The Trump Administration ended DACA on September 5, 2017, igniting a wave of anguish and fear in communities throughout the country. Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of young people came out of the shadows to register for the DACA program hoping that that would be the first step to becoming full participants in the U.S., the country many know as their only home. Despite the dark cloud of uncertainty in their lives, young immigrants are rising up, full of hope. They are organizing the social justice movement of our generation, advocating for a DREAM Act that would give young immigrants a path to citizenship, and pushing for comprehensive immigration reforms to help millions of undocumented immigrants as well.

I was boarding a flight at the crack of dawn to Los Angeles when the Trump Administration announced that it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Since 2012, this program has provided young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children – commonly referred to as “Dreamers” – with protection from deportation and work permits. Scrolling through the headlines, I knew it would be a rough day. Not only was the Administration ending DACA, but it was doing so in a ridiculously cruel way. The announcement ended DACA for new applicants – many of whom were high school students who dreamed of pursuing higher education using DACA – while giving those already with DACA just one month to submit applications to renew their status if their work authorization ended by March 5, 2018. Dreamers were left to learn about the announcement on their own and determine whether or not they qualified.

154,000 Dreamers could extend their protective status for two more years. But they didn’t get any letters or receive a phone call. There was no outreach to encourage them to renew.

Immigrant communities and advocates were outraged by the announcement. Protests erupted in cities across the country. People were angry, and rightly so. Our government was breaking a promise made by President Obama that had radically improved the lives of the 800,000 young immigrants enrolled in the program. For years Congress had both acknowledged the need to reform America’s broken immigration system, but failed to do so, leaving millions of immigrants unable to come out of the shadows. DACA was a small, temporary solution for young people as we waited for Congress to fix our broken system.

Dreamers say this is akin to psychological torture

Dreamers say this is akin to psychological torture

No official notification from the government

No official notification from the government

Sessions announces DACA will end

Sessions announces DACA will end

In 2012, President Obama gave the executive order to establish DACA, under which the federal government promised not to deport immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday, were enrolled in school, had graduated from high school, or were honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the U.S.  Instead, the government would grant them permission to work and provide them with Social Security numbers. In return, Dreamers would register with the Department of Homeland Security and provide them with all of their personal information. Like the 800,000 Dreamers who registered for DACA, at MAF, we too believed in that promise—that they could live openly in the light of day.

When President Obama first created DACA, we started providing zero-interest loans to finance the high application fee (now $495). We worked with over 1,000 Dreamers in the last 5 years. For MAF, this was personal.

We witnessed the benefits of DACA on a daily basis. With DACA, we saw first-hand that our clients were better supporting themselves and their families by accessing higher paying jobs. They opened bank accounts and began saving. By every metric, DACA propelled them forward, unleashing their creative energy and human potential. With DACA, some of our clients enrolled in school, became doctors or nurses. Others, like Gustavo, secured better-paying jobs. He stopped cleaning houses and was able to get work as a Wells Fargo bank teller serving the Latino community

I spent the next day in Los Angeles, fielding emails and trying to think through next steps. Thursday morning, I was back in the MAF’s office where we had our first post-announcement staff meeting. We talked about our options, trying to figure out how to proceed. Doing nothing was not an option. Without knowing exactly how, on that morning we resolved to help as many Dreamers as possible to renew their status.

Dreamers only had four weeks to renew before the October 5 deadline, so every minute mattered. With that in mind, we agreed to offer zero-interest loans, but on a much larger scale than ever before. We were going national with these loans. This would be a huge operational challenge for us for two reasons. First, up until this point, we’d only financed DACA application fees for Dreamers in California. Second, although MAF is a national organization, we work through a network of nonprofit partners to serve clients outside of California. For the sake of efficiency, we needed to outreach to and directly serve clients all over the U.S., regardless of geography- for the first time ever.

We set a goal to finance 1,000 applications in 30 days – the same number of loans we had provided in the last five years.

I began contacting funders to solicit support for our new loan fund.  We needed $500,000, and fast. While I was working the phones for funding, MAF staff members were working furiously to operationalize the new loan fund. Our communications team built a new website specifically for the DACA renewal loans, complete with a clock that tracked the number of minutes left before the window to apply for renewal closed. Our tech team streamlined our existing loan application by stripping out any information that wasn’t absolutely essential to processing the loan requests, and built a system for rapidly reviewing and confirming an applicant’s eligibility to renew at this time.

By the end of that first week, we’d secured a million dollars in commitments from the Weingart Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, Chavez Family Foundation, and Tipping Point Community. With their support, we doubled our original goal accordingly and aimed to help 2,000 DACA recipients to apply for renewal. It was an absurdly ambitious and risky goal, one that could put MAF’s finances in a potential cash-flow crisis. But we had to do it. If ever there was a time to put it all on the line, it was now.

 

One week after the announcement to end DACA, we were ready to launch the new loan fund. We had 21 days until the deadline.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 12, we sent a series of emails and press releases to media outlets, colleagues, funders, and immigrant rights activists. I was in New Jersey that day, preparing to deliver a keynote address later that evening, when I received a call from Fred Ali, the Chief Executive Officer of the Weingart Foundation, asking us to consider offering grants instead of loans. He argued that the urgency and gravity of the situation necessitated grants and that loans, even at zero interest, would pose a barrier to some Dreamers. I was reluctant to make the shift right after launching the campaign, but hearing his commitment to work with us made it easier to take the plunge. Thanks to Fred, a new path forward opened for us.

