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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being responsive is one of the major goals of our organization and our R&D team. After a successful DACA renewal fee assistance program, we surveyed clients to identify ways in which we could continue to provide the best support. There’s existing research on DACA recipients’ family and employment situations, as well as the benefits of DACA. We wanted to add to this discourse by learning more about our community’s hopes and dreams for the future.
That’s why we asked a three-part open-ended question: “If you had a pathway to U.S. citizenship, what would be your personal, financial, and career aspirations?”
We invited respondents to fill in aspirations in each of these three categories and 350 individuals (~80% of total respondents) replied. We systematically coded the text they inputted into themes, and assigned codes to 96% of the responses. In the end, we coded 46 different hopes and dreams people shared. This process helped us to see the diversity of the community we serve in a whole new way. Check out this infographic for a summary of our learnings.
The top 10 aspirations of DACA recipients:
Theme 1: DACA recipients aspire to support their families and communities
Although we didn’t provide respondents with pre-selected options to choose from, we saw high convergence in responses. Giving back and helping others were key themes that emerged from these responses. Respondents talked about their aspirations to further support their families (46%), enter a helping profession (43%), and give back to their community (23%). This is especially significant given our prior findings that almost all respondents already support their families and their communities in some way. One respondent shared with us:
“My personal aspiration is to one day be so stable in life and be able to help not only my family back in Guatemala but also many of the children who are trying to get away from all the violence in our country. Give education to many of the children who can’t financially afford to go to school.” -21 year old, Arizona
Theme 2: DACA recipients are trying to create a sense of stability in their lives
Security was a frequent theme, with 46% of respondents saying that they hope to increase their financial stability and 30% saying they would want to worry less and lead a happy life. The top four ways DACA recipients want to create a sense of stability: 1) Pursue or complete education (39%), 2) Buy a home (33%), 3) Get a better quality job (33%) or 4) Own their own business (18%). One respondent told us:
“I want my family to not have to worry about being deported and going back to a place we haven’t been to in over 13 years. I also want my community to not always have to be in fear or speaking up for themselves in case of retaliation.” -20 year old, California
This data is helping us understand the motivations and aspirations inspiring a large segment of the community we serve. It’s helping us develop new products specifically designed to help our clients work toward their aspirations, including:
A webinar series to help clients explore options for self-employment, as a way to improve job security and career prospects.
*Coming soon* – We’re building a financial coaching app, which includes content geared towards helping people build their family’s financial stability.
Expanding this data group to include all loan clients: we’re now asking all clients to share financial aspirations – that way, we can keep a pulse on what matters to them today, and in the future.
To hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and their families, a DACA permit represents hope. Hope for jobs, for family security, for a future worth fighting for. The threat of losing DACA has placed young people in a vulnerable financial position that’s keeping them and their families up at night. We asked DACA recipients across the nation: “Currently, what are your family’s top financial concerns?” 433* DACA recipients answered. Here’s what they said:
58% of DACA recipients worry about not being able to work
As demonstrated in MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs, a stable income is the foundation of financial security. Income is essential to realizing your economic potential. Yet 58% of DACA recipients we surveyed are worried about not being able to work because of their legal status and 57% are worried about their family’s ability to cover basic living expenses. Maintaining economic stability is a top concern for them.
Here are the top areas of concern DACA recipients identified:
DACA recipients value opportunities to secure stable, quality employment
DACA recipients shared many different concerns with us openly through the survey about their education or how they might lose their jobs. We also heard from survey respondents that many of them are turning to self-employment as a means of supporting themselves.
With increasing ICE raids and mixed-status families being separated, DACA recipients have a lot to worry about. Yet we continue to see their resilience and creativity. This data helped MAF realize we can help DACA recipients secure stable, quality employment by providing programmatic support around starting their own businesses and working for themselves.
*For this particular question, respondents selected up to 13 answers that applied to them.
In “DACA=Better jobs, stable families,” we explored the impact that DACA has on job opportunities and family security. With a work permit and the ability to get education, it’s no surprise that DACA recipients are able to get better quality jobs and have a greater sense of belonging in the U.S. We wanted to dig deeper into the realities inside homes and living rooms across the country:
What roles do people with DACA often play in their families?
What impact does DACA have on their families?
So we asked DACA clients: “In the past 6 months, have you supported your family financially or helped them access resources in any of the following ways?” We provided nine options and an invitation to select all that applied. We received 431 responses clients, including one that indicated the respondent did not help support their family.
