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Research at Scale: Insights from our Latest IFRP Webinar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Context is Everything

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

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

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

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

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

How nonprofits show up in times of crisis

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

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

Karla Bachmann, VP of Financial Wellness at Branches

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

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

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

Lizette Carretero, Director of Financial Wellness at The Resurrection Project

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

Finding Courage in Crisis

As the nation’s first guaranteed income program for immigrant families, MAF’s Immigrant Families Recovery Program (IFRP) has been laser-focused on holistically supporting families in their financial recovery while learning about what is good and working in their lives. It takes courage to persist in the face of exclusion and ongoing financial hardship, but we’ve been hearing incredible stories of courage and resilience during crises from clients. In particular, the importance of entrepreneurship and self-enterprise has surfaced as a key financial strategy for many immigrant families hit hardest by COVID-19.

Paving their own way

Taking IFRP one step further as a program, we embedded evaluation to research and truly understand what it will take for immigrant families to recover faster. While many families are still actively participating in the program, early trends in the data are already showing us how they weathered the pandemic with grit and determination. Shut out from government relief programs, immigrant families found many savvy ways to make ends meet, like negotiating rental payments, selling possessions, and leaning on friends and family.

Immigrants are also investing in themselves, their families, and their futures through entrepreneurship. 1 in 5 immigrant families turned to self-employment to forge their own pathways to recovery and financial stability. Of these families, entrepreneurial income made up 75% of their household incomes–a significant influx of income that helped keep many families afloat in crisis.

People behind the numbers

The trends we’re seeing tell us part of a story about how immigrant families are innovating to survive, but numbers aren’t enough to understand the full breadth of their experiences. Over the past few months, we’ve spoken directly with many immigrant families across the country to hear their stories of courage during an unprecedented crisis. In our most recent webinar, we were honored to uplift stories from Luisa and Isidora, two women who took leaps of faith during the pandemic by starting their own businesses to provide for their families.

It takes immense courage to start a business during an economic crisis, but that’s exactly what Luisa and Isidora did. When turned away from other financial relief, these women took a leap of faith to support themselves and their families during incredibly uncertain times. While caring for her children during COVID, Luisa turned trash into treasure by collecting recycling from her neighbors for extra income. From selling fruits to flowers, Isidora embraced multiple avenues of entrepreneurship to fight for her family’s well-being. Both faced many barriers in their business journeys, but persisted nonetheless.

Immeasurable Love

A common theme we hear from many clients, including Luisa and Isidora, is how love and family is the motivator to push through the hardest days. Efrain Segundo Orozco, MAF’s Financial Education & Engagement Manager, summarized it perfectly during the webinar:

“Something that isn’t data-driven, something that we can’t measure, is the amount of love that drove these mothers to do what they did. The love that they have for their families was the spark that lit the fire that propelled them to do what they did, and that’s gonna continue to propel them to do what they’re gonna have to do. And that same fire is in a little spark that you could just find within them. It’s the same fire. It’s like sharing a candle that you could find across communities nationwide.”

While these sparks of love that keep people going are admirable, we must also acknowledge that it doesn’t mean the tough times are easy. Luisa shared with us that while starting her recycling business was great for her family financially, it also greatly improved her mental health in a difficult period of isolation due to COVID-19 and economic stress. In the words of Mariel Hernández, MAF’s Program Communications Specialist:

“People are strong and resilient, but being tough is tough. It takes a toll on people. But if we can find these moments of self-empowerment, then maybe it makes the tough journey a little bit easier.”

Our work continues

Every day, we’re learning more from the immigrant families we serve about what it will take to help them rebuild from COVID-19. It’s a long road ahead, but we’re in it for the long haul as we make strides towards a world that is equitable and just for the families we serve. We invite you to watch the recording of our most recent webinar, Finding Courage in Crisis, to get the full scoop on MAF’s emerging research and hear Luisa and Isidora’s full stories.

If you missed part one of our webinar series, check out the blog and event recording here to learn more about our IFRP research design.

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
ideas.

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
here.

A Tale of Two Recoveries: How Immigrant Families Survived COVID-19

Lately, we’ve been hearing in the news how most American households are doing much better financially today than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. From stimulus checks and unemployment insurance to the expanded Child Tax Credit, federal COVID-19 relief played a critical role in helping families survive, and even improve their financial footing.