I quickly called MAF’s leadership team and we agreed to revise our strategy. We re-launched the campaign later that day offering $495 scholarships to DACA recipients who needed to renew. By Thursday, September 14, just two days after launching the campaign, we received more than 2,000 applications. The campaign’s website briefly crashed due to the heavy traffic. We were ecstatic at the response, but the overwhelming interest created a number of new operational challenges. First, there was a very real possibility that we would run out of money. Part of the problem was timing. While we had secured commitments from funders, we had not received the money in our bank account. We had to front MAF’s general operating money while funders worked through their approval and disbursement processes.

Just 48 hours into the campaign, the first 2,000 applicants had already claimed all of the $1,000,000 in DACA grant funds.

I remember the conversations with my leadership team about how to proceed as some of the most nerve-racking of the entire campaign. We were literally watching the clock, counting down the hours until we would run out of money. That night, we considered shutting down the program. Very quickly, we’d met our goal of helping 2,000 Dreamers, which was already double what we’d originally planned for. But the truth was that we could not stop. Ending DACA was a national emergency, and we refused to abandon our community in the midst of it.

We considered reverting back to zero-interest loans. But we didn’t want to do that either. It would have been extremely complicated and confusing. Instead, we changed our messaging to alleviate some pressure. We started encouraging applicants to first consider asking for support from friends or family members before requesting funds from MAF. We trusted that those who could self-select out of the process would do so, in turn reducing demand and increasing the likelihood that we would assist those most in need. We agreed that I’d work the phones to push for more funding.

Mohan printing hundreds of checks

Mohan printing hundreds of checks

The

The "Situation Room" in action

Dina, a special ed teacher, picks up her check

Dina, a special ed teacher, picks up her check

Ultimately, through the course of the campaign we raised $4 million dollars, eight times more than our initial goal. While I’d like to say that the money was a response to my exceptional fundraising skills, that wasn’t the case.

Funders understood the urgency of the situation, and many of them were able to expedite their approval processes – which usually takes months – into just hours or days. Fred Ali was working the phones too; he contacted his colleagues at other foundations, vouching for us and asking that they consider supporting the campaign. And like Fred, we had so many other funders working behind the scenes, calling colleagues and allies they knew would care and could commit quickly. Many of them contributed to the renewal fund, increasing our goal to helping 6,000 Dreamers renew their DACA status. Aside from the funding and cash flow challenges, we were now faced with a slew of major operational ones.

In theory, the process to deliver funds to applicants was simple. MAF would write a check to the Department of Homeland Security for $495, and mail it to the applicant, who would include it in their application package. But in practice, we hit wall after wall. For starters, there was the question of how to cut so many checks so quickly. During the earliest days of the campaign, when we were receiving upwards of 800 applications a day, I was traveling for work and our Chief Operating Officer was in Chile. Because we are the only two people authorized to sign MAF checks, this created an immediate bottleneck.

Our first workaround was a signature stamp. Aparna Ananthasubramaniam, Research and Technology Director, confirmed with our bank would recognize a stamp, got me onboard with the idea with a few days, but even that was too slow.

 With applications coming in by the hundreds each day; and seeing our target go from 3,000 to 4,000, and then finally to 6,000 renewals, we needed to find a better alternative.

Within a few days, we outsourced the task to a third-party processor to manage the bulk of the work, allowing us to focus on the approval process and applications that needed individual attention. This was a huge weight off of our shoulders. Just like with cutting checks, mailing them sounded straightforward but proved enormously difficult. Prior to this campaign, MAF had never primarily communicated with clients via snail mail. Consequently, we didn’t have much  experience sending large volumes of mail, and didn’t realize that it is both an art and a science, until it was almost too late.

Our original plan had been to send the checks via priority mail. To do this we needed the appropriate “priority mail” envelopes, which are available for purchase at every post office. So, on that first day, Mohan Kanungo, Director of Programs & Engagement, drove to the nearest post office to buy supplies. However, there weren’t enough envelopes for the hundreds of checks we needed to mail. So, he drove to another one. And then another.

Soon, MAF staff and their loved ones were driving all over the Bay Area to raid post office supplies.  At one point, Mohan charged $2,400 worth of mailing supplies to his personal credit card.

He couldn’t use a company card because he’d given it to a fellow MAF staffer who was using it to purchase supplies at other post offices. Because we were new to bulk mailings, we also didn’t know that there is a specific way you are supposed to do them. MAF staff showed up with huge boxes of envelopes, figuring we would mail them the way we would any other letter. Turns out that our method was extremely inefficient because the post office had no way to processes the envelopes in bulk. Rather, each one had to be processed individually, which took approximately 1 – 2 minutes, meaning mailing hundreds of envelopes could take hours.