97% of DACA recipients said they support their family – most often by helping pay for household expenses
Nearly all of DACA recipients said they were helping their family financially or get access resources. The most common type of support? 74% contribute to household bills and other regular monthly expenses. Among many other sources of financial support, DACA recipients often also supported their family in non-financial ways. For example, 44% of respondents said they drove family members who don’t have a driver’s license.
The Multiplier effect: DACA recipients frequently open doors for their family members
As you can see below, DACA recipients described in their own words how much their families relied on them – for finances, transportation and more. We heard from recipients that DACA allowed them to access resources to support other members of their family and network. That in fact, DACA has a multiplicative effect: providing one person with protections and work permits impacts everyone they support financially and otherwise.
Our takeaway: personal financial security is not just about the individual. It’s closely linked to the financial security of your family, friends and community
This research shows us that there’s a very powerful social and familial network effect with DACA. When we research the effect a government program or immigration status has on one person, we also must think about the family. Especially when so many of our families are mixed status, better governmental protection and even an intermediate status like DACA can have a very positive effects on entire family networks. At MAF, this is leading us to think more about how we can support families in growing their collective financial wellness. Because engaging and leveraging your social network is an important and viable strategy for managing financial lives.
It goes back to the earliest days at MAF, when Lending Circles was not yet a program available across the nation and when the conversation about financial capability only centered around savings. Our founders knew that to create programs and services that actually made a difference, you had to orient yourselves in the realities of people’s lives. That it matters where and how you design programs.
We get up in the morning to build programs that actually empower clients. To us, that means we don’t see clients as the problems that need to be solved.
What first started as side project – a relatively small participatory action study we called the Immigrant Financial Integration Initiative – has now become a distinguishing approach for the entire organization. This practice of listening is a core principle behind design thinking – a process that ensures that we are addressing users’ needs, building on their strengths, and creating products that will ultimately have real impact for the communities we serve.
That’s why we’re evolving our technology team into a Research and Development Lab: an innovation unit within MAF to build better programs and products to meet the needs of the communities we serve.
The goals of the MAF Lab are to:
Uncover pressing unmet needs of the communities we serve
Understand the practices, relationships, and resources of these communities
Expand the types of financial needs supported through MAF’s programs and products
Improve the relevance and usability of programs and products to address users’ needs
Share our research and experiences with other organizations
Provide research, design-thinking, and technology services to leading nonprofits, foundations, and corporations
MAF’s R&D process focuses on empathy and engagement with communities who are often left behind.
This approach involves conducting research to understand users’ needs and building programs and products to meet those needs. We’re bridging the best of the nonprofit and fintech worlds:
Our clients are diverse. We build products for people who are often left out of tech developments and formal financial markets.
As a direct services provider, we have a close relationship with our clients, so we build empathy with our users quickly and deeply.
We have the skillset to do our own user research in multiple languages, which allows clients to be heard and represented throughout our process.
Unusual for a nonprofit, we have the expertise in-house to conduct rigorous quantitative research – and use these emerging insights to inform our strategy and development.
With a strong track record of using best practices in research and design, launching the MAF R&D Lab will allow us to do more…and faster. Here’s what a typical process looks like for our team:
A virtuous research & development cycle means we research to assess strengths, understand needs, and then build products to leverage those strengths to meet those needs. But it doesn’t stop there. More research helps us assess how well our products are meeting those needs. That’s how we determine what’s missing or what needs to be refined.
For example: immediately following our 2017 DACA campaign, MAF launched a survey to program applicants to better understand the community of DACA recipients. We analyzed the data and are using it to launch new programs to help meet the financial needs that emerged from the survey (we even tested these programs with target community members first to make sure we got it right). We didn’t just use these insights internally – we shared the survey results with our funders and clients for their input. We’ll be sharing them on this blog in the coming weeks. This is the type of work that the R&D Lab will continue to do more of to better serve our clients and help peer organizations get access to information to help them better support their clients.
We’ve made a few changes to the team to help us evolve. The R&D Lab team recently moved out of MAF’s main office and into our own space, which we call Design Hub.
Our new office has helped us carve out a space to incubate products for the long-term (and gives us an excuse to draw all over the walls in the name of ideation). We’ve also increased our capacity to achieve an ambitious agenda that includes releasing a native mobile app this year and launching new loan programs. To shorten the sprints between designing and testing prototypes, we brought our design team in-house and trained ourselves in user research and testing. That meant investing in staff to help us collect and analyze more user data – and to reduce the build time of our tech developments. We have assembled a team of creative and data-savvy MAFistas to build products that matter to our clients.