But this picture misses another lesser-known story of recovery: the experience of immigrant families who were excluded from federal pandemic relief. 

On December 2, 2021, we came together to uplift the stories and experiences of immigrant families left behind. We reflected with partners and asked ourselves, how can we help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives? Watch the recording below.

11.5 million immigrants and their families were denied federal COVID-19 relief.

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, Immigrant Families Fund recipient

Immigrants have long been excluded from this country’s social safety net. Despite paying billions in federal taxes every year, undocumented immigrants remain ineligible for nearly all federal protections, from health insurance to food and housing subsidies.

During the pandemic, three in four undocumented immigrants filled frontline essential roles, risking their own lives to help keep us fed, safe, and healthy. Yet, even as they stepped up for the country, they remained excluded from federal relief. It’s estimated that an immigrant family of four was denied upward of $11,400. Without this critical support, immigrant families’ lives took a devastating hit. 

Essential, invisible, and excluded. 

Drawing on our unparalleled survey of more than 11,000 immigrants excluded from federal relief, we got an honest and painful look at how immigrant families survived.  

Without a social safety net to fall back on, many immigrants had no choice but to show up for work. The costs for workers on the frontlines was immense: not only did workers put their families’ health at risk, but those who did get sick faced a downward spiral of financial hardship.

Families where a member got sick with COVID-19 were not only more likely to lose income and fall behind on bills than households where no one got sick, but they were also more likely to face penalties, have their utilities shut off, and be evicted.

Many immigrant families walked into the crisis with limited access and few financial options. Families who were invisible to the formal financial system prior to COVID-19?lacking a Social Security Number or Tax ID?were less likely to have checking accounts or credit cards.

And with fewer financial strategies, these families had fewer options to draw on during COVID-19. Indeed, we saw that immigrants who had a Tax ID were 45% more likely to pay their monthly bills in full than immigrants without a Tax ID. 

So how did families survive in a system that treated them as essential and invisible? Many went without, as 6 in 10 families reported being unable to cover their basic needs. Despite these sacrifices, many families still had to take on debt. In the depth of the pandemic, families who had fallen behind reported having $2,000 in unpaid bills, representing zombie debt that families will carry with them even into the recovery.

Our calls to action.

So, where do we go from here?

We invited advocates and practitioners to talk about how we can show up, do more, and do better. Across the board, we heard that while steps are being taken to help people rebuild, more needs to happen for a truly equitable and inclusive recovery.

A Tale of Two Recoveries, webinar panelists

SHOW UP: Make policies inclusive of all immigrants. The federal government has set a damaging precedent of excluding immigrants from critical social safety net policies. However, there are choices we can make at the state and local levels to help offer relief with the resources we have available now. Policy is a choice, and it’s in our power to advocate for more inclusive protections and services for all immigrants across all levels of government.

DO MORE: Remove structural barriers. Without legal status, immigrants continue to be left out of critical resources that could help them rebuild. But accessibility runs even deeper: from language to technology barriers, we need to ensure programs and services are delivered in-language, in-culture, and in ways that help families use resources when they need them.

DO BETTER: Change mindsets together. From COVID-19 relief packages to the growing recognition that giving people cash works, we’re encouraged by the progress that has been made to better support people at the margins. But we need more allies in this fight so that we can build systems that create more equitable pathways of opportunity. When we harness our collective power, we can create lasting change.

We know the work is far from over.

Immigrants have been excluded from our nation’s support systems for too long, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated many of these existing inequities. This is why our work is more important than ever.

When we look ahead, we’re anchored by José’s reminder: “We have to rely on one another to keep ourselves whole and keep our spirits up. We can’t let the devastation of our reality overtake our spirits.” Together, with respect and mutuality, we can help immigrant families rebuild their financial lives with dignity.

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.

MyMAF: Mobile Insights During the COVID-19 Crisis

When we set out to create our new MyMAF back in 2018, we wanted to build something that would live up to our values. We would meet people where they are: on the go, with researchers noting a significant rise in the number of households who rely on their smartphones to access the internet. We would listen to their journeys and needs, and offer bilingual, culturally-relevant content that reflected the realities and lived experiences of low income and immigrant communities. We would build on what’s already good and working in people’s lives: instead of prescribing another financial management or budgeting lesson, we would recognize people as the experts we know they are. We would provide a tool that empowered people to create a plan that was relevant and valuable for their lives, helping them build a pathway to reaching their goals – whatever they are.