No one was happy about this. The postal workers were frustrated by the massive inconvenience it caused them because they were understaffed, too. We were upset with ourselves, as well. MAF staff had to remain at the post office for hours at a time while each letter was processed. It was time we didn’t have. Soon postal workers simply began refusing to process our mailings. Staff would get rejected at one post office and drive to another in the hopes they could mail it from there. Or they’d split a large mailing into a couple of smaller ones that would be less onerous to process, and get them out that way

Tara Robinson, Chief Development Officer, called the local office of the regional representative of the United States Postal Service, where she spoke with a woman in the business service network department. Tara asked her, “Do you know about the Dreamers?” She said, “Yes!” After explaining what MAF was doing and why there was such a time crunch, the postal worker worker jumped into action. We found our advocate. That same day, she organized a conference call with supervisors from numerous area post offices during which she instructed them to accept all of MAF’s mailings. Our postal shero explained how to create a manifest for our mail so that the postal workers could scan all of our envelopes in bulk instead of individually. She also provided the direct name and number of the Postmaster General if we ran into more problems.

Fueling our anxiety was the fact that we had promised applicants a response within 48 hours of submitting the initial application.

Initially, we thought that 48 hours was a relatively fast turnaround time. But in a time of crisis, 48 hours can feel like forever. Our office was constantly flooded with calls, emails, Facebook messages, and in-person visits, from applicants wanting to confirm that we had received their request and wanting to know when to expect the check.

Every single person on staff was answering phones and fielding inquiries – including me. We were woefully understaffed to field the volume of inquiries we were receiving, and decided we needed a more transparent and robust set of communications with our applicants. Aparna drafted a series of emails that would be automatically sent to applicants as their application worked its way through our process. One email was sent to confirm receipt of the application; another was sent to confirm that we had all of the necessary materials to review it; a third went out to confirm that it was approved; and a final email was sent confirming when to expect the check. We even created another automated email to tell applicants to expect another email soon with tracking information. It seems over the top, but these email communications considerably lowered the call volume.

While the automated communications helped to significantly reduce the volumes of calls and emails we received, we remained severely understaffed relative to the workload. We hired temporary staff but quickly realized that wasn’t going to work due to the nature of the highly sensitive information we were processing. So, we turned to our friends and colleagues, including La Cocina, and other key allies at Salesforce and Tipping Point, all of whom excused staff from work and sent them to our office to volunteer.

Then the office of the Governor of Washington contacted us and said “We heard you were the nationwide provider of DACA scholarships. We have an anonymous donor in the state of Washington. Can you process $125,000 of scholarships for our residents?”

Hundreds of organizations – both small and big – helped us to spread the word. There were videos, memes, vloggers and even a social media sweepstake sponsored by the Clever Girls Collaborative. The President of the University of California sent several press releases and social media messages to inform students about the scholarships, as did the President of the California Community Colleges. Without solicitation from our team, some funders approached us asking how they could support the initiative. Across the country, immigrant rights groups and legal aid organizations we’d never worked with before were advertising our renewal fund to their clients.

Spreading the word beyond the Bay Area was important because many of those organizations were operating in communities that lacked support for Dreamers, either because of the local political climate or because they were in rural, isolated areas, like Mississippi and Utah. We attribute a lot of our ability to reach these communities to incredible responses from both the media and social media. The campaign received more than 1,000,000 social media hits, and more than 100 media mentions, including coverage in New York Times, NPR, and Washington Post, among other prominent outlets.

We were humbled to give $3.8M to 7,678 Dreamers – making this the largest DACA renewal fund in the nation.

In the fall of 2017, MAF provided $2,513,610 to fund 5,078 DACA renewal applications in 46 states – that’s 6.7 percent of all renewal applications submitted. That means we funded one out of every ten Dreamers in the state of California who applied for a renewal, including 16 percent of all applicants in the Bay Area. And in January 2018, days after U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s injunction, MAF issued an additional 2,600 grants to Dreamers.

As one Bay Area legal aid attorney told me, “Again and again and again, Dreamers walked into our offices to apply for a renewal with a MAF check in hand.”

Over the past several months, all of us at MAF have spent a lot of time reflecting on the campaign, thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and how the experience should shape our work moving forward. The campaign is a bittersweet victory. In terms of impact, we exceeded our wildest ambitions. We stood as a beacon of love and support for immigrants at a time when so many of our friends, families, and clients felt under attack. Nonetheless, as an organization we have struggled to celebrate the campaign because it represents the end of DACA. We believe in an America that is so much better than this, and remain stunned and absolutely livid that the Trump Administration ended DACA without offering a permanent legislative solution, leaving millions of young immigrants and their families in anguish. Living with that sort of pain is difficult. For all the sadness and disgust that we have felt in response to the Trump Administration’s actions, we have also discovered a deeper and more powerful resolve. While I know each MAFista took away something personal from the experience, we share these overarching lessons:

1. Timing is everything.

Proven solutions – no matter how great – are not always the *right* solution for every situation. We launched our fund with loans because making loans is what we do, and we do it well. But given the urgency of the DACA crisis – when we didn’t have time to deal with even the most modest of underwriting processes – loans simply weren’t the right product. At the beginning, we were so steeped in our history that we couldn’t see beyond loans. It took an outsider to open the door to the possibility of scholarships. However, once that door opened, we were flexible, ready to embrace the alternative approach, and operationalize it quickly.

2. Technology is critical to scale.

Time and time again throughout our campaign, we resolved bottlenecks and scaled services with technology. We engaged applicants throughout the country by creating a secure online application through our Salesforce CRM that people could complete and submit to us within minutes. We created automated emails to keep Dreamers informed and engaged throughout the application process. We outsourced the process of cutting checks to clients by building an electronic applicant database that we emailed to our third-party processor. Without question, absent technology, we could not troubleshoot obstacles in real time, and we would have been much more constrained in our ability to reach communities outside the Bay Area.

