Affiliate Spotlight: Mission Asset Fund Is Helping Low-Income Latinos Reach Financial Prosperity

Financial freedom is one of the cornerstones of the American Dream. That’s why every day, NCLR works hard to advocate for policies that help Latinos gain access to financial products that will put them in control of their finances.

We also work closely with our Affiliate Network, which works in communities around the country to implement programs that also help Latinos gain financial freedom. One such Affiliate is NCLR’s 2015 Family Strengthening Award recipient, Mission Asset Fund (MAF). As we wrap up Financial Capability Month, we’re proud to feature a Q&A with MAF’s Tara Robinson as our April Affiliate Spotlight.

NCLR: What is Mission Asset MAF Veronica, El HuaracheFund’s stated organizational mission? 
MAF: Based in San Francisco, MAF was originally founded in 2007 with the support of the Levi Strauss Foundation and other community leaders. We are on a mission to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families. We do this by helping everyday people—line cooks and housecleaners—save money, build assets, and access affordable credit. We create financial products and services in San Francisco, then we provide them to communities across the nation through nonprofit partnerships. Together, we are helping thousands of low-income families across the country come out of the financial shadows and build brighter financial lives.

NCLR: What programs does MAF Kimberly and MomMAF offer to reach the goals outlined in its mission?
MAF: In 2008, MAF developed the Lending Circles program, a credit-building financial program that organizes low-income people into social loans so they can support each other by lending and borrowing money at 0% interest. The program enables participants to establish bank accounts and credit scores for the first time, while helping others rebuild damaged scores. Lending Circles offer a fresh take on social lending, enabling participants to build credit while increasing assets and improving financial capability. To date, MAF and our partners have serviced over 5,455 zero-interest social loans worth more than $5 million, and saved low-income consumers over $1 million in interest and fees.

NCLR: What is financial MAF Mother and Daughterexclusion and how is MAF addressing it?
MAF: Financial exclusion—the lack of access to basic banking services and credit—is a pervasive issue for low-income families across the country. The FDIC reports that 17 million adults are unbanked—they do not have basic checking or savings accounts. Similarly, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reports that 45 million adults are invisible to the credit markets: 26 million do not have credit histories of any sort and 19 million have unscored records. CFPB also noted a strong relationship between income and credit, finding that 30% of consumers in low-income neighborhoods are credit invisible and 16% more have unscored records. That’s why building credit is such an important issue for low-income families. Without it, you are the frequent target for predatory lenders or unfairly high interest rates. But in addition to that, you can’t plan ahead—there’s no good way to invest in homes, education, or building a small business.

NCLR: What does it mean for MAF CafeMAF to be part of the Affiliate Network? 
MAF: In addition to our mission being aligned with NCLR, the Affiliate Network is a wonderful resource for connecting organizations who are looking to support and collaborate with each other. It helps us connect with other organizations who are invested in the intersection between immigration and economic security. Through the network, we’ve been able to expand our programs and garner support for policy changes that help the entire field. We’ve also been kept abreast of issues and initiatives other network members are tackling and have been able to lend our support for their efforts.

NCLR: How has being part of the Affiliate Network served MAF in the past?
MAF: MAF is now operating Lending Circles in 18 states through 53 nonprofit partnerships. The Affiliate Network has helped us to reach out to new partners in Los Angeles and other cities who are looking for a solution to help low-income families build credit and assets. It’s also meant that we’re involved in the NCLR Annual Conference and important discussions like economic inclusion roundtables where we could share best practices and network with decision-makers.

NCLR This month is Financial MAF D'MaizeCapability Month. What is financial capability? How does it help advance Latino families?
MAF: At MAF, it’s more than just financial literacy—it’s having a financial passport. Financial education is important, but so is access. Every participant we serve receives financial education (it statistically increases credit scores by an additional 27 points) before joining a loan program. But because we know that being financially literate is not the same as having financial access, we take a strength-based approach to build on the assets and financial savvy people already have. That’s really where the inspiration from Lending Circles comes from.