In today’s new COVID-inflicted world, those guiding principles and tools have proved invaluable. As we shift into a new normal marked by virtual meetings and remote support, people need ready and accessible financial resources more than ever. They need tools to match the new remote world. Over the last few months, we’ve seen how MyMAF can be one of those tools.

Since April, activity in the MyMAF app has grown exponentially. Over the last five months, more than 9,000 people have visited MyMAF – accounting for the vast majority of the nearly 10,600 people who have used MyMAF since the app launched in late 2018.

At first, we wondered if people were only looking for more information about our Rapid Response campaign. More than financial empowerment tools, people need direct cash assistance today – so that’s what we prioritized providing them with. But as MyMAF user numbers climbed, we saw people actively engaging with content, building financial action plans—and making progress on those plans! So we looked closer: how is MyMAF helping people in their financial journeys during COVID?

  • A growing number of people are relying on MyMAF for financial tools and resources in Spanish. We count on getting information to people in ways that are accessible to them. That’s why we’re encouraged to see that more than 2,400 people are using the MyMAF app in Spanish – to access financial education modules, build financial action plans, and work through those lists. This reflects the communities MAF serves, who the app was built for, and who we’ve worked with over the years: the roughly one quarter of MAF clients who prefer Spanish over English.
  • There’s growing interest in quick and actionable content. People are using the app to access financial education, where and when they have time, on topics relevant to their lives. MyMAF offers four interactive content modules on the homepage, covering credit, savings, self-employment, and preparing for an immigration emergency. Between March and July, unique views of content modules rose more than 700%! MyMAF users can also access a separate online library of 30 financial education videos, offered in partnership with EverFi. We’ve seen a similar increase in EverFi video views through MyMAF—rising nearly 500% in July compared to March. Notably, views of content modules and videos both declined in August, and we’re keeping a close eye to see how MyMAF use continues to evolve.
  • People are looking for information about savings. Even as many people are dipping into savings to weather the current storm, people are looking ahead. Many are interested in how they can build savings now so that they’re prepared for the next crisis.  Across MyMAF’s financial education modules and EverFi videos, information about savings is the most frequently or second most frequently viewed content. This lines up with what others are reporting too: According to a survey by BlackRock’s Emergency Savings Initiative, 52% of respondents reported that they have increased the amount they put into savings or have begun saving more in order to be prepared for the future.
  • People are making plans – and acting on those plans. The number of users adding items to financial action plans has increased more than 250% (from average 60 users each month up to 210+). And about 50% of users are completing items on their action plans.
  • Credit, credit, and more credit. Credit is on the top of people’s minds today – how the crisis is going to impact their credit, and the lasting effects it will have on their financial lives and opportunities. In a recent report from Finicity, 61% of people who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 are concerned their credit will be negatively impacted. In MyMAF, we’ve seen a huge surge in users who are adding credit-related actions to their financial plans. The top three added and completed action items all relate to credit: setting a goal to check their credit score, learning more about the factors affecting credit, and setting a credit goal.

We want MyMAF to continue to be a useful tool to help people navigate the new COVID-19 reality. As we move forward, we’re committed to ensuring that our programs and services remain relevant. So, we’re keeping the channels open. On a daily basis, we’re talking with and intentionally listening to clients to understand their challenges and needs. Their stories and journeys will inform new content, features, and tools in future versions. We’re excited to see what’s next, and we hope you’ll be there with us.

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

Navigating the Financial System with an ITIN

“Impossible” is not a word in Regina’s vocabulary. Her savviness and tenacity stood out to us within minutes of meeting her one Monday afternoon. She walked confidently through MAF’s door, took a seat, and launched into her story, painting a picture of a personal and financial journey marked by unwavering strength and vision.

Like many people MAF works with, Regina is an independent business owner who built her own livelihood from the ground up. That Monday afternoon, we had asked Regina to come talk with us about her experience as a small business owner as well as her finding and accessing financial services with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or an ITIN. When we asked about challenges or barriers she had faced to building her business, she described her workaround – which was, like her approach to life in general, defined by resourcefulness and perseverance. Certain financial providers, she found out, wouldn’t accept an ITIN as identification. But, as Regina discovered through dogged investigation, others would. Whenever she faced an obstacle, she said, “I just kept looking and looking and looking,” until she found a solution.

