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Announcing Change Machine’s Marketplace: Driving Low-Income Consumer Participation in the Digital Economy

Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO | The Financial Clinic

 

COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our living and working lives, erasing industries, skyrocketing unemployment, and deepening the economic divide. This drastic and instantaneous shift has also created a digital “new normal” that is being formed and reformed every day by the remaining businesses and their remote workforces.

To address the shifting ground beneath our feet, the Clinic has launched the Marketplace — an expansion of our online platform, Change Machine, which empowers nonprofit practitioners to confidently recommend and connect their customers with trustworthy fintech products and services. The first suite of offerings, titled Marketplace Relief, is intended to mitigate financial insecurity amidst the unfolding economic recession.

All featured products have been rigorously vetted and awarded the Seal of Inclusivity — our set of criteria that determines which products do and don’t appear in the Marketplace. Developed with low-income customers and nonprofit leaders at the helm, the Seal of Inclusivity guarantees that products included on the platform are safe, affordable, and effective for low-income consumers.

Products and services from traditional financial institutions have high premiums (i.e. time and opportunity costs, fees, price of products), while fintech companies often save by avoiding brick and mortar/walk-in services. The latter offer products and services at more competitive rates, and produce those products at a much higher clip. As a result, the market is flooded with fintech products that promise a range of financial support services, but with no clear or systematic method to evaluate products for safety, affordability, and effectiveness among low-income consumers.

The Seal of Inclusivity meets this demand for low-income individuals and the practitioners who serve them, and democratizes fintech in a way that drives a more equitable digital economy. Its design is intentionally utilitarian, offering practical support to practitioners in their everyday work. Not only does it procure products that are safe and user-friendly and underwrite those products on behalf of the practitioners who recommend them, it also puts customers in the driver’s seat. Central to our Seal of Inclusivity is our belief that customers are their own best experts; it is their experiences and collective feedback — combined with changes to their financial security — that ultimately determine which products remain in the Marketplace over time.

The COVID-19 crisis, like other moments of economic vulnerability, attracts predatory actors performing in bad faith. As such, a critical element of the Seal of Inclusivity is the safety and transparency of fintech products. Companies whose products are featured in the Marketplace must be clear and upfront about their services — what is offered, how it’s offered, and how consumers can choose to access the product now and in the future. During the product recommendation process, our customers will be made aware of how the associated fintech company might collect, use, and store their information, as well as how their data is being protected from data breaches or faulty technology.

The ability to manage one’s finances from anywhere, and at any time, lends efficiency and a greater sense of control over one’s financial life. However, many products require special skills or subject matter expertise to be viable, and are therefore inaccessible to segments of consumers. The Seal of Inclusivity means that Marketplace products are designed for ease of use and understanding. Their systems and softwares are recognizable and/or intuitive, and make everyday financial activities quick and efficient. Products in the Marketplace are chosen to meet the distinctive needs of low-income, majority Black and Brown consumers and to remove barriers to participation.

The principles outlined above that form the foundation for the Seal of Inclusivity are intended to be iterative and flexible. As we learn more about what’s important to our customers, practitioners, and fintech companies, we will continue to hone and adjust the process by which products are tested and evaluated. Unlike criteria that have come before us, our Seal of Inclusivity is designed to be actionable for low-income customers — a living, breathing process of validation and accountability.

In this emerging post-COVID economic reality, the digital divide is hardened and deepened; low-income people face additional barriers to participation in the digital economy, and a lack of access to products and services leaves financially insolvent people more vulnerable to predatory actors. Despite the systemic barriers, we know that harnessing the voices of our customers is the only way to forge lasting change. The Marketplace will amplify those voices and up the ante for fintech companies that claim to serve and meet the needs of low-income consumers. Our customers will be the judge of that.

If you represent a fintech company and would like to discuss your product, please send a note to partnerships@thefinancialclinic.org.

Margins Have Cliffs: Who will weather COVID-19?

Mae Watson Grote | Founder and CEO | The Financial Clinic

 

Our economy demands that working poor people assume the risks of capitalism, living day-to-day at the margins. COVID-19 will demonstrate that margins have cliffs; deep asset poverty and an eviscerated safety net means we’re facing a future in which many Americans simply will not recover.

Here’s how the Clinic is responding to our customers who are in a financial free fall:

  • Next week, we will launch a series of free virtual offerings for customers and nonprofits, including financial coaching referrals to our programs, community trainings on COVID-19 resources, and access to Change Machine where more than 4,000 practitioners get answers to their questions, exchange resources, and deepen their connections with colleagues.

  • The Clinic is rapidly evolving Change Machine to help nonprofit partners on the front lines expand their reach with virtual coaching services, respond to heightened financial insecurity caused by COVID-19, and drive advocacy and resource-generation grounded in the stories and experiences of their customers.

  • We will equip the field to bridge the digital divide exacerbated by COVID-19. While fintech companies exclude low-to moderate-income consumers, and predatory actors target those same consumers in the face of emergent federal and state relief, the Clinic will be launching an inclusive product Marketplace that empowers practitioners to recommend promising products for their customers.

As we dig deeper with our customers and nonprofit partners on the front lines, we thank you for your engagement and support. Together, we’ll work to emerge from this crisis closer to our vision of a country where ALL are financially secure.

In the wake of the Great Recession, natural disasters, and a government shutdown, the Change Machine community put $42 million back into the pockets of working poor Americans.