3. Trust is imperative to success.

Dreamers were willing to share their personal information with MAF – despite the climate of fear in which they were operating – because they knew that we were – and are – on their side. Similarly, funders, including ones that had previously never worked with us, were willing to bet big on us because they trusted their colleagues who vouched for us. Likewise, nonprofits referred their clients to us knowing that we were going to do right by them. All of this happened fast and trust was the key to making the campaign successful.

4. Uncertainty can be your friend.

As nonprofits, we plan our work over the course of years. We create theories of change, strategic plans, and budgets to demonstrate our good stewardship and fiscal management. In normal times, these tried and true practices help mark our progress towards achieving goals. I get it. But we’re not in normal times. In moments like these, no matter how perfect our plans are, the fact is that the fate of millions of families hang in the balance with the next incendiary tweet from Trump. We really don’t know the nature, or extent, of the next Trump-created crisis. This type of uncertainty necessitates a willingness and ability to take the ever-changing political climate into account, and change programmatic strategies accordingly.

The fight for social justice is long. We now have at least 7,600 more people ready to join the battle.

At the end of 2016, an exciting group formed at MAF: the Adelante Advisory Council (AAC) is MAF’s first-ever committee devoted exclusively to leveraging the best of fundraising and marketing resources to garner support for MAF’s programs and, more importantly, to raise awareness about the issues facing people living in the financial shadows.

The seven members of the AAC are passionate Bay Area professionals, each of whom brings a unique set of skills and expertise. They are united by their shared belief that everyone deserves a fair shot at financial freedom. AAC members collaborate with the MAF team to support fundraising initiatives, provide strategic advice, and serve as ambassadors for MAF’s work and mission.

Please join us in welcoming the Adelante Advisory Council to the MAF family! If you’re interested in becoming a member of the AAC, please reach out to [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.

Read on to get to know a few of these new MAF ambassadors and learn why they joined the AAC.

Sally Rothman – Director of Operations at Wanelo

“I joined MAF because I believe that everyone deserves equal financial opportunity. Certain communities, particularly low-income and immigrant families, are currently excluded from the financial marketplace. The work that MAF does is crucial to building opportunity and an even playing field for all.”

Jessica Leggett – CEO of Seven & Gold LLC

“I’m hoping to help spread the news about the incredible work MAF is doing and grow our supporters so we can expand and deepen our impact.”

Cyana Chilton, Equity Investment Analyst at Capital Group

“I joined because I am inspired by MAF’s work and I’d like to participate in making our financial system more inclusive.”

Peter Meredith – Marketing & Fundraising Consultant

“I believe that innovation is essential in creating a more just world. I look forward to helping MAF build its base of support so it can expand its pioneering work.”

Dave Krimm – President of Noe Valley Advisors

“I joined MAF because I’m passionate about the positive impact that microloans can make for low- and middle-income families and individuals, particularly in immigrant communities. I joined the AAC to help broaden and strengthen MAF’s outreach to individual donors, and shape our communications at a time when low-income and immigrant communities are under extraordinary pressure. Now more than ever, MAF’s financial services can be a critical resource.”

 

Many thanks to all of our Adelante Advisory Council members. Special thanks to Sally Rothman for contributing content to this article.

Meet Gaby Zamudio, a bilingual developer specializing in UI and an all-around positive, people person who’s always looking for opportunities to use her tech skills to support local nonprofits. Gaby is the Co-Founder of Meraki Creative, a community for women entrepreneurs and a former developer at Thoughtworks. Since 2016, she’s been a member of MAF’s Technology Advisory Council (TAC), a group of professionals from leading Bay Area tech companies who provide leadership, advice, and counsel to help MAF use technology to best meet the financial needs of low-income consumers.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Gaby and learn more about what drives her to support MAF.

MAF: Tell us about yourself. Hobbies, interests, passions?

GZ: I’m trained as a UI developer and designer and I love finding creative ways to display data and information. I recently had the opportunity to serve as an instructional assistant in a front-end development course at General Assembly here in San Francisco.

A fun fact that most people don’t know about me is that I played table tennis (a.k.a. ping pong) growing up, and had the chance to represent my region at competitions. Usually I was the only woman participating, which prepared me for the tech industry, where I often have a similar experience.

MAF: What issues spur you to action?

GZ: First, social justice has always been important to me. I was raised during a period of internal conflict in Peru when there were two powerful terrorist parties, so it was a dangerous time. Many people disappeared. My mom worked for a human rights organization and my dad was a sociologist and activist. My mom put so much into her work. As a child, I remember wishing I could see her more, and then opening my heart to realize that maybe other people needed my mom more than me. I felt conflicted because unlike many others, I had food and a safe place to sleep. But I so easily could have been in their position. This experience shaped my commitment to creating a more socially and economically just world.

Second, I care deeply about immigrant rights. I moved to the U.S. from Peru by myself at age 19, so I can relate to the experience of immigrants in this country.

Finally, I’m passionate about the environment. Growing up in a mining town, I’ve seen how these industries contaminate our communities. If we don’t protect our environment, we won’t be able to make progress on other issues like social justice and education.

MAF: What made you want to get involved with MAF?

