I should have known it would be hard to focus on blogging the conference while also meeting everyone I want to meet, figuring out innovative new strategies and initiatives, asking questions, eating, sleeping a bit, and even remembering to call the wife and kids back home this evening (one of whom, not my wife, has apparently contracted a case of head lice from God knows where and wishes I were there to help comb out the louse eggs: how can the Assets Learning Conference compete with that for entertainment value!).
Anyway, I’m sure the conference will be fodder for blog posts for weeks (that’s my way of saying don’t expect too much today), but I’ll take some time now to reflect a bit on the Plenary about Nonprofit Innovation this morning, which was a real highlight for me.
After an introduction from Andrew Plepler, President of the Bank of America Foundation, Jennifer Tescher of the Center for Financial Services Innovation took the podium. She noted that we have shifted from a society of savers to a society of borrowers, and that to a certain extent our zeal for home ownership has obscured the importance of some other financial service needs.
With CFSI’s recent nonprofit financial service innovation RFP, they received more than 130 proposals and selected 4 pioneering organizations, including organizations directed by two of the panelists.
Looking over the entire portfolio of applications, Jennifer noted certain categories of innovation that were being put forward with some frequency:
1. Innovative product design in financial services: Pre-paid debit cards (nascent industry, but it’s exploding); Products linking transactions to asset building; Responsible payday loan and refund anticipation loan substitutes, often incorporating savings features; and more.
2. Innovative marketing and distribution: meeting customers where they are, such as at tax sites, and incorporating financial education into popular media such as the Nuestro Barrio telenovela, as on view in the screening room, and more.
3. There’s a lot of work being done around non-traditional credit-building tools. In this economy of tightening credit, we simply can’t over-estimate the importance of the credit score.
4. Innovative partnerships aimed at providing better service delivery.
Jennifer reminded us there’s something important we can’t forget when designing financial services with an asset building purpose: as the United Way’s Brian Gallagher said, we need to offer true integration, not just collaboration.
Which brings us to the big question: how do we reach scale? What are the mechanisms that allow financial services to effectively build assets in a scaleable market? That would be the over-arching theme for the panel.
Jennifer introduced Steve Zuckerman of the Center for Community Self-Help, which operates one of the largest community development credit unions in the country. Steve’s project in Self-Help’s California office was to look at the gap being filled by check-cashers, understand how that market works, and try to develop a service that would meet the same need at more affordable rates through a micro-branch model. Their idea is to meet the customers where they are, and also add the products and services that create a stepping-stone to asset-building. It’s a strategy in formation. They haven’t actually opened a micro-branch yet, but they received the CFSI grant and the necessary charter approval.
Jeff Zinsmeyer, Director of the D2D Fund, talked about an innovation I’ve mentioned previously on this blog: prize-linked savings. They recognized that savings is boring, but that gambling isn’t boring. And we’re a country that spends more on gambling than on fresh fruit. They had a study that told them 4 out of 5 low-income people believed that the lottery was the only way to obtain significant wealth. So the innovation they’ve been exploring is how to join those two things together — the boring (but virtuous) thing, savings, with the exciting (if not so virtuous) thing, gambling. The innovation is something that has been done successfully in a number of other countries. And after some interesting pilot tests in the U.S. market, they’re now trying to bring together a big group of credit unions to be able to offer significantly more prize money and test out the effects of larger prizes. A fascinating project. There must be many circumstances in which we could imagine introducing a substantial prize incentive to boost asset-building behavior. I’m sure I’ll be thinking about variations on this concept for a long time to come.
The third speaker, Johnette Hartnett of the National Disability Institute, didn’t really stress a single innovation that was being brought to market, so her remarks were a bit less structured, but she did point out that they have some 550 partners on the ground in the Real Economic Impact tour, which provides quite a laboratory in which to research and monitor progress.
Some interesting points came out in the Q&A. For example, I was struck when Steve noted that in some cases Self-Help has had to acknowledge that a for-profit check-casher might have the most valuable pre-existing relationships on the ground, so Self-Help wanted to find ways to partner with those check-cashers and build on their relationships (the nonprofit is not always the one with the most direct contact to the target low-income customer).
Regarding building partnerships with financial service firms, Jeff said they often find that the most important person to talk to is an operations person as opposed to a CRA person. They might have the CRA/community affairs person make the introduction to operations, which is where they’ll determine if they can really build an alliance around this idea of prize-linked savings.
With sponsor Andrew Plepler of Bank of America having left the room, Jennifer jokingly said she felt comfortable pointing out that credit unions are obviously front and center in this work, as we can see simply from the projects being featured on this panel. Why such a big role for credit unions, she wondered.
Jeff pointed out that although you can work well with commercial banks, there’s often a trade-off. They might be able to scale faster because of their size. But the bureaucratic levels you go up to make decisions can be stifling. D2D found that the credit unions could move very quickly, which is important for innovation. In a single meeting you can talk to the entire operations staff, and then you walk into the office of the CEO and the decision gets approved. Jeff acknowledged, however, that to get into more urban markets and denser populations, eventually you need to be working with commercial banks, too.
Addressing marketing and distribution, Jeff explained how D2D has done a lot of work around messaging and imagery regarding the practice of saving. Typically, you see a lot of people walking on the beach and sitting in rocking chairs. This works for the middle class. But D2D found through an intensive interview process that the middle class imagery actually creates anxiety for lower-income families, thus reducing the chance of saving. The imagery that works for lower-income people tends to revolve around saving for children. So they’ve gotten some of the credit unions to re-cast their imagery, making it less abstract. The imagery needs to be more family-oriented.
After the panel, CFED’s President Andrea Levere came to the podium to make some remarks. She noted yet again that innovation is why we’re here: we’re all innovators. And she knows that some people have wondered what’s with the light bulb we keep seeing around the conference venue? It’s part of the symbolism for a brand-new CFED program called “innovation@cfed.” What they’re trying to do is accelerate the process of innovation by bringing together the different sectors and raising up the work that’s not well known but needs to expand. The initiative has 3 core elements:
1. “Innovators in residence.” CFED will seek out some of the most creative innovators who are ready to move to action and maximize their work through collaboration with CFED. $50,000 stipends will be provided to help refine and expand their innovations. The innovator can be physically or virtually in residence; in other words, you don’t have to pull up stakes and move to DC. The first round of applications will be due in January, it sounds like. Wow, what an exciting prospect for this field, to have a kind of innovation lab available.
2. Showcase innovative ideas, not just those from the limited number of innovators in residence. CFED will be looking to feature these ideas online, at events, etc. And there are CFED staff at the conference who are already on the lookout to collect ideas.
3. Organize an innovation summit, staring in 2009 (the first one will be part of CFED’s 30th anniversary celebration). This will allow innovators to exchange views, strengthen collaborations, and find new partners.
Andrea said we should all go to innovation.cfed.org to check it out. I wonder if I’m the first person to be signed up as a user of the site. (I didn’t see an obvious link yet from the main CFED site, so don’t start out looking there.)
She concluded with a nod to Langdon Morris for his contribution to CFED’s plans for this innovation project. He brought systematic thinking to how they would structure it. And they feel there’s been no more important time to inject new resources for innovation into th field.
I couldn’t agree more, and I look forward to learning all about CFED’s plans to support innovation and about how the field will respond.