NCLR: We recently highlighted MAF in a blog post about alternative credit. Can you talk about what this means and how you manage lending circles?
MAF: The key to MAF’s programs is actually that we’re not providing alternative credit. We’re providing access to zero-interest loans that are recognized by all three major credit bureaus. We’re helping low-income people come together, borrow and lend money to each other so that they can transition into the mainstream. We’re helping people save money on fees in interest in the long term by taking an informal practice (known by some as tandas) and translating it through promissory notes and credit-reporting.

NCLR: MAF was the recipient of the MAF Helen and DaughterNCLR Family Strengthening Award last year. Can you tell me how this award is reflective of MAF’s work? What should other Affiliates be doing to ensure they are strengthening families in their own communities?
MAF: Even the title of the award is significant because from the very start, one of our organization’s core values was to “recognize the value that people bring to the table.” Our CEO José A. Quiñonez does a great job of summing this up in the recent report, What it’s Worth: Latinos in the Financial Shadows. He writes: “It will also take a fundamental paradigm shift in social policy away from a model that engages clients as if they are broken to one that recognizes and uplifts their strengths. We cannot build an inclusive financial system based on distorted views of low-income consumers. Deficit-based programs, products, or policies not only rob people of agency, they also distort our view of what is possible. These distortions constrain our imagination, hampering our ability to build meaningful solutions to people’s financial lives. Techies in San Francisco should not be the only ones to reach their economic potential. The American Dream cannot be reserved for the few. Everyone in America deserves the same right, the same opportunities to see their true selves realized.”

NCLR: Where do you see MAF Staff and ClientMAF in the next five years? 
MAF: Expand, innovate, and incite change for good. Our nationwide network of nonprofits will continue to increase and grow across the nation, providing financial access to thousands more consumers in the year to come. But we won’t stop with expanding Lending Circles. We will also continue to innovate new financial products that meet people’s pain points. And we will continue to be part of policy discussions at the state and federal level—sharing what we’ve learned and taking lessons from the ground and applying them for good.

Affiliate Spotlight: Centro Hispano, a Hub for Latinos in Central Pennsylvania

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Central Pennsylvania is a hotbed of growth for the state’s Latino population. Driving along the Route 222 corridor, you’ll run into the towns of Bethlehem, Allentown, Reading, Lancaster, and York. More Latinos live in these and other small towns along this stretch of highway than in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The city of Reading, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, is also the home of our 2015 Northeast Affiliate of the Year, and the subject of this month’s Affiliate Spotlight, Centro Hispano, an organization that has been serving Central Pennsylvania’s Latino community for 50 years.

The mission of Centro Hispano is to “support the acculturation process of the Latino community,” according to Executive Director Mike Toledo. The organization does this in a variety of ways, chiefly via its “information and referral” program. This function of Centro Hispano is largely the genesis of the group, says Toledo. To understand this, however, it’s important to know some of Reading’s history.

During World War II, as American men were sent abroad to fight, the agriculture industry and farmers found themselves sorely in need of workers while so many men were away at war. Their solution to this problem was to charter planes to and from Puerto Rico to bring in laborers who could do the seasonal work. After many years of this, many Puerto Ricans realized that Reading could be a good place to live and to raise a family.

For those who chose to settle, and who were not English-dominant, the challenges became about access. Questions about who would rent to them, what doctors they could see, or which churches they could worship in were both practical and important; the Puerto Ricans who could speak English well realized that getting this information to others was paramount. This led to the establishment of Centro Hispano, and 50 years later, information and referrals are still core services. Now the organization provides educational programming, senior services, voter education, and voter advocacy.

This tireless dedication to its community has positioned Centro Hispano as indispensable. If you want to reach Latinos in Central Pennsylvania, Centro Hispano is the way to do it. The Hyundai Corporation certainly knows this and recently selected Centro Hispano to partner with them in running a winter coat drive.