GZ: I first heard about MAF through a friend who had participated in a Lending Circle, and I immediately recognized the practice. In Peru, many people participate in panderos to save money for big purchases while being accountable to a group. I love how MAF connects the practice of saving in a group with credit-building and financial education.

When I moved to the U.S. by myself, the financial system here was completely new to me. I didn’t know what credit was.

When I started college, it was confusing to navigate the student loan process. I could have easily taken out more loans than I needed and gotten myself into a hole I couldn’t get out of. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. But my experience taught me that everyone – not just immigrants – can benefit from more information and tools to navigate the financial system.

A few years after first learning of MAF, a friend suggested I look into MAF’s new Technology Advisory Council (TAC). Nonprofits don’t usually have the same resources for tech that for-profit companies do, and I’m honored to use my technical expertise to add to MAF’s tech capacity and help create a bigger impact.

MAF: Why do you invest your time and skills in the work we do together?

GZ: For me, it’s about empowering people. At the first TAC meeting, I had the chance to meet Luis, who now owns D’maize, a Salvadoran restaurant in San Francisco. A loan from MAF enabled him and his wife to build credit scores and then access bigger loans to grow their business. They eventually hired staff from their community, and now they give back by donating catering for their son’s events.

I hope to be a granito de arena (grain of sand) supporting this amazing ripple effect.

MAF: What are you looking forward to in our work together in the next few months?

GZ: I’m looking forward to supporting the development of the Lending Circles App and seeing the final version once it’s ready. I feel proud to have helped shaped the design of this one-of-a-kind app. I hope the MAF team feels just as proud! I’m also excited to reflect on what we’ve learned from this process as we move forward with more tech products.

 

MAF is thrilled to welcome four new members to our Board of Directors! They bring rich experience in law, financial tech, consumer advocacy, and business. Read on to learn more about these inspiring leaders and what motivates the work they do.

Meet Alexandra

Before joining her current law firm as a Financial Services Partner and lead of the FinTech team, Alexandra worked as Senior Counsel in the CFPB’s Office of Law and Policy.

Alexandra learned about the power of informal lending practices at an early age while growing up in Monterrey, Mexico.

Her grandmother, a landlord, used to organize tandas to help tenants afford rent and other expenses.

Alexandra remembers witnessing firsthand how the capital from tandas helped people cover medical bills, car repairs, and other unexpected expenses. She’s eager to bring her legal training, experience in consumer protection, and deep personal connection to fair lending to her role with MAF.

 

Meet Cara

As a corporate attorney for Dropbox, Cara brings valuable experience in the legal, finance, and tech spheres to her role as a Board Member. Before Dropbox, she held the role of Vice President & Counsel at BlackRock, where she specialized in alternative investment vehicles and provided advice on legal, regulatory, and general corporate matters.

Cara has an inspiring track record of leveraging her skills and expertise in the interest of justice.

Since becoming an attorney, she has provided pro bono immigration legal services to many of the same communities that are part of MAF’s Lending Circles network.

When asked what drew her to MAF, she shared, “What I see in MAF excites me deeply: an organization that has already found a sustainable, elegant, and effective way to foster financial inclusion of communities most in need.”

 

Meet Lissa

With 12 rich years of experience as a management consultant at McKinsey, Lissa is passionate about all things teams: cultivating and retaining talent, adapting to change, and building a purposeful culture. As Co-leader of McKinsey’s OrgSolutions, which provides clients with innovative design technology and advanced analytics to help them make the best decisions for their organizations.

Lissa shares that she’s long been dedicated to tackling income and asset inequality at its roots.

Over the past year, she’s found herself growing ever more passionate about defending the idea of an inclusive America.

She sees great potential in MAF’s Lending Circles model, which she describes as “both powerful and powerfully simple.”

 

Meet Sagar

A seasoned tech and finance professional with a passion for social justice, Sagar currently directs Strategy and Operations at Salesforce. In addition to his tech savvy, he brings valuable experience as a former member of the Big Brothers Big Sisters leadership board in Chicago.

His passion for financial inclusion stems from his family’s immigration story.

When his parents came to the U.S. from India, they had little savings and no credit history, and they struggled to make ends meet.

It was the generous help of family friends that helped them get on their feet and begin to build a future for themselves. Sagar knows that a strong social network can make or break someone’s ability to thrive, and he sees his role with MAF as an opportunity to build that network for others.

We’re delighted to welcome Alexandra, Cara, Lissa, and Sagar to MAF’s board!

We’re grateful to them for lending their skills and talents to help us take our work to the next level. ¡Adelante!

Follow our Champion Spotlight series, where we introduce you to our great Social Investors and honor their actions to support financial empowerment through credit-building.

Meet Jessica Leggett, a skilled and experienced investor and entrepreneur. Originally from Texas, Jessica spent 15 years investing in commercial real estate in New York City while supporting several youth-oriented education organizations in her spare time. When she and her family relocated to the Bay Area two years ago, she combined her passion for service with her career aspirations, founding Seven + Gold LLC, a mission-based investment platform that provides capital and strategic advisory services to early stage companies.

A dedicated donor, Jessica joined the MAF Board of Directors in the summer of 2016. She also serves as the Co-Chair of MAF’s Adelante Advisory Council, a group of Bay Area innovators helping to raise financial support and awareness for MAF.

We had the chance to sit down with Jessica to chat with her about her professional journey and what motivates her to do the work she does.

MAF: Tell us about yourself. Hobbies, interests, passions?

