”

Her hard work was paying off.  

Between her scholarships and her parents’ support, she had made it through the first two years of study without compromise. Then the pandemic derailed her plans. Marlena was suddenly considering reducing her course load for the fall semester because of the cost. She then began searching for external resources and came across MAF’s CA College Student Grant.  

The $500 grants were emergency financial relief for students in need, regardless of academic performance. Because of the sheer volume of demand, the MAF team created a financial equity framework to bring those left last and least to the front of the line. We prioritized those who had lost income, were financially strained and were marginalized from other funding.

Students like Marlena should never have to choose between their grocery bill and their books. 

Students should have the time to study without worrying about tracking hundreds of scholarships. For this reason, MAF leveraged the best of technology and finance to deliver grants as effectively and quickly as possible.

Back at Marlena’s desk in April, she released a full-bodied sigh of relief. She’d just received an email from MAF that her application was accepted. By the end of that day, she saw the grant deposited into her account.

“Within 24 hours, I saw the funds in my account and I was able to buy my books,” she beamed. “Receiving the grant gave me hope. There are others out there investing in me and my future.”

With her family firmly beside her and a growing circle of supporters cheering her on, Marlena is well on her way to realizing her dreams. And it’s working. Marlena ended her semester maintaining a 4.0 GPA and will be graduating in 2021 with highest honors before moving on to UC Riverside on a Regents scholarship. She credits honoring her Native American great-grandfather and her faith as key inspirations in making it to this point.

“I know there are many others who are going through the same things I am,” she says. “If I’m able to encourage and inspire them to not give up, that makes everything worthwhile.”

At MAF, we know she will do just that. She already is.

MAF’s Vision for Showing Up & Doing More

As vaccines roll out, many of us see a light at the end of a long tunnel. But this light is dimmer for immigrant families who have been repeatedly excluded from federal COVID-19 relief.

As we look to recover, how can we show up & do more to help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives faster?

On Tuesday, May 11th, we introduced a vision for MAF’s future and gathered to discuss how all of us—across sectors—can show up and do more for immigrant and low-income families. 

Reflecting on 2020

At the outset of the pandemic, the MAF team moved swiftly to show up in ways that mattered. We launched a Rapid Response Fund to support immigrant families who were hit hardest by the pandemic and denied federal aid. We delivered direct assistance to families left last and least to help them weather this crisis.  Since the Fund’s launch in April 2020, MAF has distributed over 50,000 grants and counting to immigrant families, small business owners and students.  Here is the behind-the-scenes story of how it happened.

Our Vision For The Future

As José Quiñonez, MAF’s CEO, said in the closing of the video, this work isn’t over, and we can’t do it alone. As an organization, we’re moving forward from the same foundation that has guided us the past 14 years: a community-centered approach focused on the people we serve. 

Our community-centered approach is actually quite simple. We meet clients where they are and create programs that build on what is good and true in their lives. We work to scale solutions using the best of technology and finance because we know that financial security is foundational to every dream realized. And we use our learnings and insights to advocate and organize our collective power for systemic change. 

This community-centered approach is our guide for doing good work that is rooted, timely and relevant to the communities we serve. It’s how we can realize meaningful social change. It’s not just theory. 

We start by listening to our clients. 

In the wake of the pandemic, immigrants are surviving on just 15% of their pre-pandemic income.  Families are falling behind in utility bills and rent. Some owe thousands of dollars that will be hard to pay off in the future. In MAF’s national survey, we found that 4 in 10 families are behind in rent and at risk of eviction. 

And it all could have been avoided. Immigrant families were denied up to $11,400 in stimulus checks.

Most families could have paid their monthly bills in full with $1,200. In other words the stimulus checks could have helped immigrant families cover their bills for nine months or more.

We respond to client realities with new products.

This summer, MAF is launching the Immigrant Families Recovery Fund (IFRF) to put these insights to work helping families recover.

