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Designing Research Rooted in Immigrant Families’ Lived Experience

For more than 15 years, MAF has cultivated relationships with low-income communities by putting the best of finance and technology in their service. When COVID hit, we built on these relationships and support from funders to provide cash assistance to immigrants excluded from federal stimulus. The Immigrant Families Fund and the insights from participant surveys led us to think even bigger about what immigrant families need to recover from the devastation of the pandemic. We designed the Immigrant Families Recovery Program (IFRP) to deepen not only our community relationships, but also our knowledge about their financial lives. Our research aims to inform the conversation on immigrants and the economy — how they live, persevere, and thrive — as we collectively push forward toward a more just world.

An intentional question

It might seem obvious, but good research starts with a clear and thoughtful question — one that
can focus, organize, and motivate all the research activities. On its surface, our research
question for IFRP seems rather simple:

What will it take for immigrant families to rebuild their financial lives faster?

In truth, though, the question is quite complicated. For us, it requires that we consider not only
the type and duration of support that immigrant families need and deserve, but also the specific
political and economic context of their lives; the material, emotional, and social dimensions of
their financial experience; and, their skills and strengths at both the individual and community
levels. The elegance of our question is that it’s big enough to hold both simple and complex

Context is everything

In our digital world, everything is data — but not all data are equal. People are best understood
in the context of their lives; similarly, data are best interpreted in the context of their collection.
So, to answer our research question, we developed a data strategy focused on gathering rich,
relevant, and timely information about people’s experience not just with our program, but also
more generally — their challenges, priorities, and opportunities. We do this through longform
surveys, pulse surveys, and in-depth interviews — in addition to collecting programmatic and,
for many, administrative data from credit bureaus and banks. When layered together, these data
will allow us to paint a more holistic picture of how immigrant families are doing across time.

From and for the people

We designed our question and data strategy with such care because in research, as with many
things, you only get what you put in. By rooting ourselves firmly in immigrants’ lived realities, our
research will have real-world implications. To understand what it will take for immigrant families to rebuild their financial lives faster, we’ll need to uncover how they navigate political and
economic uncertainty; what strategies they use under significant constraints; and, how civil
society and government can best support them. And that’s just the beginning. We might be
structuring the research process, but the truths we’re excavating come from people — and what
we do with those truths is ultimately for them.

Generating knowledge, generating power

This isn’t just an academic exercise; it’s another way in which we’re serving communities. Our
investigations are not only rooted in and reflective of immigrants’ lives, but they can also shape
the conversations we’re having in our cities, states, and nation. Knowledge is a powerful tool
and research is how we forge it. Using these tools, we’ll be able to build a more just and
equitable financial system.

We held a webinar about our research design, in conversation with Professors Fred Wherry and
Eldar Shafir, our esteemed collaborators from Princeton University. Learn more by watching

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.


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.

MAF was a Gamble from Day One.

We started our work 15 years ago in a small office on the second floor of a local cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. Our vision then – as it is today – was to help improve the financial lives of people pushed aside and left behind without access to the most basic of financial tools like checking accounts or credit scores. Without such tools, how can we expect people to materially improve their financial lives? 

Since then, MAF has put the best of technology and finance to serve our clients, allowing us to scale our work nationally. Now, low income immigrant families all across the country are accessing MAF’s programs to help put food on the table, pay rent, launch their small business, and even to apply for citizenship or gain protective status to allow them to work and live without fear of deportation. We have delivered more than 92,000 grants and loans to immigrants, people of color, and low-income families to improve their financial lives with higher credit scores, bigger savings, and smaller debts. 

MAF’s financial services work because they are rooted in the lives of the people we serve. While we have much to celebrate – and we did just that this past October to mark MAF’s Quinceñera – there is still more work to be done. 

In 2023, we are diving deeper in our research of the 5,000 participants in the largest guaranteed income program for immigrant families. We are expanding small business loans to help clients access credit to recover faster. And we’re improving our tech infrastructure to build and scale our work even further. 

MAF is dramatically different than when we first started our work in the Mission. What has not changed is our community-centered approach to financial security and social change. Our clients are at the center of all that we do. They inform and inspire how we show up to build a better future together. For our true power is always in each other. 

Read our 2022 Annual Report to learn more about MAF and the work to come.

How MAF’s Ladder of Engagement Meets People Where They Are

At MAF, clients are the experts in their financial lives, so we design our financial services to highlight their experiences while learning new skills. Our financial education centers around building participants’ sense of self-advocacy to make informed decisions about their finances and providing the resources and support they need to achieve their financial goals. 