Fortunately, Regina didn’t have to look far to find MAF. Every day, she walked by MAF’s offices on the way to herstore just a few blocks down the street. When walked in that Monday, she was taking another step in her self-directed journey to build the life she wanted. She’d already sought out the information and resources she needed to get the appropriate licenses, run her business, and thrive as an entrepreneur. Now, she wanted to learn about how MAF’s small business loans could be another resource in her toolkit.

Over the course of the evening, Regina was joined by a handful of other resourceful entrepreneurs from across San Francisco. An important part of taking out a loan with MAF is the Lending Circle formation -an evening where clients come together to share their personal journeys, the resources they’ve drawn on, the challenges they’ve faced, and the dreams they’re working towards. The idea is to share resources, lessons, and insights with the other financially savvy, hardworking people around the table.

More than a decade of experience

MAF has been working with clients like Regina for over a decade. In that time, we have served more than 11,000 clients -issuing over $10 million in zero-interest social loans so that people can find the products, services, and tools they need to pursue their full financial potential.

Through this work, we have gathered rich insights and a deeper understanding of how our clients navigate their financial lives. At the center of our work are stories of struggle, perseverance, and dignity. By listening to these stories and hearing their feedback, we understand the challenges and pain points our clients face and can develop programs that genuinely meet their needs and realities.

In our forthcoming research, we will be uplifting these insights and data to add to the conversation around financial citizenship, poverty, and immigration in this country, and to advocate for much-needed reforms.

We’re launching this body of research with a report on the financial lives of people who, like Regina, have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs. The U.S. Treasury created ITINs to allow people who are ineligible to obtain a Social Security Number (SSN) to file tax returns. Over the last two decades, the IRS has issued over 23 million ITINs to people in this country.

For millions of people in the U.S., ITINs create a barrier to accessing financial services. Many financial providers cite SSNs as the only acceptable form of identification -despite there being no regulation that says an SSN is necessary, or the only acceptable identification form. But these default requirements, in effect, become barriers to accessing financial services, sending a clear message to the community: If you don’t have a SSN, please don’t apply.

We’re reaching into our rich client data set to pull back the curtain on individuals’ financial journeys, helping us better understand how our clients with ITINs navigate their financial lives. While not a national sample, our analysis lifts important insights for providers, advocates, and policymakers. In this report, we see our clients’ financial lives are interwoven with larger communities and often relies on informal resources. We see both the barriers clients with ITINs face and the implications of those barriers. We also see client successes when they find the products and services they need, including industry-leading repayment rates and prime credit scores. We invite you to explore this issue with us, develop a deeper understanding of the barriers, their implications, and the innovative strategies our clients have developed to navigate their financial lives.

Access the report here and keep an eye out for future research updates.

Invisible Barriers: Navigating Financial Services with an ITIN

Invisible Barriers: Navigating Financial Services with an ITIN

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America’s financial landscape is littered with invisible barriers. These barriers take many forms, including credit scores, bank accounts, and identification requirements. For millions of people in this country, that invisible barrier is an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number or an ITIN. ITINs are nine-digit numbers issued to people paying their taxes but who are not eligible for a Social Security Number (SSN). They are issued to a variety of people, including international investors, students and spouses in the U.S. on visas, and immigrants. The U.S. Treasury has issued over 23 million ITINs over the last decade. In 2015 alone, over 4.3 million people paid taxes with an ITIN -totaling over $13.7 billion.

Many financial services providers cite SSNs as the only acceptable form of identification. There is no banking regulation that says an SSN is necessary or the only acceptable identification form. But these default requirements, in effect, become barriers to accessing financial services, sending a clear message to the community: If you don’t have an SSN, please don’t apply.

Here at MAF, we serve many people that mainstream financial institutions overlook, including people who apply for financial services with an ITIN. In this pilot report, we are reaching into our rich client dataset to understand how our clients with ITINs navigate their financial lives. While not a national sample, our analysis lifts up important insights for providers, advocates, and policymakers.

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