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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New MyMAF Financial Education on Self-Employment

MAF’s clients often turn to creative strategy to manage their financial lives; faced with barriers to accessing formal income opportunities, our clients innovate. One such strategy we’ve seen is self-employment: 31% of our clients identified as being self-employed, small business owners, or contractors. Moreover, we’ve heard from our DACA clients that they face barriers in accessing formal employment opportunity. Self-employment allows individuals to capitalize on their strengths to overcome some of these barriers.

We’re excited to announce the release of a new feature in MyMAF to support clients on their journey toward self-employment. 

In September, the MAF Lab launched a new education content module in MyMAF app called How to be self-employed – alongside the launch of our MAF’s new 0% interest loan program to help people formalize self-employment into an LLC. This new product feature and program are both important parts of MAF’s broader efforts to support the innovations our clients develop in order to navigate their financial lives and formalize their business to generate steady income.

MyMAF’s How to be self-employed module combines education with tools to take action.

The new module covers all aspects of starting a small business, including setting a vision for self-employment, building a business model, formalizing self-employment through LLCs, and managing time as an entrepreneur. It’s the fourth financial education content module available in the app, adding to ones on credit, savings, and preparing for emergencies.

Our staff in-house wrote the content building on their expertise in supporting entrepreneurs to start their own business. We also sought the feedback from our peers at nonprofits who similarly strive to support entrepreneurs. Similar to MyMAF’s other financial education modules, How to be self-employed pairs expert content with recommended action items and resources to give individuals tangible tools to get started.

We aim to continue to support the creativity of our clients to create sustainable income solutions.

My MAF Journey: Bridging Tech and Financial Inclusion

In celebration of the MAF Lab having hit its one-year mark, we want to recognize the role and work of our Tech Advisory Council in supporting our successes. We’ll be sharing a series of blog posts from TAC members, starting with one from co-chair Kathryn Weinmann.  

Everyone should try cold-calling at some point. Let the likely rejection be a reminder that you’re reaching further than you have before. And it’s a total rush when you actually get through. Five years ago this summer, I reached out to Mission Asset Fund, and I haven’t looked back since.

I had tasted microfinance in college and consulted for big banks thereafter, and increasingly I wanted to help define the next generation of financial services. I looked at loads of fintech companies and nonprofits in the Bay Area, but there was something special about Mission Asset Fund (MAF). They had the values and personal touch of a nonprofit, but their approach to technology was more typical of a hungry startup eager to scale. So I guessed the email of MAF’s founder/CEO José Quiñonez, and by some stroke of luck he was free to meet that afternoon.

In our first meeting, José announced the passage of California SB896, game-changing legislation that acknowledged the importance of credit-building loans and empowered nonprofits to support them. I couldn’t believe it. While many fintech companies were struggling within gray areas of the law, this nonprofit was out changing it.

MAF develops critical tools to help people build empowered financial lives. And the effects are far-reaching.

Their Lending Circles program is distributed through a network of nonprofit partners across the country. Jose’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs helps people of all backgrounds by providing structure around an otherwise nebulous and intimidating topic.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege to serve as co-chair for MAF’s Technology Advisory Council (TAC). MAF is constantly innovating – always seeking to serve their clients and nonprofit partners better. The TAC supports that innovation and serves as a bridge to the startup community. We share our experiences to inform MAF’s tech strategy, product roadmap, and implementation approach.

Our team has a diverse set of backgrounds across software development, fintech, and social impact. Together, we strive to support the next generation of product initiatives at MAF.

I constantly learn from this exceptional group, who bring expertise from Google, Stripe, Salesforce, and other incredible organizations.

TAC members come from a diverse set of backgrounds and are united toward a common goal of supporting MAF.

I have seen firsthand the thoughtfulness and intentionality that MAF brings to product development. Whether we are discussing the structure of the MAF Lab, beta testing the MyMAF app, or providing input on the product launch process, the MAF team grounds our contributions in specific goals that further the mission of the organization.

What’s more, my involvement with the TAC makes me better at my day job. I invest in consumer tech, often at an early stage. On more than one occasion, I have pointed founders to MAF as an example of putting the user’s needs first. MAF’s approach to realizing their mission can help us all identify and challenge the assumptions behind inclusive product development.

MAF changed my life, as they continue to do for members of the Bay Area community and beyond.

I am immensely grateful to serve on the TAC and support their mission to bring financial stability to the millions who live in the financial shadows. MAF’s clients are resilient, tenacious, and optimistic. So is MAF – and they inspire me to be that way, too.

About the author: Kathryn has been working with MAF since 2014 and now serves as Co-Chair of the Technology Advisory Council. She is an investor at Norwest Venture Partners in San Francisco.

MAF’s 12 Data Points of Christmas

Happy Holidays, from our MAF familia to yours!

As the year comes to a close, we are reflecting not only on 2018, but on one decade of living our values in the community. Over the past 10 years, MAF has provided Lending Circles, immigration and business loans, DACA fee assistance, and financial coaching to over 15,000 people — scaling this impact across the country with the help of technology and over 60 nonprofit partners.

Now we’re going even further: Through these past ten years, we have gathered invaluable data and insights from people’s financial lives. With a vast dataset on how people manage to survive and thrive under the most difficult circumstances, we are turning our research insights into actionable lessons for the field.

We’re celebrating this holiday season by sharing some insights that stood out to us.

We hope you enjoy MAF’s 12 Data Points of Christmas: 

And check out our short report, featuring these findings and more.

You can stay in touch with MAF’s research team by following #MAFInsights on social media and at missionassetfund.org/research.