JL: Supporting social impact is a cornerstone for my family, whether it’s volunteering in my son’s preschool class to serving meals to those in need or investing in mission-driven companies. By focusing on social innovation, my goal is to leave a positive legacy for my children and future generations. I also take great satisfaction in the creative arts and design in any form – whether it’s personal endeavors like pottery, home design, or even enjoying beautiful spaces like my local coffee shop! I also love being outside and especially being near water, so I enjoy going on hikes, fly fishing, and boating. The energy and pace of the city have really helped me appreciate the contrast and importance of getting outdoors.

MAF: What issues spur you to action?

JL: For me, it all boils down to creating opportunity for all. I want to help solve systemic issues that create disadvantages for certain communities. Within that construct, I’ve focused on a few major issues. First, economic inclusion: making sure that everyone has access to opportunities to live a good life and a safety net for the inevitable bumps in the road. Second, education: making sure every child has access to age-appropriate curricula and appropriately resourced learning environments. Many areas within our communities are severely resource-constrained, putting children at a disadvantage. Third, the environment: minimizing our impact on natural resources and identifying ways we can take responsibility and be accountable for improving our world.

MAF: What made you want to get involved with MAF?

JL: Shortly after my family moved to San Francisco, I spoke with MAF’s executive team at a Tipping Point Community board match event. A goal of mine was to join the board of a small but impactful organization, with potential to grow and serve clients across the country. I was really drawn to the organization’s focus on creating system-wide change with broad scalability. I was attracted to MAF’s national reach and scalable approach, and appreciated the professionalism of MAF’s staff and the data-driven approach to creating social impact. Joining the board was a perfect fit!

MAF: What are you looking forward to in your work with MAF in the next few months?

JL: I am excited to see how MAF continues to address the ever-changing needs of its constituents, like developing innovative products to address the current crisis facing the immigrant community.

I can’t wait to see MAF continue to challenge the status quo and create broader and deeper impact. I am really proud to be part of this terrific organization.

It’s who you ask that matters

It’s about keeping it real. As we grow and evolve, we know that engaging real people will be key to gathering feedback that improves and informs programs and products. With this in mind, we set out to form our very first Member Advisory Council (MAC) earlier this year.

The goal? To encourage dialogue among clients who use our programs and take a closer look at their experiences. The Member Advisory Council will provide advice on new programs, the client experience, and will help shape our strategic goals.

Last month the Member Advisory Council, made up of 8 of our clients (a.k.a. members) representing the diversity of our community met for the first time. We sat down to get to know one of those members, Santos, and to hear what MAC means to him.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I grew up in the heart of District 9, most commonly known as “La Mission”, at 26th and Valencia Streets, where the intersections saw me grow and become who I am now. Growing up in La Mission, it gave me perspectives that you don’t get to see or experience in other Districts in San Francisco. La Mission is full of cultures from every corner of the world. We have locals that are very outspoken, that are not afraid to speak against injustice.

What do you do for a living?

Growing up with some of the La Mission ideals, I wanted to do something for my community, something that could teach – or how we say it here in the Bay, “Speak some game” – to the younger generations. So I started working for the Bay Area Urban Debate League. As the regional coordinator for San Francisco, I am in charge of all the programs that the League has here in San Francisco. I work primarily with the High Schools such as Mission High School, Wallenberg High School, Downtown High School, June Jordan School for Equity, and Ida B. Wells High School.

Why did you join the Lending Circles program?

I joined a Lending Circle because my mother thought it would be a good way to start generating some credit. At first I was skeptical. I knew what a Tanda was but those were sometimes sketchy and didn’t always work out. Fast forward to 2016 and I have done 3 or 4 Lending Circles.

One of the things that I enjoy the most about the Lending Circles is the finance class you have to take. It is a requirement to take the class every time you join a Lending Circle. The constant reinforcement of financial education is key. I’ve learned so much from that constant reminder. I’m constantly trying to get people to join the program. I usually just show them the website and tell them a bit of my story.

What was your reaction when you learned about MAC?

When I got the call, I didn’t know how to react. I happened to be on the roof of my building when I got the call. The call came in as a breeze of air, it was like deja vu. When I spoke to Karla about becoming part of the first group of MAC members, it was a no brainer and I immediately said yes.

What part of MAC is most exciting to you?

One of the things that Is really interesting to me is that you get to represent a community. You get to speak for the people that cannot be heard. That’s a power that not everyone gets to feel. The decisions that MAC members will make, will affect the community and that’s what’s really got my attention.

The fact that I get to experience and be a direct decision maker for the community is beyond my dreams. With the help of the seven other members we can make our community better. The first generation of MAC members will set the standards for the next generation and so on we will build a group that prioritizes the community.

MAC’s next meeting is scheduled for August 3rd where the group looks forward to discussing their goals for the coming year.

From our early years serving families in the Mission District, we believed that Lending Circles could benefit communities far beyond our San Francisco neighborhood. Knowing that organizations with deep ties to their communities are best equipped to serve local clients, we set out to partner with fellow nonprofits, first in the Bay Area, then across California and — eventually — the country. Looking back today, it’s hard to believe just how quickly this vision was realized: the Lending Circles Network now has 50 partners and counting.

We know that with growth comes big opportunities. As a means to strengthen and deepen the experience of being a Lending Circles provider, we are proud to announce that we have formed a Partner Advisory Council.

