Author: Ramya Gopal

Podcast: Design for Social Change

Design is an integral part of the MAF Lab’s R&D process and today, we give you in an inside peek into how design meets direct service at MAF. In the first episode of our podcast, you’ll get to meet UX Designer Miguel Castillo and hear his journey to developing design for social change.

Podcast Episode 1

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 Lab Spotlight: Shruti Dev

Meet Shruti Dev, MAF’s first Technical Project Manager in the MAF Lab. Shruti came to MAF from the for-profit sector with a background as a developer and business systems analyst in healthcare.

As Shruti has moved onto other opportunities, we asked her to reflect on her time at MAF.

MAF: How would you describe your role as a Technical Project Manager?

SD: I am responsible to for taking all our projects to the finish line without issues and also maintaining projects post-release. I develop requirements documents, scope projects, test all features and come up with new workarounds and solutions to resolve issues. I collaborate with our offshore developers and internal teams on a daily basis to remove roadblocks in projects we are working on.

I also dabble in all new technology that MAF uses to make sure we have some expertise to resolve issues or knowledge of who to reach out to to resolve those issues. Communication technical problems to non-technical staff and vice versa is also a major part of the job.

MAF: What accomplishment are you most proud of at MAF?

SD: There are so many! Every project I do seems like an accomplishment to me because everything that is done is MAF is so new and something that I personally have not done before. But the proudest accomplishment has to be setting up Spacedesk (MAF’s internal help desk) which is helping all the staff to raise their issues and MAF Lab to resolve them in a timely manner. I’m also proud of transitioning the organization to Salesforce Lightning (because I see people using in more often) and setting up SMS through Twilio.

But any list will be incomplete without mentioning MyMAF, which is now in hands of so many. That, of course, is a team effort rather than individual, but I like to add it as an accomplishment during my tenure at MAF.

MAF: What have you learned from your time working at MAF

SD: I have learned so much at MAF about the human connection and how technology can be used for good. I learned new things from my coworkers, from the systems we use, and from our clients. The client stories always inspired me. Every day there is some new technology that we are tackling and I learned so much about the up and coming technologies which I have never heard of before. I learned that there is no written formula for success but you just have to work hard and stay on the mission and think about your clients in order to succeed.


I also learned that its possible to create an open and diverse workplace. MAF is so diverse and accepts different people from different backgrounds and cultures with open arms. If you work hard, you don’t have to let go of all the fun, you can still have happy hours and staff retreats and take a breather to enjoy all the successes you have.

Every day at MAF was a true learning experience for me.

Interested in joining MAF? Apply now to be our next Technical Product Manager.

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.

Work and Bills: The Financial Concerns of DACA Recipients

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.

DACA’s multiplier effect

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.

 

MAF Lab: R&D for social good

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

The author (R&D Lab Manager) and UX/UI Designer test a prototype with a client in MAF HQ

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.

 

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