We do this through our ladder of engagement, which involves a progression of activities designed to build self-advocacy and financial literacy:

The ladder of engagement begins with the “what,” where clients engage with MAF’s Charla Financieras or “financial chats.” 

These sessions are designed to introduce clients to a financial interest of their choice with various topics, including budgeting, saving, credit, and debt management. The Charlas aim to provide participants with an understanding of “what” a topic is and an opportunity to ask their own questions to fulfill their existing knowledge. Our most famous example would be the topic of credit, where a Charla would consist of learning about credit reports, credit scores, how credit reporting works, and a reminder that immigrants can build credit without an SSN. 

Once participants have been introduced to “what” credit is, we incite them to ask about the “how” in a Taller.

Once clients have a basic understanding of financial topics, they move on to the “how.” This is where MAF’s Talleres or “workshops” come in. These workshops provide a hands-on learning experience that allows clients to implement their newfound knowledge. The Taller align with the same topics as the Charlas, but they focus on practices connected to those topics. Our credit Talleres focus on two very important skills: reading and understanding a credit report and disputing errors on a credit report. Participating in these workshops gives participants practical skills they can apply, which can be translated into other facets of their lives.

Finally, the ladder of engagement culminates in the “why” in our Community Conversations. 

This is where clients take the lead. In Community Conversations, clients converse and share “why” the topic is essential. These are opportunities to connect with others interested in similar financial topics and exchange experiences, questions, and inspiration. By sharing their stories and experiences, clients realize their financial experiences are valuable and can help others navigate similar challenges. This creates a sense of community and belonging, which is essential for building self-advocacy and financial confidence.

At MAF, the ladder of engagement is an effective way to build self-advocacy and financial literacy. 

By providing a range of activities that cater to different learning styles and preferences, we can meet clients where they are and support them as they progress along their financial journey. This approach is essential for communities that have been historically excluded from traditional financial services, such as low-income and immigrant communities.

Moreover, MAF’s ladder of engagement is more than just a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it is a flexible and adaptable framework that can be customized to meet each client’s unique needs and circumstances. 

This means that clients can engage with MAF at their own pace and in a way that works best for them. Through our ladder of engagement, we are working to create a more equitable and just financial system, one client at a time.

Learn more about MAF’s suite of financial services, including Charlas Financieras, the MyMAF app, and one-on-one financial coaching here.

Champion Spotlight: Monica Issar

Every weekend growing up, Monica watched her parents take out pen and paper to track all of their week’s expenses. As an immigrant family paving their way in the U.S., balancing the books enabled them to save for little joys like ordering pizza on a Friday night, and eventually send Monica to college. 

“[My mom] came to this country for education. It wasn’t just for hers, it was for ours. She realized that education empowered her to be able to make decisions on their own, to own a home by themselves, which they’ve never done before… I saw that growing up, and she wanted to give that gift to me.” 

College was a far-fetched dream for most of Monica’s childhood, but the financial strategies her parents learned while adapting to life in the U.S. were key in bringing that dream to life. When she got to university, Monica fell in love with her investing class and quickly understood the relationship between numbers, markets, and implications on people’s well-being.

“It wasn’t about the math. It was about what the math was helping people do… It was an enabler of more dreams for people.” 

Decades later, the gift of education from Monica’s parents is one that keeps on giving — her own daughter has already taken her first investment class in high school, marking the third generation in her family taking on key financial tools to bring their dreams to life. 

“I’m a testament to how important these [financial] skills are to get into the hands of all families…”

“I’m a living proof of how education, access to learnings of financial markets and how they work, has led me to get a better education, to work at this incredible company, to have the opportunity to partner with a place like MAF, and my daughter has lived through seeing me do that. At this point, we’re going to have the three generations of people who realize that education and access is a really important toolkit to carry around in their backpack.”

Today as Managing Director and Global Head of Multi-Asset & Portfolio Solutions at J.P. Morgan, Monica leverages financial tools and strategies to bring her clients’ own dreams and joys to life. We’re thrilled to welcome Monica to MAF’s board of directors, bringing her lived experience and financial expertise to help create a more equitable world for the families we serve.

A Partnership for Financial Freedom for All

Last April, the Motley Fool Foundation named MAF CEO José Quiñonez as one of its first Financial Freedom Rule Breakers. The Motley Fool Foundation is a non-profit focused on financial freedom for all, collaborating with trusted partners to co-design an inclusive system and world where everyone benefits when the economy flourishes.

