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What We Are Learning

What actions can we take to make sure we are listening to and learning from people closest to communities experiencing barriers to economic opportunity?

Authors: Sandhya Nakhasi, Co-CEO

This post was originally published by Community Credit Lab, which is now part of Common Future.

In these first few months of starting Community Credit Lab, Ryan Glasgo and I have learned a lot from nonprofits through one-on-one meetings, group listening sessions, and launching our first pilot product. We continue to reflect on these learnings to inform our work and also believe in the importance of sharing these thoughts externally. In doing this, our desire is to open this dialogue beyond the two of us–to continue these conversations with others and learn more from our community’s diverse set of experiences.

The key learnings shared below stem from a couple questions that we are thinking about right now as we prepare for the next steps in our journey:

  • How can we work collaboratively to efficiently use resources across organizations with a focus on supporting people to thrive in their communities?
  • What actions can we take to make sure we are listening to and learning from people closest to communities experiencing barriers to economic opportunity?

Knowing that there is no one right answer to these questions, in order to move closer to understanding the various ways to answer them requires us to learn from others, try things ourselves, get feedback, reflect on challenges and successes, adapt based on feedback and learnings and try again…and so on. What is shared below is a snapshot of that cycle that we are currently in and we hope these learnings can spark more conversations with with others in our community.

The Importance of Trust

Trust is an important factor in people’s decision making around choosing financial institutions, financial products, sharing financial data and making investment decisions. This understanding informed how we designed our model with products offered in partnership with other nonprofits via an extension of trust that we would need to earn. We are aware that nonprofits have deep relationships and trust with people in the communities they work within and for. However, we were unsure if that trust could be extended beyond the nonprofits and individuals to include us, which is important since loans are coming from Community Credit Lab. In order to extend this trust, we knew that we would have to focus on building it organically with our partners.

Through our partnership with Puget Sound Welcome Back Center, we learned that having case managers participate in the workshops to design the loan product helped us build trust within the nonprofit partner in an informal setting. In the design process, we built a product together taking into consideration the numerous challenges that case managers had witnessed. As a result of working together on this, case managers were able to clearly articulate the benefits and true intentions of the loans to those that were interested in learning more–thereby extending trust and relationship in order to support people.

Internal Reflections: We were fortunate that the Puget Sound Welcome Back Center team decided to move forward based on the mutual trust we were able to build initially, but we are also aware that experiences will be different as we continue to build new partnerships. Trust is something that is built over time through a series of experiences–we have to earn that trust with people. To standardize the way we build trust with partners and people would be disingenuous; therefore, the takeaway for us is not necessarily that case managers always need to be in the design workshop. The takeaway is that mutual trust from everyone involved is needed to enable loans designed to effectively reach and support underserved communities. Trust with the people we are designing for is most important to us: including their perspectives and voices in the design and review processes will increasingly be something we will strive towards. With support and guidance from our partners, we hope to be able to include community members in the design process going forwards, but we also know that this takes time (which is often scarce) and that we must do our part to continue earning trust.

High Value Placed on In-Person Interactions

For our initial product, in-person interactions and transactions with borrowers were valued the most, followed by phone calls, texts and finally emails. When learning about the loan and signing up for the loan, all borrowers wanted to meet in-person despite being given the option to participate in a video-call at a time that would fit their schedule. Phone calls and text messages to ask quick questions outside of the in-person meetings were preferred by all borrowers over email communication.

In our recent nonprofit listening sessions, we asked a group of nonprofits and community-based organizations whether or not they believed that the people they worked with would prefer to access low-touch, low-barrier online lending products or would want high in-person interaction when taking out a loan. Overwhelmingly, all organizations said they believed that the latter would be preferred, especially when designing to support people based on specific circumstances by leveraging the case management approach of our partners.

Internal Reflections: We are wary of extrapolating from one product with a group of people that have some shared experiences and know that more listening and learning from the perspective of people taking out loans needs to be incorporated as we continue to evolve. We also know that preferences will likely vary from individual to individual and our model will need to adapt over time as we continue to understand those differences. For now, this type of high-touch interaction is difficult to scale across several products based on our current capacity (we are only two people). It will be important to understand how to create a balance between in-person and virtual communication and how we can effectively share and streamline those interactions with nonprofits that are already working directly with people as we move forward with multiple products.

Case Managers as Connectors

Case managers are action-oriented problem solvers. They are connectors, counselors, and supporters. They are putting the needs of the people they work with at the center of their approaches and making the complex system of funding options work for that person (when often times the convoluted rules and criteria are working against them). They often know the most about a person, what challenges they are facing and what support they might benefit from best.

In our recent nonprofit listening sessions, this became abundantly clear to us. The case managers who joined us talked about cobbling together funds across three or four grant funding pools that met the criteria for a person to get support for truck driving certification that costs $5,000 to earn $24 an hour with benefits (dependent on the company). We could also sense the frustration when people said in some instances there wasn’t any funding to support someone who needed funds in an emergency situation because they were outside the criteria for support. The knowledge of people’s circumstances combined with the desire to support them is driving case managers to find creative ways to fill the gaps.

Internal Reflections: Ryan and I walked away from the listening sessions understanding two things: first, the need for more flexible support to meet people where they are in their life—both with respect to loans and grants (although our focus will remain on loans); second, all case managers present said they would want general training on loans and the loans that Community Credit Lab is providing before supporting the qualification process of people they work with, but they would be willing and able to point people to Community Credit Lab’s lending options if they were given clear criteria. If, together, we can design supportive flexible lending with clear criteria that case managers understand, we hope to fill some large gaps in effective and collaborative ways. We plan to continue to explore and test this as we move forward with partners–but we are aware that it will take time, and of course trust.

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