This $20 million fund will provide cash grants of $300 per month for up to two years to 2,500 families with children. MAF’s recovery fund will focus on undocumented immigrants across the country who have been excluded from federal assistance. We’re putting equity front and center to focus on marginalized families with the least income sources and most financial strains. 

We’re going beyond cash grants. We are also providing direct, timely and relevant services to help families recover faster with financial coaching, education and self-advocacy training. We plan to evaluate and study everything about our engagement with immigrant families so that we can lift up what works, share stories and push for policy change in real time. 

We scale what works.

We are also expanding the tried and true programs that work – we’re building on our long track record of successfully helping families improve their financial lives by expanding our credit-building programs even more.

We are investing over $6M into Lending Circles, our award winning program that is rooted in the timeless tradition of people coming together to help one another.  We are investing over $10M in immigration loans to help people apply for citizenship, DACA or green cards.  We also plan to invest over $9M in small business owners, entrepreneurs who need their first lender to believe in them and their dream. 

We create a culture of engagement.

Financial security is not just about finance. It’s about power and voice. For this reason, we are investing in our technology to enable a culture of engagement for our clients.

The team is hard at work expanding our MyMAF app and SMS platform to provide relevant, accessible information about issues that matter. These technologies are empowering clients to take action from the personal to the national levels. Ultimately, clients can lead the field to better solutions. 

This is our vision for showing up and doing more. 

We’re investing $70M over the next three years to build our infrastructure and expand our programs to help immigrant families recover faster. 

We know that the road ahead to building a more equitable future is a long one, but together we can make sure the light at the end of the tunnel is brighter for immigrant families. 

So, how can you help by showing up and doing more?

We invite you to take a look at this webinar recording where we lay out our vision for the next three years. 

You can learn more about how to support our programs by reaching out to our philanthropy team at [email protected]

We encourage you to follow along with us on social media for updates as we launch the Immigrant Families Recovery Fund. 

Finally, share with us on social media how you are #ShowingUpDoingMore for immigrant and low-income families.  

MAF Awarded $45 Million To Support Immigrant Families During COVID-19 Crisis. It’s Still Not Enough – Congress Must Act.

Building on MAF’s nationwide COVID-19 Rapid Response campaign, philanthropist Mackenzie Scott awarded MAF $45 million to provide direct relief to those hit hardest by the pandemic. Mackenzie Scott’s generous gift enables MAF to continue providing financial relief to immigrant families excluded from receiving help. Over the past year, MAF has already distributed direct cash assistance to 48,000+ individuals to help them weather the crisis—and today the organization is poised to do even more. 

In spite of these efforts, the reach of a single organization like MAF is nowhere near enough to meet the staggering financial devastation faced by millions of immigrant families left out of federal relief. We need leadership and action at a national level to ensure the last and the least are a part of a sustainable recovery.

Congress has taken meaningful steps in recent months to expand the safety net when families needed it most.

The December 2020 COVID relief bill and 2021 American Rescue Plan extended the latest rounds of financial relief to more than 3 million people in mixed-status households left out of the 2020 CARES Act. Yet, an estimated 11 million people in immigrant families continue to be denied assistance even as they keep the economy afloat in essential work.

“As an undocumented person who has filed my taxes for twelve years, it has been hard to have to accept that in times when we struggle, we are unable to receive anything back.” 

Juan, Rapid Response grant recipient

This exclusion comes at a time when our economy rests on the shoulders of essential workers who cannot access support to weather the pandemic even as they are suffering higher rates of COVID infections and deaths. Essential workers are immigrant workers and many have no access to relief. They are going hungry, falling behind on rent, missing monthly bills for no fault of their own. 

More must be done. 

In meeting this moment of crisis, Congress must advance desperately needed relief and include everyone—regardless of immigration status. Over the last year, we have seen how the health and economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen disproportionately on the marginalized, excluded, and invisible. Congress must expand support to all immigrants, putting equity front and center to deliver relief to the least and last. This intentional focus on equity is at the heart of MAF’s Rapid Response Fund, and the means by which the organization has provided nearly $30 million in direct cash assistance.