“Financial freedom is really foundational for every dream realized.”

—MAF CEO José Quiñonez

With the Motley Fool Foundation’s support, we’re uplifting the stories and challenges facing immigrant communities as they work to improve their financial security. And now, as we approach the one-year anniversary of our partnership, we’re uplifting highlights from the past year: 

José joined the Motley Fool’s “Rule Breaker Investing” podcast to share MAF’s vision for a world where we trust people as the experts of their own financial lives and change the narrative of what’s possible when we use a community-centered approach.

In the Motley Fool Foundation’s August “Spark Conversation” series, José joined Alison Lingane, co-founder of Project Equity, and Michael Zakaras, Director of Strategy at Ashoka, for a discussion about how we can support people in moving from financial invisibility to financial freedom.

We’re thrilled to partner with the Motley Fool Foundation to share insights into what’s working to bring about broader change for low-income and immigrant communities. We look forward to another year of rule-breaking together, working to create a financial system that recognizes the full financial potential of everyone.

A Home for the Generations: Eva’s Story

There’s a lot that Eva loves about being a new homeowner. 

She loves having a house in a neighborhood she’s been renting in for years. She loves living close to her family, as a sister, mother, and grandmother of two. And she loves that she can actually enjoy her house without a time-consuming commute. 

“There’s a lot of fog, but I love San Francisco,” Eva, a longtime MAF client, says. “One of my dreams always was that I want to live where I work.”

But this dream wasn’t an easy-to-achieve reality. Eva has done a lot in her life: She immigrated to the United States from El Salvador when she was 15, started her own nutrition business on top of her full-time job in social services, sent her three children to college, and endured a financially challenging divorce — one that almost stopped her dreams of buying a home.

“Coming from two incomes to one — I was left with debt,” Eva says. “I never thought that I was going to be given the opportunity back to be a homeowner.”

Eva thought of ways to support her family, including her children and grandmother. She became invested in nutrition to protect her own health, barely taking any sick days to preserve her income. “I couldn’t imagine myself getting sick during the time I needed to stay strong,” Eva says. 

Income was one thing, but building credit posed another challenge. Because of the debt from the divorce, Eva knew she had to strengthen her credit score to give herself — and her family — the best possible chance at homeownership.

Joining MAF was a game-changer for Eva’s finances.

Years ago, Eva and her cousin passed by MAF’s office on Mission Street on their way to work. “We like to try everything,” Eva says, so they decided to join an informational meeting.

The energy immediately moved her. She started participating in MAF’s Lending Circles program, which provides interest-free credit-building loans via community support. This formalizes a global tradition of community lending, sometimes known as tandas and susus.

“The people that join [MAF] are from the community. These are working families looking for a resource like me,” Eva says. “Meeting these people and hearing their stories — it was a gathering, it was sharing. There was always food and trying to have that environment of safety and community.”

Over the years, Eva participated in MAF’s financial services for small business owners, services that were tangibly different from the classes she took in college. “They’re basically designed for Latinos, like me, to try to serve our community,” Eva says.

“It’s not just the Latino community,” she adds. “It’s different immigrant communities where the environment becomes more like family and friends, always sharing very personal — sometimes intimate, difficult — growing experiences.”

The community at MAF created treasured friendships and relationships. All the while, Lending Circles were opening a door that Eva once thought was closed to her.

“I saw the changes in my credit score,” Eva says. “It was a dream come true.” 

The changes came at exactly the right hour. In the summer of 2022, Eva and her family were hustling to buy a house with their combined income. All the cards were falling into place, but Eva just needed one more boost to her credit score to get a loan approved.

At the time, Eva was participating in a Lending Circle, so she asked Doris, MAF’s Senior Client Success Manager, if there was anything that could be done. 

“One more payment,” Eva was told. “One more payment, and it’s going to make a difference.”  

The Lending Circles program boosts credit scores by reporting loan payments to all three major credit bureaus. MAF quickly accelerated Eva’s loan payment timeline so her final payment was processed before the closing date. 

The whole journey reminded Eva of why she joined MAF in the first place.

“It’s a sense of community, friends, and family, ‘we’re here for you,’” Eva says. “The goal is not just getting participants. The goal is helping the participants make their dreams come true.”

The best part about Eva’s new home? It’s not just for her.

