Becky Smith and Mae Watson Grote present at the public launch of Change Machine.

An Interview with Change Machine’s Creators

Aubrie Fennecken | Director of Development

Becky Smith, consultant and former chief business development officer, and Mae Watson Grote, founder and chief executive officer of The Financial Clinic, at the public launch of Change Machine.

Aubrie: I’m here today with Mae Watson Grote, founder and chief executive officer of The Financial Clinic, and Becky Smith, consultant and former chief business development officer, to learn more about their early conversations in 2010 to move the Clinic’s proven model for financial coaching from a ToolKit in a three-ringed binder to a versatile, multi-function online platform. After years of planning and development, a software platform has come to life, Change Machine, incubated and launched by The Financial Clinic. With more than 1,000 users after its October 2015 launch, the platform has the potential to dramatically improve the way social service organizations address financial insecurity nationally.

Get an inside look at the birth of the platform, and hear about what you can expect from Change Machine in 2016 from the changemakers who brought it to life! (For news on the latest releases, check out the Change Machine blog)

Aubrie: So Mae, in a nutshell, what is Change Machine?

Mae: Change Machine is an online, financial coaching platform for the social service field. It provides users with financial coaching tools they can use in their work with customers, and the professional development supports they need to be successful in delivering their services. It’s home to 10 years of field experience, lessons learned and best practices. We’ve assisted over 15,000 families and over 320 organizations, and our accumulated knowledge and field developments are completely accessible.

Aubrie: Becky, rumor has it you were “keeper of the ToolKit”, which I understand was the Clinic’s original blueprint for financial coaching … a heavy binder you shipped all over the country to train all of these organizations. What made you decide to move your Financial Coaching ToolKit online?

Becky: Mae handed me a napkin and said, “Make it happen.” Kidding!

When Mae asked me to start the Strategic Initiatives Department in 2009 and scale our training and technical assistance, we didn’t know what the journey had in store. In our first year we teamed up with workforce programs, domestic violence shelters, housing organizations, legal service providers and community colleges … and that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The work took off, and every new experience demonstrated how dynamic and versatile financial coaching is. We thought, “Hey, this stuff could transform a lot of social services!” But there was no way could we do it one nonprofit at a time … we certainly didn’t want to ship binders forever, … so we needed to move the well-worn ToolKit online and “wiki-fi” it. That’s how I experienced it anyway. Mae?

Mae: Many factors got us thinking that the ToolKit should be online. Just as the Clinic was getting off the ground, a mentor observed that what we were doing belonged online. I filed that away … and then the field took off. We experienced wild growth, and the demand for our training and technical assistance services outpaced our ability to meet it. In other words, we had a pipeline before we had a product.

We were methodical every step of the process to build Change Machine. We studied the growing field carefully, and approached a few other tech players to partner and bring the ToolKit online. Technology was taking the world by storm, but nonprofits are often several steps behind the market. The Clinic has always been data driven with multiple parts of the ToolKit corresponding to quantifiable outcomes. We could envision how technology could make coaching conversations come to life in a powerful way.

Aubrie: So Becky, Mae handed you this napkin, then what? Were there other versions of the platform before you landed on Change Machine?

Becky: Oh yes! It was “GreenPrint” in its proposal stage. The first version of Change Machine was built in 2011 using Ruby on Rails, and we called it ToolKit 2.0. The tech juices weren’t flowing quite yet! Then we found our development partner-in-crime, Familiar Studio, and Change Machine was born on the platform.

Aubrie: How has building a web-based platform changed the way the Clinic operates?

Mae: I can’t say that we knew exactly what we were signing up for. I remember the day Becky walked into the office and said, “You know we’re building a software company?”

Becky: I came back to the office from a meeting with the developers who said, “How quickly can you read The Lean Startup? Little by little, we learned the tech vocabulary that described the way we were working with each other. Stand-ups and sprints became a part of our day-to-day operations.

Mae: Apparently we’d been working agilely before we knew there was a word for it! Now we’re bringing these practices to the entire organization.

Aubrie: Wow, it sounds like quite a journey for a nonprofit to build a software company from scratch! Change Machine officially launched this year. What does that mean for the platform?

Becky: From a technical standpoint, the launch means the first product roadmap is fully developed and the software is ready to bring to the market. Of course, we’ve been delivering Change Machine to our partners for nearly three years as we’ve been building different functionality and content. Now we have the full infrastructure and team in place to operate the platform on a larger scale.

Mae: And from an organizational standpoint, the launch means Change Machine is able to serve the Clinic’s mission in two distinct ways. First is the central reason we built Change Machine — it enables us to achieve our mission and vision more effectively and efficiently. The second is that as a social enterprise, Change Machine allows the Clinic to achieve sustainability, so that we can continue to bring the most cutting-edge tools and resources to the field.

Aubrie: What’s the next direction for Change Machine?

Mae: The entire Clinic is actually in the process of a transition. For the past eight years, the Clinic has offered its capacity-building services across the nation. With the launch of our “financial security ecosystems” this year, the Clinic will now be able to provide the full range of its strategies nationally. We’re growing rapidly, but we’ve been planning for this growth for years.

Aubrie: That sounds like an announcement is in the works. Can you share any spoilers?

Mae: I can’t share anymore surprises today, but keep an eye on the Clinic this year for lots of news!

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