About 900 coats were donated to families in need.

About 900 coats were donated to families in need.

“They could have chosen any organization in the country,” said Toledo. “To know they wanted to partner with us, we felt very blessed.”

A chief concern was making sure the coat drive benefited those most in need. Centro Hispano worked with the school district (the state’s sixth largest, with an 80% Latino student population) to identify families, as well as with groups like the Salvation Army and women’s shelters. In total, Toledo and his team, generously supported by Hyundai, were able to distribute a whopping 900 coats.

“It was a great way to bring the community together, to see them working for good,” said Toledo. “We were able to reach a diverse group of people who were in need.”

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For all of the tremendous work that Centro Hispano has done, Toledo credits his group’s membership in the NCLR Affiliate Network as a “game changer” in its history.

“Showing that you have a relationship with one of the most respected national organizations, it helps to raise our level of awareness. Not just at the local level, but at the state level,” said Toledo.

The Affiliate Network gives Centro Hispano credibility, says Toledo, and it has enabled the community-based organization to meet with elected officials about its community’s needs. And, perhaps more importantly, membership in the Affiliate Network has allowed Centro Hispano to expand its programming. For example, for the second year in a row, the group has participated in our Escalera education program, which Toledo says has opened up many opportunities and allowed his group to raise the level of support provided to the community.

“Because of this core guidance and direction, the impact of what we provide has taken what we do here to the next level,” said Toledo. “We’re happy to know we can count on NCLR for the support of the work we’re doing in the community.”

We certainly look forward to supporting Centro Hispano in its next 50 years.

Affiliate Spotlight: How the NCLR Affiliate Network Contributes to Organizational Success

By David Castillo, Digital Content Manager, NCLR

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Jose Rodriguez (far right) accepts the 2015 NCLR Affiliate of the Year Award in Kansas City.

This month in the Affiliate Spotlight, we’re featuring El Concilio, our Affiliate based in the heart of the San Joaquin Central Valley of California. This Affiliate has worked hard to position themselves as the hub of resources for the Latino community for the past 48 years. With a strong commitment to community service and by establishing lasting relationships with other community organizations, federal, state, and local elected officials, El Concilio constantly works to improve the lives of those in their community.

Their work has not gone unnoticed. Last year, NCLR recognized El Concilio with our 2015 Affiliate of the Year award. The group is also hosting our upcoming NCLR Affiliate Network Peer Exchange, generously supported and made possible by the Ford Motor Company Fund. For El Concilio’s President and CEO, Jose Rodriguez, the Peer Exchange is an opportunity to share with other Affiliates their own best practices and policies that have helped turn this community-based organization into the cherished resource it is.

Rodriguez credits El Concilio's membership in the Affiliate Network with helping the organization grow.

Rodriguez credits El Concilio’s membership in the Affiliate Network with helping the organization grow.

El Concilio’s mission is simple: to improve the quality of life of Latinos in the Central Valley of California. It was founded in 1968 by a group of community activists and clergy who wanted to start an organization that would serve the growing migrant farmworker community. The original scope of Concilio’s work was limited to things like translation services, employment search assistance, and general advocacy. Over the years, however, it has expanded its array of services to include Head Start programs, mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, civic engagement, and parent engagement programs, among others. Its humble beginnings included 28 employees and a one million dollar operating budget. Today, El Concilio boasts more than 200 employees, a $10 million operating budget, and it serves more than 25,000 people per year.

Rodriguez attributes much of El Concilio’s success to its membership within the NCLR Affiliate Network. “[NCLR’s Affiliate Network] contributed to our growth and success because we’ve been able to connect with other Affiliates. We’re able to learn from other orgs what they’re doing; how they’re solving some of the issues,” said Rodriguez. “NCLR leads the way by providing information to us and the research they do, which helps us then develop trainings. It has been the ace in our back pocket.”