Introducing MAF’s new mobile app: MyMAF

MAF is excited to announce the launch of its new mobile app, MyMAF. MyMAF is a virtual financial coach designed to help low-income and immigrant families achieve their dreams and help MAF’s clients succeed financially in our programs.

We’ll be celebrating the launch of the MyMAF app, the MAF Lab’s first fintech product, on December 7th. Join us for the launch party to view a demo of MyMAF and learn about the inspiration for its development, from idea to fruition.

MyMAF fills an unmet need for the communities MAF serves.

Since day one, MAF’s goal has been to build pathways that allow hardworking families to realize their full economic potential. MAF’s seminal Lending Circles program has helped clients achieve their financial goals by building credit, but we’ve always had a larger vision to support our clients’ financial lives across their hierarchy of financial needs. We found financial coaching to be one of the most effective mechanisms to help people achieve their goals. However, in-person coaching is often resource intensive (for both coaches and clients) and difficult to scale. We realized that we could use the power of technology to bring financial coaching to more people in our community and serve their needs in a deeper way.

With MyMAF, members of our community are now able to obtain essential financial information and coaching at the reach of their fingertips.

MyMAF was built from MAF’s core values.

MAF’s work is founded on a few core values:

  • We meet people where they are, not where we think they should be
  • We build on what people have, no matter the shape or size
  • We respect the diverse communities we serve and recognize their hidden strengths

These values have informed the development of MAF’s programs and products from the beginning; they are also the foundations of this new app.

To meet clients where they are in their financial journey, we first recognize that our clients’ financial lives are inseparable from their complex backgrounds and personal aspirations. For example, a client without a Social Security Number has to take a different path for doing something as seemingly simple as pulling their credit report or applying for a credit card. An important goal of the app is to remove the stress from financial planning and help clients recognize that this is a tool to help them achieve their dreams. This is done at their convenience, allowing clients to decide when and where they plan and update personal financial goals – whether at home, waiting for the bus, or any other moment in their busy lives. As an added engagement feature, clients can interact with a virtual financial coach and receive financial tips and tricks to keep in mind as they navigate their journey with MyMAF. By building for clients’ unique contexts, MAF sets the stage for personal finance to feel empowering.

To respect our clients as the experts in their own lives, MyMAF gives clients the autonomy to direct their financial journey. Clients decide where they want to begin, whether it’s learning about credit or watching a video about exploring their investment options. The app also gives clients the option of choosing from 70+ action items to work towards, providing clients with a structure to create their own action plan. The app empowers clients to set the agenda based on what is most relevant to them and supports them with resources, tips, and motivation to get to their goal.

To build on our clients’ strengths, the app takes inspiration from what clients are already doing to manage their financial lives. Much like Lending Circles, the tips and action items in the app reflect informal strategies that clients currently use to overcome their financial barriers. This app gives clients the ability to choose from a wide breadth of options that are already working for them, rather than prescribing choices that don’t fit their contexts.

The author (R&D Lab Director) and UX/UI Designer test a prototype of MyMAF with a client.

MyMAF was built using evidence-based principles.

The MAF Lab, Mission Asset Fund’s R&D team, is committed to building products using design thinking, the industry standard for product development teams. Based on conversations with clients and MAFistas who have worked in this community for years, we identified the unique painpoints that our clients experience that other products don’t help them address. We then built and tested prototypes of the app’s features with 40+ users in Spanish and English, iterating those designs until we got all the details just right. Here’s the MAF Lab process we followed:

This process helped us identify and build features in the app that distinctly serve our clients. For example, during our user discovery process, we learned that some of our bilingual clients wanted the flexibility of accessing resources in both English and Spanish. To address this, we made the app available in both languages with the ability to easily switch between the two. The process for launching MyMAF app is one we plan to continue following in-house to develop new products and programs.

Lastly, evidence about effective financial coaching influenced the structure of MyMAF. Research shows that financial education is not sufficient to motivate behavior change; education must be tied to action. MAF incorporated this principle into the design of the app by placing action items after educational content to mirror users’ mental models of creating financial plans – and by sending motivating reminders to encourage users to stay on track with their financial plans. These design elements nudge clients to most effectively realize their financial goals.

MAF is built from the community, for the community.

By involving users in every step of our process, we sought to recognize the unique cultural background of our clients through the app.

MAF’s 10 years of serving low-income and immigrant families was foundational to developing the app. For example, our in-house client services team wrote all the content in our app, to address the questions they have been hearing in working with the community. For example, we offered users tips to help our clients answer questions like “How do I protect my finances if a family member is deported?” and issues like what steps to take when sending a money transfer to family or friends outside the U.S.  

MAF also designed the app to make our clients feel seen. MyMAF includes avatars, created by a designer from Mexico City, that reflect the faces of the diverse communities we serve. The app also includes photographs of real clients taken by our in-house designer and resident photographer. When we tested the app, the images were the first thing many clients noticed. Many told us that they identified with the people represented on the home screen and in the photos. This emotional connection to MyMAF will likely motivate our clients to continue engaging with the app’s financial tools.

Avatars in MyMAF to represent the community MAF serves

We’re just getting started.

MyMAF is a continuously improving product. We’re excited to get the app in the hands of our clients and hear their feedback as they use the app. We’re also measuring app usage and financial outcomes, to test our assumptions about the impact the app will have. Based on what we’ve learned so far, we’re already working on creating MyMAF 2.0 to give users more targeted tools to help them achieve their financial goals and make MAF’s financial products more broadly accessible.

Our plan is to continue iterating MyMAF to financially empower the low-income and immigrant families we serve nationally.

We also want to thank the philanthropic supporters of MyMAF: JPMorgan Chase Foundation, Tipping Point Community Foundation, Capital One, Twilio, and individual donors across the country.

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