“We’ve spent 14 years building scalable platforms, relevant products, and a national network of community based organizations to help low-income and immigrant families improve their financial security. Now, we’re using our platform as pipes to effectively and with dignity distribute the crisp waters of relief into the hands of those most parched, those who have been denied and forgotten.”

MAF CEO José Quiñonez

MAF’s capacity to act and scale quickly is a direct result of the partners who have and continue to believe in its vision of leveraging the best of technology and finance in service of those left in the shadows.  Their sustained support has enabled MAF to pioneer new ways of meeting people where they are, in the fullness of their complexity and their humanity.  MAF is now expanding its equity-centered work helping low-income and immigrant families directly during this unprecedented crisis. 

MAF applauds Mackenzie Scott for showing up, with urgency and conviction, to do more for families relegated to the shadows. Now it’s time for Congress to do the same. 

Immigrants are essential, risking their lives to keep our country afloat during this pandemic. 

They have stepped up for us, and now it’s our turn to step up for them. If we really want a more permanent and prosperous path to recovery, Congress needs to eliminate the structural barriers that have long stood in the way of people’s abilities to reach their full economic potential. 

Today, we have not one but five proposals on the table that could help us get there. We have proposals that would provide legal status and protections to millions of Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, farmworkers, and essential workers and their families. While these bills can be the critical building blocks to move us forward, they are not the end goal. Congress must ultimately push forward with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which offers a sweeping reform that would grant 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. 

By removing these long-standing barriers which have for so long pushed millions into the shadows, immigrants can have the opportunity to rebuild their financial lives more fully and with dignity. They can have financial stability in their lives to rebuild their financial security, and have a fighting chance in a post-pandemic recovery. 

Our work is far from done—it is our collective responsibility to urge our representatives to take immediate action. We need to offer relief and citizenship for all if we truly seek to rebuild an equitable world that works for all.

Four Years of Possibility: The Legacy of Sustained Organizing

The attack on the Capitol was horrifying. Devastating. Yet the narrative dominating the headlines is only one side of this historic month. When we flip over the decaying face of hatred and fear, we see another face of our nation emerge, fresh as rain and hopeful as a dream. We celebrate, despite tragedy, because this vital face is powerful and dynamic. It continues to nourish those of us who believe in a world where all people can be accepted and can be loved.

The historic, unprecedented, monumental victories in Georgia bring us one step closer to that world.

Warnock, the first black Senator of the South, and Ossoff, the first Jewish Senator of Georgia, represent the hopes of a richly diverse community of supporters. Their victory ensures that these hopes might soon become manifest for those in the state of Georgia, the nation and, we can say without hyperbole, the entire world.

A victory of such epic consequence did not, could not have come overnight. It was instead the culmination of a decade’s long, herculean effort in organizing lead by the inimitable Stacy Abrams, Deborah Scott, Felicia Davis and many others from the “next iteration of organizers” who trace their heritage to the civil rights heroes of the last century.  We lift up the names of these catalytic black women who lift up the voices of so many others, those who’ve been forgotten, denied and left in the shadows for far too long. 

Their voice, their power manifest, is the shot heard ‘round the world.

While the incoming Biden / Harris administration has a daunting task before it, they will be able to accomplish more, govern better, and lead more boldly because of the groundwork set for them. Put simply, years of diligent, persistent base-building, coalition-gathering, table-setting and dedicated organizing was able to flip a red state blue and unlock an entire horizon of potential progress.

We cannot waste this opportunity.  MAF is calling on accountability for the following policy promises in the first 100 days:

Expanded COVID-19 economic relief

Giving people cash assistance at critical moments in their lives can be transformational. It can be the difference between paying rent for another month, or falling into a downward spiral of financial struggle. Rebuilding starts with financial security. COVID-19 has devastated families’ finances, causing ripple effects of economic insecurities into other areas of their lives. People have had to skip meals, fall behind on their rent, and avoid seeking medical attention during a pandemic. Delaying relief will only make it harder for people to recover. 