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One of the areas where El Concilio shines is in its civic engagement work. Recognizing the need in the Central Valley, El Concilio has integrated civic engagement into everything it does. “A lot of times people think civic engagement is political and tend to shy away,” said Rodriguez. “We hope to help folks understand that it’s about advocacy and empowering our clients to be able to advocate for themselves and really educate them about what’s going on.”

At El Concilio, every client who walks in is greeted with the question of whether they’re registered to vote and if they have health care. This ensures that no opportunity is lost for those eligible to register to vote and gain health care. The group has also fostered healthy competition among its staff. Employee buy-in is critical to ensuring success, Rodriguez says. Every year El Concilio sets a goal of registering 2,500 people, and individual program teams set goals for themselves, too. The approach has worked and the organization often far exceeds its original goal.

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El Concilio was also a key player in the fight for the California Homeowner’s Bill of Rights. The group was instrumental in organizing town halls with Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, and these town halls helped her develop the landmark legislation. Rodriguez hopes to share some of the wisdom behind their strategies for relationship- and network-building at the Affiliate Peer Exchange later this month.

It’s this spirit of sharing that Rodriguez finds most beneficial about the Affiliate Network and why he hopes as many Affiliates as possible can attend the convening. “We consider ourselves very fortunate to have received the NCLR Affiliate of the Year Award, because when you look at the Affiliate Network, there are some that are doing an extraordinary amount of work,” said Rodriguez. “Some are bigger than others, but at the end of the day, it’s about getting engaged and putting your best foot forward.”

If you’re an NCLR Affiliate, sign up and register for the NCLR Affiliate Peer Exchange. We’ll see you in Stockton, CA!

NCLR Affiliate Spotlight: Erie Neighborhood House Captures the Holiday Spirit

By David Castillo, Digital Content Manager, NCLR

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For more than 140 years, our Chicago Affiliate, Erie Neighborhood House, has been immersed in its community, striving every day to “promote a just and inclusive society by strengthening low-income, primarily Latino families through skill-building, access to critical resources, advocacy, and collaborative action,” as their mission statement makes clear. We’re honored to make them the focus of our December Affiliate Spotlight.

Erie House offers programming that serves the whole family, from small children to senior citizens, all with the goal of helping immigrant communities succeed. While the demographic makeup of those who Erie House serves has changed over time, the commitment to the people and the families in their neighborhood has been constant. And, one of Erie House’s most cherished traditions, their Holidays with Heart event, exemplifies that love and commitment.

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One of the youngest celebrants meets Santa Clause at the 2015 Erie Neighborhood House’s Holidays with Heart this past weekend. Photo: Erie Neighborhood House

For more than 10 years, Erie House has hosted the holiday event, but its roots really go back much further. In the early 1900s, Florence Towne started as a kindergarten teacher and eventually rose to lead the organization. It was Towne who began Erie House’s holiday tradition, which started out modestly with dolls she would give to her students. Now the annual event serves a whole community and is responsible for giving toys away to about 500 kids in need.

“Holidays with Heart is an amazing opportunity for our staff, volunteers, and partners in the business community to come together to spread some holiday cheer to our families in need,” said Celena Roldán-Moreno, Erie House’s Executive Director.

Holidays with Heart is in December, but planning for it begins in September. The entire staff has a role and about 140 volunteers are also called on to help decorate, wrap gifts and provide general support.

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“The goal is to be able to provide something for these families, because many of them are low-income. It’s really just to bring some joy to those families,” said Lucero Cervantes, Annual Fund and Special Events Manager for Erie Neighborhood House.

Of course, a holiday event wouldn’t be complete without gift giving, and this is where Erie House’s generous donors really make an impact. In advance of the event, children in Erie House programs are instructed to make a wish list of two gifts. Students are given a dollar amount so the value of all the gifts is more or less the same, but they are usually given what they ask for. That information is then relayed to donors, which number over 40 this year. Donors then work to grant those wishes.

It’s this part of the event that Cervantes looks forward to every year.

“I love seeing how excited and happy they are when they receive a gift, when they see Santa Claus. It’s just a great event for bringing families together,” said Cervantes.