The members of this Partner Advisory Council (or, as we like to call it, PAC) will offer their insight, smarts, and on-the-ground experience of being a Lending Circles provider. They will provide advice and strategic thinking, all in an effort to elevate and strengthen the Lending Circles Network. They will also play an instrumental role in planning and hosting the Lending Circles Summit, a national convening of Lending Circles providers and other experts
in related fields.

So, who did we select? Eight outstanding staff members at partner organizations that provide Lending Circles. These eight PAC members represent the diversity of the Lending Circles Network — in regard to geographic location in the U.S., communities served, organizational size, and experience.

  • Jorge Blandón, Vice President, FII-National at Family Independence Initiative in Oakland, CA
  • Leisa Boswell, Financial Services Specialist at SF LGBT Community Center in San Francisco, CA
  • Madeline Cruz, Senior Financial Coach at The Resurrection Project in Chicago, IL
  • Rob LaJoie, Director, Financial Empowerment Program at Peninsula Family Services in San Mateo, CA
  • Gricelda Montes, Asset Building Programs Coordinator at El Centro de la Raza in Seattle, WA
  • Judy Elling Pryzbilla, Community Coordinator at Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership in Slayton, MN
  • Paola Torres, Small Business Program Coordinator at Northern Virginia Family Services in Falls Church, VA
  • Alejandro Valenzuela Jr, Financial Empowerment Services Manager at CLUES – Comunidades Latinas Unidas En Servicio in Minneapolis, MN

Here’s what co-chair, Leisa Bowell, has to say about joining PAC:

“In my work at the SF LGBT Center one of our focuses is on creating a more equitable world which is why the Lending Circle program is so important to us. I am invested in seeing that program grow, not only at the Center but also throughout the various LGBTQ communities across the nation. I think joining the Partner Advisory Council will allow me to help that growth come to fruition.”

The first PAC meeting took place on April 29th and allowed PAC members to get to know each other, and get to know the group they just joined. We learned fun facts about PAC members and discovered we have quite the talented group! Madeline knows some Arabic, Jorge was part of a poetry duo that performed in New York subways, and Paola loves dancing and has been part of a musical group. The group offered up some insightful feedback on MAF’s upcoming Lending Circles Summit, and engaged with our tech team to learn more about the new tech developments on the horizon.

We’re tremendously grateful that these PAC members have stepped up to make the Lending Circles Network even better. Their insight into the on-the-ground experience of being a Lending Circles provider is invaluable to us, and will help guide MAF’s direction for years to come.

The following excerpt was originally published in “Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization,” a journal published by MIT Press. Read the full essay here.

I was 20 years old when I realized that my mother had died because we were poor.

She passed away when I was nine, too young to understand the complex and dangerous nature of life in poverty. At that time, I had to muster everything inside of me just to survive the avalanche of sorrow and change in our family life.

It was only as an adult that I came to terms with my painful childhood. I see it now as the source of the deep empathy I have for people who suffer and struggle in the world.

That is why I’ve dedicated my life to working against poverty.

And it is how I became the founding CEO of Mission Asset Fund (MAF), a nonprofit organization that strives to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families. When I joined MAF in 2007, the organization was a nonprofit start-up with plans to help low-income immigrants in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Eight years later, MAF is nationally recognized for developing Lending Circles, a social loan program based on people coming together to lend and borrow money. With cutting-edge technology, we transformed this invisible practice into a force for good.

Program participants are freeing themselves from the grasp of predatory lenders by opening bank accounts, building credit histories, paying down high-cost debt, and increasing their savings. They are investing in businesses, buying homes, and saving for a better future.

Lending Circles brings to light what’s already good in people’s lives.

And within that light, participants are forging a sure path into the financial mainstream, unlocking their true economic potential every step of the way. The program’s success is serving as a model in the fight against poverty, demonstrating new and effective ways of helping low-income people without belittling them in the process.

This is the behind-the-scenes story of how we made this happen.

Earlier this year, MAF had the pleasure of welcoming three new members to our Board of Directors. Read on to find out who they are, where they’re from, and what inspired them to join the board — from the cutting-edge technology driving Lending Circles to our innovative model for building financial capability.

Meet Dave

Dave Krimm is a seasoned financial services professional, with a passion for the “positive impact of microlending: the difference that a small loan can make in an individual’s or a family’s success.” His experience working as a financial product development consultant and leading fundraising and marketing at the San Francisco Foundation make the MAF Board a perfect match for Dave.

Dave is no stranger to nonprofit boards.

Most recently he served as Chair of the Opportunity Fund Board in San Jose, California, where he helped oversee an exciting period of growth for the organization. Now, he’s eager to bring his talents to a nonprofit rooted in his home of San Francisco. When asked what he’s most excited about in his new role, Dave shared that, “I’m looking forward to strengthening MAF’s ‘support team’ on the Board, to match the broadening impact of MAF’s programs locally and the expansion of our nationwide network.”

Meet Salvador

Salvador Torres is well acquainted with the informal lending and borrowing that happens on the margins, and he’s eager to uplift MAF’s work making the invisible, visible. Salvador shared that, “My family members have used lending circles to share resources, but they rarely went beyond close family ties and didn’t help build credit. Now with MAF’s Lending Circle products and partners, people around country are able to access capital and build the credit necessary to transition into the financial mainstream.”