When the federal government offered relief, it excluded 15 million people because of their household immigration status. From day one, MAF has advocated for relief for all, regardless of status. MAF stepped up to offer cash assistance to 43,000 people. 

From our research, we see the definitive impact cash assistance can make in people’s lives. In MAF’s survey of immigrants left out of CARES Act relief, we saw a 10-fold increase in the number of immigrant households who have no income today. If these families had been included in the CARES Act, more than one in four would have been able to pay off their bills in full for the month with as little as $1,200. We can’t continue to exclude our essential workers–we need relief for all.  

Immigration reform

We urge the Biden Administration to keep his immigration campaign promises. Reinstating DACA will be a great first step—but we can’t stop there. We need comprehensive policies that will protect and help all immigrants rebuild their financial lives post COVID-19. This means starting with a path to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have lived in this country for decades and many counted among essential workers fighting at the frontlines of this pandemic. 

This also means keeping families together, giving asylum-seekers the opportunity to seek safety, and ending discriminatory Muslim bans. If we truly want to rebuild this country after this pandemic, we need to invest in people. Let’s start by extending protections to our essential workers and their families–millions of immigrants who have stepped up for us in our time of greatest need.  

The lesson we draw from Georgia is that these policies are only possible when built atop the victories of joyful, inclusive organizing. For this reason, we’ve been investing in the mobilization work necessary to create a true culture of engagement for all people, regardless of status. In 2020 we engaged our community of over 100,000 about the census and election, listening to their stories and needs.  In 2021 we’ll continue to organize more boldly and fearlessly because the fight for the next election, the next mid-terms, the tomorrow of our dreams, has already begun.

The headlines may very well continue to be dominated by the scowling faces of loud, white men. Yet we’ll continue to keep our eyes on that other face, steady at the head of the march towards justice, the light of hope that keeps us warm in the bitter fight for equality, ever forward.

5 Keys To Relevant, Intentional Campaigns

“Is there a Latino vote?”

In the wake of the 2020 presidential campaign, this is a question being posed by pundits, pollsters, and politicians grappling to make sense of the turnout results. This year was a watershed moment for the Latino electorate, turning out at nearly twice the rate as compared to 2016 in early voting. The extraordinary growth of Latino voters underscores the truth that there is no path to the White House without the Latino vote. So does it actually exist?

The answer, not surprisingly, is both yes and no. Certain shared experiences do certainly bring the Latino community together in a broad cultural plane. Yet the expansive range of experiences and backgrounds breaks down any notion of a monolithic Latino identity, as no single issue nor political affiliation unites all Latino voters. This diversity within diversity means that Latino support of any party or policy cannot be taken for granted. It requires a constant investment in time and resources during and also between elections to build lasting, strong connections. Politics is personal and the key to mobilizing Latino voters is messaging that speaks to their lived experiences.

This guiding focus on meeting voters where they’re at is second-nature to MAF. In fact, a client-centered approach within a community framework is how we’ve built all products and services over the past 14 years. We’ve recently applied this same rigor to our mobilizing campaigns and have been building on this approach most recently in our GOTV campaign to 105,000 clients. Here’s what we’ve learned are the 5 keys to running a successful campaign for a diverse electorate:

1. All voices are needed for a culture of belonging

Mainstream political campaigns tend to only focus on voters most likely to vote. They disregard those unlikely to vote. They ignore entirely those ineligible to vote. Ignoring those ineligible to vote is both a mistake and a missed opportunity.

What, instead, we know to be true is that every voice counts. This recent election demonstrated many states won, lost, or were sent to recount based on incredibly small margins. While there was a record voter turnout, participation still could have and should have been higher. We believe that all people, regardless of their immigration status, should be engaged in campaigns that shape our future because not only can their voices tip the scale of individual elections, but because it creates a broader culture of engagement. And it is this culture of engagement that will be the key to safeguard the soul of our nation as we build toward a more equitable future.