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Every year, Erie House helps connect donors with about 500 children to grant them holiday wishes.

The gifts aren’t all that’s offered at Holidays with Heart, however.

“It’s always amazing to see a room filled with presents, wrapped beautifully by volunteers and staff the night before. But our event is about more than just material presents,” said Roldán-Moreno.

Indeed, for the invited families, the event can be a holiday season lifeline. For those families most in need, Erie House will connect them with a donor who can provide them with assistance in the form of grocery gift cards so they can make a holiday meal. They also will receive coats and other accessories to help them get through the brutal Chicago winters.

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Together with its strong programming and its emphasis on serving, Erie House highlights the success of the NCLR Affiliate Network and its impact on Latinos all over the country.

“The Affiliate Network allows us to join our one voice with countless other voices across the country,” said Roldán-Moreno. “That gives us hope and helps us recommit to the work at hand each new day.”

NCLR Affiliate Spotlight: People Are at the Heart of Hispanic Unity Florida

By David Castillo, Digital Content Manager, NCLR

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Community-based organizations exist to help people in myriad ways by making sure they have the necessary resources to live and prosper. To serve people well, the heads of such organizations must be thoughtful about the team they assemble to carry out the organization’s mission. For this month’s Affiliate Spotlight, Hispanic Unity Florida (HUF), having the right team in place is a source of pride.

“We serve more than 17,000 people annually in the areas of civic engagement, economic development, and education,” said Josie Bacallao, HUF President and CEO. “We also have an incredible team that has been with us for a very long time, at every level, who has incredible dedication and passion for the work that they do.”

Though the organization has experienced some rough, unexpected moments during the height of the Great Recession, dedication to HUF’s mission never waned among staff members, said Bacallao.

HUFLOGOIt’s a good thing, too, because HUF provides much-needed services to their neighbors. HUF’s mission is to empower people, primarily Latino immigrants, in becoming self-sufficient and leading productive lives. The group also works on helping immigrants become civically engaged, of which the first step is becoming a U.S. citizen.

“When you look at the continuum of immigrants to the U.S., whether you’ve been here for only three months or for 15 years, we help them with everything from learning English to transitioning into becoming a U.S. citizen,” said Bacallao.

Hispanic Unity Florida’s civic engagement work is especially important. Programs include an eight-week citizenship class and eight drop-in classes, both of which serve South Florida’s tri-county (Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach) area. These two programs alone serve more than 1,500 people a year. Both are volunteer-run. HUF is also recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice as a BIA—Board of Immigration Appeals—organization, which allows it to provide naturalization assistance. The majority of the 1,500 people HUF serves in this area become American citizens.

NCLR’s citizenship team has provided HUF with funding and technical assistance in its civic engagement work. HUF was able to grow from one class to nine and eventually have a strong enough program to be supported through U.S. Customs and Immigration Services. HUF attributes its success to NCLR’s support and guidance. HUF was also recently named 2015 Southeast Affiliate of the Year at NCLR’s Annual Conference in Kansas City, Missouri.

HUF2_blogsizeWhile HUF has been engaged in growing their civic engagement capacity, that work is just one of many services our Affiliate provides. From helping people enroll in a qualified health plan through the Affordable Care Act to providing employment services, no matter what their clients need, HUF staff and volunteers do their best to help them.

“We really take the time to discover what our client’s needs are in order to help them—there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Oftentimes, clients come in for just one service, for example just looking for a job, but many leave taking advantage of our many services and transform their lives in the process,” said Bacallao.

As for the future, HUF and its volunteer leaders are currently engaged in developing a strategic plan to map it out. They’re also working to close the Medicaid gap, as more than 800,000 Floridians still lack health coverage. Bacallao says they also plan to continue helping immigrants integrate into the community.

No matter what their programmatic work looks like going forward, one thing is for sure: HUF’s core mission will stay the same and they will continue to empower a new generation of Americans.