Our team is bolstered by the support of our Technology Advisory Council, made up of seasoned leaders from tech companies advising us on all aspects of tech developments. The R&D Lab brings together MAF’s strengths as a direct service nonprofit, a financial services provider, a data-driven tech organization, and a force of social innovation.
Ultimately, the strength of the MAF R&D Lab comes from the trust we’ve built with clients. It’s trust that encourages them to open up about their dreams and fears. We will preserve that trust by continuing to ground our work in MAF’s values of respecting and empowering our clients.
In September 2017, MAF launched the nation’s largest DACA fee assistance program serving 7,600 Dreamers across the country. In a series of blog posts, we’ll share information about who we served and what we’re learning about the financial lives of DACA recipients after launching a survey to thousands of DACA clients.
MAF’s DACA fee assistance program supported 1 in 10 DACA recipients in California in fall 2017
When the current administration announced that DACA was ending, MAF pivoted to respond to an urgent need. Within days, we launched a DACA Renewal Fee Assistance program to provide grants of $495 to individuals eligible to renew their DACA work permit by the October 5 deadline. Within 4 weeks, we helped 5,078 DACA Recipients (by January of 2018 that number rose to 7,600). In September and October 2017, we helped nearly 7% of all those who submitted an application to USCIS to renew their DACA – and 1 in 10 DACA recipients who lived in California.
We provided emergency relief to high-need clients: 89% of 2017 DACA fee assistance applicants came from low-income families
Mirroring the national distribution of all DACA recipients, 57% of MAF’s clients who we served in 2017 identify as female and the typical fee assistance recipient was 23 years old. Around 89% of recipients came from low income¹ families; the median annual household income was $24,000 for a household of 4.
Get to know MAF’s 2017 DACA fee assistance recipients:
DACA recipients served came from 44 states and hailed from 71 countries:
Listening to community is crucial to good program design
Even though the DACA fee assistance program was time-limited, we knew that we wanted to continue to build programs to support this community of DACA recipients and their families. In addition to capturing demographic data for each client, we fielded a survey² – in English and Spanish – to all 5,078 fee assistance applicants who applied in 2017 to better understand their emerging needs.
This survey builds on past research and drills down into financial needs and aspirations
Building on past research about DACA recipients conducted by Tom Wong and United We Dream, our survey was designed to ask applicants questions to learn about:
How receiving DACA had helped them
How our respondents used DACA to support their families
Applicants’ top financial concerns for themselves and their families
Our respondents’ personal, financial, and career aspirations
Applicants’ experience with and feedback on different aspects of MAF’s program
At the end of the 2-week survey period, we received 447 responses for an 8.8% response rate. About 6% of those responses (26 responses) were in Spanish.
In general, our survey respondents closely matched our applicant population, with a few exceptions. Similar to other online surveys of this community, we received higher a survey response rate among females: 63% of people who responded to our survey were female, compared to 57% of MAF’s clients. We also tended to receive more responses from a slightly older age group: 55% of survey respondents were over 23 years old compared to 45% of MAF’s clients.³
Sharing insights means using community voices to move financial services forward
This survey gave us rich insights about our program applicants – their dreams and their fears. In the following blog posts, we will be sharing insights we heard and the data points we collected. We’ve also been using the data to inform our own work. We are excited to share these insights as part of our ongoing strategy to listen to the communities we serve – and share their stories with the partners we work with. In upcoming blog posts, you’ll get to learn more about how our programs are meeting the needs we uncovered through research.
Based on this survey data, we’re launching new programs to help clients access quality employment, pay for immigration-related application fees, and build credit and financial security.
¹ “Low income” here means that the recipient’s household income is below 80% of the Area Median Income for households of the same size in their county. Data for Area Median Income comes from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2017 database. ² We conducted the survey in October 2017 with a 12-item instrument that included eight closed-ended and four open-ended items. We sent an initial email to all clients and one follow-up email reminder those who hadn’t completed the survey. ³ We are only reporting on statistically significant differences with at least a medium effect size.
MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs provides a framework for evaluating every person’s economic well-being.
Eight years into our mission to build a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families, we at MAF know that Lending Circles are empowering participants to build credit, reduce debt, and increase savings. But how do those gains translate into greater financial security? Do they produce meaningful improvement in our clients’ larger financial lives?
As Lending Circles have flourished and expanded over the years, we’ve amassed data allowing us to better understand the program’s impact on clients’ overall economic stability and mobility. But as we began to dive more deeply into these questions, we realized that we lacked a clear definition of financial security and, by extension, a reliable way to measure it.