2. Segmentation requires humility

After 2016, the DNC realized the importance of segmenting their voter files to craft more targeted, relevant messaging to “sub-ethnicity voters.” In this way they were able to peer under the broad Latino umbrella and target Dominicanos, Mexicanos, Tejanos, and Cubanos with more relevant messaging. While this is a step in the right direction, it still assumes too much about the lived experiences of voters simply by their family’s nationality.

People should also have agency in the segmentation process by self-selecting based on their lived experiences. In our GOTV campaign, we sent out an initial survey that allowed clients to do just that. After receiving their responses, we were able to follow up with each audience segment that they opted into in order to speak to them at a deeper level.

3. Create messaging for each segment group based on values

Even further than audience segmentation, thoughtful, relevant messaging to audience groups is imperative. We found that culturally relevant, emotionally engaging messaging around values of inclusion, belonging, and community was more impactful than standard, transactional rhetoric because it speaks to the heart.

Even further than audience segmentation, thoughtful, relevant messaging to audience groups is imperative. We found that culturally relevant, emotionally engaging messaging around values of inclusion, belonging, and community was more impactful than standard, transactional rhetoric because it speaks to the heart.

4. Test your assumptions and messaging

As a learning organization, we remain disciplined in always testing our assumptions. In the context of a campaign this discipline translated to running experiments with samples of clients to determine which message most resonated with each segment. As a rule of thumb, we would create 3 messages for each audience segment, and test each message with 200 contacts. This willingness to learn during each campaign produced insights that enable us to improve our messaging with each subsequent campaign as we continue developing our relationship with clients.

5. Reach clients where they’re at

When it’s finally time to launch the actual campaign, the last crucial step is to design multi-channel campaigns that meet people where they are at. While it may be more of a lift for the campaign organizer, it is imperative that the messages that have been so thoroughly prepared are ultimately delivered in a meaningful and impactful way.

For this reason, we designed our GOTV campaign to include both email and automated SMS because we learned previously that English and Spanish-speaking clients have different communication preferences. The industry standard response rates for SMS are an impressive 22%. The Spanish-speaking clients of our GOTV campaign doubled that number, responding to our crafted, targeted messaging at a rate of 44%.

Despite the immediate successes of this campaign to demonstrate the impact of outreach to communities largely left in the shadows, the major victory of our effort was its contribution to a broader culture of engagement. This cannot happen overnight, nor through transactional activities, because culture doesn’t just happen. It has to be built, we have to build it, celebrate it, and feed it. A culture of belonging is an ongoing process, ever bending the moral arc of history towards justice.

These insights will continue guiding our work as we invest more heavily in mobilization moving forward. And we hope you join us on this journey to fight for a more just and equitable world for all.

Insights from Census Outreach Campaign

Immigrants, like other marginalized communities, are labeled as “hard-to-count” by the United States Census Bureau. The implication is that immigrants are in some way lacking, whether in information or interest. Our work says otherwise.

This spring, MAF lead a thoughtful, targeted census outreach campaign. By crafting emotionally engaging, culturally relevant messaging and building on the foundation of trust that connects non-profits to the clients we serve, MAF moved the needle. The Census Bureau estimated a 60% response rate for the 2020 census, the lowest in decades. After our week-long, digital-first outreach campaign, we saw MAF clients bring that number up to 83%. This was driven in large part by immigrant clients who turned out to be most engaged, responding to SMS outreach at an incredible rate of 54%, more than twice the industry standard. Immigrants, we found, were in fact the easiest-to-count.

We offer this insight to the field to inform the work of the wide coalition of organizations fighting hard to lift up the voices of marginalized communities in the census. MAF believes that the unique role of non-profits in this effort is rooted in the relationships of trust cultivated over time. As a beacon of light in the fog of today’s misinformation war, non-profits are critical messengers of crucial and reliable information.