“You’re taking care of your own house for future generations,” Eva says. She hopes that her kids will want to keep and live in the house for a long time. 

After all, there’s a lot of value in that home, and not just financially. Family and community motivated and anchored Eva through all those years in her profession, in her personal life, and in her work with MAF. 

This house is a symbol of that relationship — and a way for Eva to continue that tradition for years to come. “It’s a team effort,” Eva says.

Meet the MAF Padrino: John A. Sobrato

John A. Sobrato is an example of someone who shows up, does more, and does better. At the start of the pandemic, John reached out to MAF with a clear goal: to support immigrant families in San Mateo County who were excluded from federal relief. 

John, Board Chair Emeritus of Sobrato Family Foundation, gave $5 million himself to support our Rapid Response emergency cash assistance efforts. But he didn’t just stop there. John put in the work — writing and calling family, friends, and neighbors for support, more than tripling the initial fund for the San Mateo County Immigrant Relief Fund

“His calls got to a point, as he once told me — a little stunned, but proud at the same time:  ‘José, they’ve stopped returning my calls!’” MAF CEO José Quiñonez recalls. “I responded, ‘Welcome to my world, John!’”

That’s why at MAF’s 15-year quinceañera celebration, John was presented with the Padrino Award.  

“Typically, padrinos and madrinas are the guests of honor, the people everyone looks to with awe and reverence. They’re the ones who sponsor the cake, after all,” José said, while presenting the award. “But they are more than that — Padrinos and Madrinas are mentors and role models, advisors, and guides for young people through life.”

While John couldn’t be there in person to accept his butterfly plaque, Sandy Herz, President of Sobrato Philanthropies, did so on his behalf. “When he sees something he thinks is wrong and unfair, it becomes a mission for him,” Sandy said of John. “And he doesn’t just put money down. He invests his time, he invests his network, and he invests his relationships. He won’t ever do it alone. He brings others along with him because changing the world is a team sport.” 

“I hope there’s never another pandemic,” John said to the audience, via a pre-recorded video. “But I take comfort in knowing there is an organization like Mission Asset Fund that will be there to support immigrant families with dignity and respect.” 

Meet the MAF Madrina: Jenny Flores.

Meet the MAF Madrina: Jenny Flores

Jenny Flores still remembers when MAF Founder and CEO José Quiñonez showed up at Citigroup with a piece of paper and a big dream. 

Back then, MAF was just a small office on the second floor of a restaurant, and convincing people of our mission was no easy task. 

“You were selling this big vision, and many executives didn’t quite get it,” Jenny recalls. “But because I grew up in this community, and because I understood you so intimately — what you were trying to solve — we jumped in to support that big vision. And here we are, 15 years later.” 

Now, Jenny is the Head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy at Wells Fargo, and MAF has outgrown that small office — but not that big dream. In fact, we’re building it together hand-in-hand with Jenny, the madrina of MAF’s 15-year quinceañera celebration

“Jenny radiates energy. Her enthusiasm and passion for serving people is contagious because it’s real and heartfelt,” José said of Jenny before presenting her with the Madrina Award. “It is my honor to call her amiga, colega y compañera en la lucha.”

Jenny was chosen for this honor because of her lifelong and steadfast commitment to serving people with dignity and respect. “The fact that our immigrant community — that we have so many assets that others may see as ‘weaknesses’ — they’re actually strengths,” Jenny said to the audience. “And I love that.”

“Over the years, through all her various roles in philanthropy, she always found ways to support our work of building solutions rooted in community,” José said. “I recall many conversations we’d have over lunch, strategizing and dreaming of what more we could do for the people we serve. And while I always seemed to have walked away with way more projects on my plate after every conversation, I always left our meetings energized and inspired, ready to do more.” 

Meet the MAF Padrino: John A. Sobrato.

MAF Celebrates 15-Year Anniversary with Quinceañera

MAF turned 15 this year, and of course, we had to celebrate with a quinceañera! This was our first in-person gathering in over two years, bringing together clients, partners, funders, friends, and of course, MAFistas, all under the same roof. 

The evening was all about community and connection. “There was really no distinction between staff, funders, board members, La Cocina caterers,” said Katherine Robles-Ayala, MAF’s Philanthropy Manager. “Everyone was just enjoying each other’s company. I don’t know if I could see this anywhere else beyond MAF. [It] was just really beautiful.” 