An Incomplete Picture of Financial Health
Typically, income or credit scores are seen as proxies for a person’s financial well-being. But these common metrics aren’t adequate for assessing a person’s full financial life. Knowing someone’s income alone does not say much about her expenses, debts or net worth — especially in cases where income is volatile, uncertain from day to day or week to week. And while credit scores predict the probabilitythat a borrower will repay a debt, they tell us little about a borrower’s true abilityto repay.
What will it take for a borrower to pay back that loan? Will she need a second loan to pay off the first? If so, can we honestly say she is able to repay that initial loan? And what about the myriad informal financial transactions our clients rely on to meet their financial obligations? Where do those fit in when assessing an individual’s financial security?
MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs
For answers we turned to Abraham Maslow, the revered American psychologist who developed the “Hierarchy of Needs,” a model that outlines the physical, social, and psychological requirements that must be satisfied for an individual to realize her true potential. In his seminal work from 1943, Maslow organized human needs into five levels, ordered from the most basic (health and well-being) to the most complex (self-actualization), with each level facilitating the satisfaction of the subsequent, higher-order need. Using the same logic, MAF developed the “Hierarchy of Financial Needs” (HFN) to explain what individuals require to realize their true economic potential.
The HFN identifies financial parallels to physiological needs (income), safety (insurance), love and belonging (credit), esteem (savings), and self-actualization (investments):
INCOME: The most basic financial need is income to cover basic living expenses, such as food, housing, and utilities. Income can take many forms, from wages and dividends to government benefits or even transfers from family or friends. Income is the foundation of financial security.
INSURANCE: To protect earnings, people must insure against unforeseen events that create setbacks. This requires taking stock of assets, including cash, belongings, and health, and securing against loss, theft, damage, and illness.
CREDIT: To acquire assets such as a car, home, or education otherwise unattainable through income alone, people need credit. This requires individuals to have credit histories and credit scores to access, and leverage, low-cost capital.
SAVINGS: When individuals save, they put away resources for specific goals. The ability to save demonstrates discipline and engenders confidence, a sense of achievement, and respect for oneself and others.
INVESTMENTS: The pinnacle of the HFN is when people realize the dynamism of their economic potential. This is the stage where people can invest in ventures that carry risk as well as the potential for return. It represents a turning point because people have investments to generate income, rather than relying solely on earned wages. Through investing, people have the opportunity to attain important life goals such as achieving financial security for their families, retirement, and dignity in old age.
The Hierarchy of Financial Needs is a revolutionary yet simple model that provides clarity regarding what people need to do to realize their true economic potential. For most Americans, financial security starts with a job. People need income to pay for expenses and balance their budgets. They also need to insure against shocks; they need to leverage credit to acquire assets; they need to save for a rainy day; and they need to invest for future returns. Although every individual faces a unique set of circumstances and challenges in managing these needs, the model is applicable across all income and demographic groups. In the same way that Maslow’s model applies to all people, we believe HFN applies to everyone as well, providing a clear 360-degree view of people’s financial lives.
A New Framework for Moving Forward
Despite the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is financially underserved, there has yet to be a comprehensive framework for understanding an individual’s economic needs. MAF’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs fills a gap in the economic development field, giving us a means of evaluating every person’s financial well-being. Consumers — especially low-income consumers — have complicated financial lives, often mixing and matching different financial products, informal practices, and government programs to achieve their unique version of economic security. Our holistic view of their financial well-being enables us to identify their strengths and challenges at every level. This comprehensive approach will equip the nonprofit sector, financial services industry, and policymakers to provide far more meaningful and effective solutions to improve people’s financial well-being.
Read CEO Jose Quinonez’s essay “Latinos in the Financial Shadows” in a new book on economic well-being.
Earlier this year I was invited to contribute MAF’s perspective to a joint publication from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED), with the support of the Citi Foundation. The resulting book, titled What It’s Worth: Strengthening the Financial Future of Families, Communities and the Nation, is a collection of more than 30 essays that document the financial health and stability of Americans across the country. The authors put forth promising strategies for improving economic security and mobility in low-income and underserved populations.
My piece “Latinos in the Financial Shadows” highlights the informal lending practices common among immigrant communities, documenting the important role they play in the lives of people operating outside the financial mainstream. It reviews MAF’s strategy for formalizing these informal financial relationships through our Lending Circles program and attests to the impact of our work.
The essay also introduces the Hierarchy for Financial Needs (HFN), MAF’s new model for identifying and assessing the key components of an individual’s financial well-being. The HFN provides a ground-breaking and much-needed framework to help policymakers, practitioners and others working to improve consumers’ financial stability and mobility evaluate their impact more holistically, placing the work in the larger context of economic health.