Time is running out before the deadline of September 30th so we’ve compiled actionable insights to inform the needed and critical efforts of partners in the MAF network and beyond. What follows is the story of our census campaign, detailing what we did and the lessons we learned. We hope you find these learnings useful, apply them to your own work, and that you’ll consider joining us as we continue to lift up the voices of the incredible people we serve every day.

MAF begins with the lived experiences of our clients.

In the context of a census outreach campaign, the messaging we used had to be both timely and relevant. It quickly became clear, though, that standard messaging from the Census Bureau was neither. The two most common messages we found from the Census Bureau described the importance of the census in terms of power (congressional representation) or money (federal budget allocations). For people who are being told that they have no place in the democratic process in the first place, and who are routinely denied social services, these points are, at best, meaningless or at worst, insulting.

Based on our rich understanding of the lives of our clients, we knew improving the messaging would be simple. The key was to craft emotionally engaging and culturally relevant language centered on themes of belonging and community.

To test our intuition, we designed a campaign to compare the results of 2 standard census messages against 2 messages we created in-house. Another non-profit, the immigrant advocacy organization OneAmerica, joined in our campaign. Together, we delivered these messages to 4,200 clients across English and Spanish-speaking communities using a combination of email and SMS.

The results came in: the single most effective messaging angle in our campaign was not power or money, but belonging.

This result implies that messaging to lift up the experience of truly being accepted is powerful. Perhaps its because it runs counter to a dominant national discourse that actively denies the humanity and rejects the validity of immigrant communities as full participants in American life. As an organization, MAF has never shied away from pushing back on dominant discourse and the results of this campaign demonstrate why.

To craft messaging at MAF is not simply a matter of disseminating information but, rather, is an effort to speak to the soul. We maintain that messaging must speak to the core of our clients because everything we do, from announcements to new services, starts with the assumption that our clients are complex, unique human beings who are far more than a data point can ever capture. When we articulate messaging that speaks to our clients’ lived, emotional experiences, we are reaching for their hearts, not minds. The campaign results show that this is a fundamental strategy for success.

SMS was the most effective method of communication, especially for clients who speak Spanish.

The second insight of the campaign was around methods. Clients who selected English as their preferred language were more likely to respond to an email than those who preferred Spanish. Yet for SMS, the reverse was true. English-speaking clients responded at a rate of 41% while Spanish-speaking clients responded to our SMS at a staggering 52%

These results push back against the prevailing narrative that Spanish-speaking communities are difficult to reach or “hard to count.” What we found was the exact opposite. With the right message and targeted through the right medium, Spanish-speaking clients are far from disengaged, but in fact the most engaged. The responsibility, then, is on outreach managers to inform their campaigns with these insights in order to most effectively meet our communities where they’re at.

With these results in hand, we began speaking with other non-profits about their civic engagement strategies.

What we found across the board was a shared understanding of the importance of civic action. Yet for overworked and underfunded organizations, there was no excess capacity to run multi-channel campaigns given that SMS tools in particular were either too expensive or time-consuming to manage. Simply put, the existing tools on the market were not built for non-profits.

We decided to change that. In partnership with a highly skilled team of technologists at the software studio super{set}, we built our own digital tool that makes it easy for nonprofits to effectively mobilize their communities. The results were striking.

Our 3-step campaign to 4,200 clients lead to an impressive 36% response rate and, by our estimates, secured $6 million in funding for communities that deserve it. All within one week and managed by one staff member. The technology we built can allow non-profits to lead effective campaigns without a full-time campaign manager or breaking the bank

MAF’s Invitation To Partners

In early conversations with other non-profits, we found that most were relying 80-90% on in-person outreach for their census campaigns. With the onset of COVID, those plans have gone out the window. Now that the White House has cut a precious month off of the census timeline, the clock is ticking.