He knows just how crucial financial health is for building strong, resilient communities.

Salvador spends his days working in Washington, D.C., as an investment banker and consultant at Penserra and 32Advisors, where he helps companies build growth strategies. He’s also served as an Advisory Board Member of the Posse Foundation, a college access organization, where he saw firsthand how close-knit social circles — “posses” — could transform the lives of students and their communities.

Meet Stephan

Stephan Waldstrom hails from Belgium (via Denmark), and is the Director of Risk and Product Development at RPX Corporation, a risk management company based in San Francisco.

Stephan is passionate about all things product development.

And he’s ready to use that passion to give back to his community. Stephan believes that “MAF has found a simple yet powerful model that can significantly improve the financial security of its members and potentially countless people across the U.S.” A product guru at heart, Stephan is excited to get his hands dirty helping MAF develop the first-ever Lending Circles mobile app, a new tool that will connect clients with on-demand loan information. In addition to his Board seat, Stephan is lending his expertise as a member of MAF’s Technology Advisory Council — which helps guide the design of the technology that powers MAF’s programs.

We’re happy to welcome Dave, Salvador, and Stephan to MAF’s board.

And we’re grateful to them for sharing their collective skills and talents to as we chart new courses — from the mobile app, to our Lending Circles Summit, to new research shaping our understanding of financial health. Adelante!

Respect Meet Build Financial Inclusion

 

Last week as part of CFED’s Assets & Opportunity National Week of Action, Mohan Kanungo—an A&O Network Steering Committee Member and Director of Programs & Engagement here at MAF—wrote about how your credit report can impact important personal relationships. Building on those themes, Mohan is back this week to highlight MAF’s strategy for empowering financially underserved communities to build credit. This blog was originally published on CFED’s “Inclusive Economy” blog.

There are more payday loan shops in the United States than McDonald’s or Starbucks.

That might surprise if you live in a neighborhood where all your banking needs are satisfied by mainstream financial institutions instead of payday lenders, check cashers and remittance services. Sources including the New York Federal Reserve, the CFPB and the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard reveal that there are millions of people who experience financial exclusion, particularly around credit and basic financial products. These disparities are well-documented among communities of color, immigrants, veterans and many other groups who are isolated economically. How can we address these challenges and lift folks out of the financial shadows?

First, as leaders in our field we need to have a frank conversation about how we engage communities around financial services and assets.

It’s easy to cast judgement on those who use alternative products due to the high interest rates and fees, but what do you do if mainstream products are not responsive to your needs? Increasingly, banks and credit unions have been closing brick and mortar locations to move online, while rural and urban areas may not have had access to “basic” financial products many of us take for granted—like a checking account—for generations. Traditional “assets” like homeownership may seem completely out of reach even if you are well-off, educated and savvy with credit, but live in a costly and limited housing market like the San Francisco Bay Area.

Similarly, non-traditional “assets” like deferred action may seem more urgent and important for an undocumented young person because of the physical and financial security that comes with a work permit and permission to stay in the US, albeit temporarily. We need to listen and appreciate the unique challenges and perspectives of financially excluded communities before coming to a conclusion about the solution.

Second, we need to understand that the values and approach driving any solution can tell us a lot about whether the outcome of our work will be successful.Financial Inclusion MAF

MAF started with the belief that our community is financially savvy; many in the immigrant community know what the exchange rate is with a foreign currency. We also wanted to lift up cultural practices like lending circles—where people come together to borrow and loan money to another—and formalize it with a promissory note so that folks know their money was safe and gained access to the benefit of seeing this activity reported to the credit bureaus.

It is about building on what people have and meeting them where they are rather than where we think they should be.

We need to be innovative in our fields to come up with long-lasting solutions within the financial system that are responsible to the communities they serve. Small-dollar loans by non-profit lenders like Mission Asset Fund’s Lending Circles program does just that.

Third, we need to think about how to bring our products and services to more communities who can benefit from such programs, while maintaining the respectful approach to our community.

Early on in our work at MAF, there was a clear sense that the challenges people experienced in the Mission District of San Francisco were not unique and that communities across the Bay Area and the country experienced financial exclusion. We perfected our model and then scaled slowly. While MAF sees itself as the expert in Lending Circles, we see each nonprofit as being the expert in their community. MAF also knew it was impractical for us to build a new office everywhere in the country. So we relied heavily on cloud-based technology to build a robust social loan platform and the existing banking infrastructure to facilitate transactions using ACH, which encouraged participants to get a checking account and put them on a path towards realizing larger financial goals, like paying for citizenship, eliminating high cost debt, and starting a business.

MAF was founded in 2008 with the vision to create a fair financial marketplace for hard-working families.

Since launching our social loan program, we have expanded to provide Lending Circles through 50 non-profit providers in over 18 states plus Washington D.C. We have serviced over $5 million in zero-interest loans and offer a range of financial products, including bilingual online education, to turn financial pain points into credit and savings opportunities. And we have done all this with a default rate of less than 1%.

Currently, we are expanding Lending Circles in Los Angeles, and we have plans to expand further across the country while deepening our reach in places where we already have non-profit providers. Check out LendingCircles.org to see if there’s a provider near you or express your interest in partnership. Financial institutions, foundations, government agencies, private entities and donors can champion the work of MAF and non-profit organizations working to lift people out of the financial shadows.

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