Together, we reflected, we celebrated, and we dreamed. And we did so in the neighborhood where it all started — in San Francisco’s Mission District. KQED generously hosted the party in their newly-renovated HQ, and we filled all four stories with good food and good music. Between the rooftop dance floor, La Santa Cecilia’s concert, and food catered by MAF clients at La Cocina, there were plenty of highlights:


MAF Founder and CEO, José A. Quiñonez, kicked off the evening with welcome remarks. He started from the beginning: when a Levi Strauss denim factory closed down in the Mission and paved the way for a new possibility — a new organization that would support the financial lives of low-income immigrants.

“MAF was a gamble from day one,” José said. “We started our work just up the road from here, on the second floor, on top of a local cafe. We had a small office but a big vision.”

From MAF’s origin story to the nationwide organization it is today, MAF has always worked to put the best of finance and technology in the service of immigrants. José recalled stories about working with clients to build their credit scores after being excluded from mainstream finances, showing up for DACA recipients when the Trump administration threatened DACA’s existence, and launching the largest guaranteed income program for immigrant families excluded from federal COVID-19 relief to help them recover faster.

These zero-interest loans and grants supported immigrants and people of color – helping them to build credit scores, increase savings, and lower debts. And since opening our doors, we have serviced more than 90,000 grants and loans, reaching thousands of people across the country.

“We have to show a better path forward,” José said. “And we are doing it by building real solutions rooted in the lives of marginalized people, and by celebrating every victory with joy.”

Of course, we didn’t do this work alone. In quinceañera tradition, MAF named a Padrino and Madrina of the night. Padrinos and Madrinas are more than party sponsors — they are mentors, role models, advisors, and guides. “They hold a special role in every quinceañera for this very reason — they are the living examples of what brings us together — the bonds, the relationships — that keep communities alive and thriving,” shared José.

MAF presented the Padrino Award to John A. Sobrato, Board Chair Emeritus of the Sobrato Family Foundation, for his support of immigrant families in San Mateo County, and the Madrina Award to Jenny Flores, Wells Fargo’s Head of Small Business Growth Philanthropy, for championing MAF’s work for years while challenging us to show up and do more for immigrant small business owners. Each shared stories about their special connections to MAF before being presented with an engraved-butterfly wood carving. “Viva the Mission Asset Fund!” John said.


When MAF throws a party, we throw a party for everyone. That means everything — from the floral arrangements to the music — represents the people who make up MAF’s work.

La Cocina caterers Alicia’s Tamales Los Mayas, El Huarache Loco, El Pipila, Los Cilantros, Delicioso Creperie, La Luna Cupcakes, and Sweets Collection prepared the food — with a special twist. Almost every entrepreneur had worked with MAF at some point. Guests came back again and again for seconds of bite-sized “lollipop” tamales, flowers suspended in gelatin, and tostadas topped with halibut ceviche and nopales. 

Of course, one of the highlights of the evening was definitely the Grammy Award-winning band, La Santa Cecilia. Known for their hybrid style of Latin culture, rock, and pop, La Santa Cecilia turned the KQED auditorium into a dance floor. Dance partners pulled each other into the cumbia and slow dances throughout the night.  

And, at the night’s end, La Santa Cecilia band members joined clients, MAFistas, and partners on the rooftop dance floor. This turn of events wasn’t all that surprising. The quinceañera radiated with collective energy, bringing people together and encouraging them to make new connections. One MAFista shared a special moment with La Santa Cecilia, when he found out that the keyboardist hailed from the same hometown as him. 

“He went to the same pizza spot to watch soccer games and play maquinitas that I grew up with,” Efrain Segundo, MAF’s Financial Education and Engagement Manager, said. “We had a moment now, like ‘you know me, I know you.’”


At the end of the program, José asked everyone to close their eyes and ask themselves:

“What change do you want to see in the world today that can unlock the immense human and economic potential of immigrants, people of color, and marginalized communities?”

“What change do you want to see in the world today that can liberate our dreams, unleash our hopes, and free us to be our true selves in the world?”

These were the questions that resounded throughout the night, as people poured into the party to find gold trees tied with ribbons and a dream wall. People wrote their wishes onto cards and adorned the trees with them, or drew their answers on the Dream Wall: “Support for farmworkers.” “UBI.” “Dignity + Solidarity.” 

These dreams didn’t end with the night. We’re carrying them forward in our work, and we’re doing it together. The quinceañera showed us how important it is to do so in community with one another. 

So as a community, we’ll make these dreams into reality. As a community, we’ll show up, do more, and do better for immigrants. 

View our album for more photos!