MAF is showing up by utilizing our tested messaging and developed technology to scale up census outreach efforts. With the support of The Grove Foundation, we’re making final push to ensure that all of hard-working clients in the MAF network are counted, seen and receive the resources they deserve.

Building on this momentum, we’re planning a Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign informed by the insights gained from the census work. Continuing to develop MAF’s mobilization efforts is a necessary step because we are staring down the most historic election of our lives. The moment is calling us all to step up, punch above our standard silos and lift up the voices of the communities we serve.

If you’d like to join our growing community of partners sharing lessons learned and shaping the future of our new Beacon platform, please email us. Our goal is to ensure that the technology made by a non—profit remains timely and relevant for other non-profits. You can learn more about MAF’s focus on civic action in this conversation between CEO, José Quiñonez and Director of Mobilization, Joanna Cortez.


PS We’ll leave you with our take on a lesson from history, to ensure it’s mistakes are not repeated.

First they came for the immigrants

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for the poor

And I chose to speak out

Because we are family

Then they came for me

And there were others

So many others

Making Our Lives Count In The #2020Census

“So yeah,” my housemate said between using napkins for her nose and her tears. “I got laid off with the entire staff at the bar today. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

As much as I wanted to be present for this conversation, I couldn’t stop checking my phone. A chill gripped me, an ice-punch to the gut, as I watched my retirement savings plummet from modest to shreds, as I could do nothing but look on.

The terror of seeing our local economies and global infrastructure collapsing at the same time is, for many of us, all too much.

When we look to the proverbial East toward our elected leaders, aid is slow to come. As of this writing, Congress is locked in a partisan fight over a $2 trillion stimulus package that may very well be the defibrillator needed to resuscitate the bleeding heart of our national economy. Even if it does manage to get passed, though, we already know who will be the last to recover.

The marginalized communities and hard-working immigrant families that we serve every day at MAF will receive, at best, pennies for each dollar needed because they are invisible. The census plays a central role in officially registering them nonexistent given that immigrants have been deemed among the “hard-to-count” populations for decades. This means that every government funding measure for years, from school lunches to (potential) COVID-19 stimulus checks have been guaranteed to be inadequate for those who needed it most.

The 2020 census is expected to exacerbate this even further. The White House has been actively sowing the seeds of fear through violent policies like ICE raids, border community militarization, and the recent, failed attempt to add an immigration question. People are frightened by any knock on the front door for the devastation it could bring to their lives. Add to this reality the current COVID-19 epidemic and the picture turns several tones grimmer.

At MAF, we are doing what we can to step up. In the immediate, we are delivering several million dollars of emergency support through our Rapid Relief Fund to those in need. In the long-term, we are fighting so that the next trillion-dollar government aid package, if there is one in the following decade, goes to fill the right hands. Quick action needs structural change in tandem, if it’s to last. For us, the census is our chance to make a difference beyond the day-to-day.

Our goal is to ensure that 100% of our clients are counted.

To do this, we’ve partnered with a technology studio, super{set}, to build a tool that can help us communicate with more of our clients, faster and smarter. We’ve leveraged automation and analytics to be able to confirm that all of our 3,000+ clients participate in the civic moment that shapes every aspect of our lives. We’ve learned best practices on messaging with our initial coalition of trusted partners who are engaging their own communities of clients with our tool across email, SMS and phone.

Armed with these assets, we’re continuing to move fast in ensuring that every immigrant is counted and knows they belong. We can’t do it alone. Each non-profit organization exists within its own world of influence and, only together, can we cover the patchwork quilt that is the vibrant diversity of our nation.

We are living in an historical moment and can all do more than simply look on. If the communities we serve are to emerge not just ready to survive, but to thrive, we must.

Let’s make our lives count.

MISSION ASSET FUND IS A 501C3 ORGANIZATION

TERMS OF USE   |   PRIVACY   |   CONTACT

Copyright © 2020 Mission Asset Fund. All Rights Reserved.

English