A Financial Cushion for Every Worker

What the 401k is for retirement savings, Onward's mobile savings and credit app is for emergency savings

Photo of Ronnie Washington
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  • Yes, I fulfill all of the eligibility criteria.

Initiative's representative name

Ronnie Washington Jr.

Initiative's representative date of birth


Initiative’s representative gender

  • Man

Which eligible market are you based in?

  • USA

Where are you making a difference?

USA: Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, DC

Website or social media url(s)


When was your organisation founded?


Focus areas

  • Financial skills and capability

Project Stage

  • Start-Up (first few activities have happened)
  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)

Yearly Budget: How much capital do you need to accomplish your proposed project?

  • $500k - $1m

Organisation Type

  • Non-profit / NGO

1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed

In 2011, one of the hardest working people I know, my uncle, experienced a car breakdown and found him and his family at the edge of ruin. If he didn't get the car fixed immediately, he wouldn't be able to make it to work, would miss a day of pay, and would inevitably get further behind on his bills. In spite of his hard work 6 days a week, a $400 expense threatened his stability and that of his family. With few options that met him where he was, he sought immediate relief and found himself at the door of a payday lender that would charge him upwards of 300% APR. My uncle isn't alone as there are millions of workers across this country that are one financial shock away from instability. This realization is why Onward was created.

2. The problem: What problem surrounding employability or financial capability are you helping to solve?

Onward seeks to provide a sustainable financial cushion to the low to moderate income workforce. In the U.S. 79 Million people, more than half of America’s workforce, earn less than $20 per hour making it difficult to save while nearly a quarter of Americans have no savings at all. Furthermore, 2 out of 5 can't come up with $400. When emergencies do strike, where are these individuals, many of them actively employed, to turn for help?

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Onward Financial is a not-for-profit FinTech company that seeks to be the bridge between short-term paycheck to paycheck living and long-term retirement by providing a mobile savings and credit app offered through the employer to help every worker establish a baseline of financial security. Through our digital interfaces (mobile & web), national banking partnership, and ongoing integration with payroll providers, Onward creates a seamless flow of funds from workers’ paychecks to newly established savings accounts that become the foundation of financial security. Employers sponsor their workforce through a combination of a program fee for the service and/or direct incentive to their employees. In return, each employee gains access to the program and begins by setting a personalized goal or selecting a recommended savings amount to be automatically deducted from their paycheck into a FDIC-insured savings account. After three months of saving and employment, Onward members can access a pre-qualified lower-interest loan through our banking partner for protection when emergencies strike. Lastly, Onward delivers actionable bite-sized financial tips directly to users.

4. How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solving the problem?

Onward utilizes the endorsement (and incentives) from employer partners, behavioral economic principles, and mobile capabilities to make saving a seamless experience. Specifically, with an integrated savings, lending, and education offering, our mission is to provide the tools for every worker to build a sustainable financial cushion. Essentially, what the 401k is to retirement savings, Onward is for emergency savings. For example, a manufacturing worker we served once said she has never had more than $100 in her savings at any one time. With Onward, she was able to accumulate over $2000 in less than a year's time. With just this amount, she has begun thinking beyond scarcity to the next financial milestone she has and eventually investing.

6. Financial capability: how is your organization or project creating innovative solutions that arm people with ability to optimize their current and future financial health

Onward seeks to be the onramp to savings and better financial habits. By making savings easier and demonstrating small wins for people that may otherwise be doubtful of their ability to save, the program has proved as a way to move people from a place of crisis to a place of confidence and competency. While making the program accessible to any worker anywhere, we build our solution with the low to moderate income worker in mind. Utilizing the same approach as retirement savings programs like the 401k, Onward designed as a more liquid, immediately accessible, and lower risk alternative for people fearful of "locking up" their money for 30 years. In this way, workers build a base of short term financial security which later opens up longer-term financial aspirations. Serving as a complement to traditional retirement benefits, Onward is for any worker seeking to build their own safety net.

6a. Please describe what aspect of financial capability your organization is focused on fostering and how you have measured / plan to measure progress.

Onward is focused on helping workers build emergency savings funds. We measure our success by the number of users we get to cross $1000 in savings and the speed at which they achieve that goal. In addition, we monitor reliance on alternative loan products such as payday loans or employer advances and calculate interest and fees saved using our products instead. Lastly, we want to measure the completion of micro-goals based on the actionable financial tips we send out and track users' level of financial security using a gamified score.

7. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Financial security is currently a patchwork of solutions including the reliance on a mix of family and friends, payday lenders, cash advance companies, and employer loans. In all these cases, what is offered are band-aids to a more chronic problem. Likewise, each of these options come with a high cost be it financial, emotional, or reputational. Specifically, other organizations like Earn In and Payactiv utilize pay advances as a way to help workers borrow from future pay. Unfortunately, this only prolongs the problem instead of breaking the paycheck to paycheck cycle as Onward intends.

8. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

Workers who said they could never save even $100 before now have over $2000 in their savings accounts, a number nearly two-thirds of the U.S. couldn't come up with in times of emergency. For example, in working with a small 75 person manufacturing company in Kansas City, MO, we've engaged 98% of their workers who have an aggregate balance of over $270k. Workers no longer have to panic when an emergency strikes, instead they have the choice to rely on their emergency savings, the low-interest loan we provide, or the education they've gained through the program. We are currently working with 3 employer partners with an aggregate of over 2200 employees, the most recent is a large school district in the Kansas City, MO metro area.

9. Financial Sustainability Plan. Can you tell us about you plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?

In the short term, Onward will require grant funding to build the team and update the existing Android and iOS apps in addition to the back-end technology. In the medium to long-term, Onward has put in place an earned income model that allows us to collect a fee (on average $3 per employee per month) from employers for offering the service as a benefit to their workforce, much the same way insurance, 401Ks, and other benefits are offered. Ideally, by gaining traction, we will be able to replace grant funding with a largely self-funded operational model inclusive of the fees collected from the employer and partnerships created with private sector participants such as 401k Administrators and additional financial institutions.

10. Team

Onward's team consists of 4 FTEs professionals including a CEO, COO, CTO, Customer Success Lead and 2 Contractors including a Product Manager and Lead Developer. From Harvard and Stanford graduates to White House Innovation Fellows, the team is extremely talented. For the first time, we are hiring a full-time Head of Sales and Partnerships to kickoff our earned income strategy. As our scale grows, we will need to bring on additional customer service professionals along with Marketing support.

Help Us Support Diversity! Are you a member of an under-served , under-represented, or marginalized group in your country of residence? (yes/no) (this question is optional – if you choose to fill it out, the response will not be shared with your fellow contestants)

  • Race
  • Gender

If you selected “yes” to any of the categories above, please explain how being a member of this group has impacted you and your work?

As an African American male, I am hyper aware of feeling left out, judged, and invaluable to society. That's specifically why I wanted to build Onward from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down. It's important that FinTech solutions coming to market are built with those most vulnerable to financial insecurity and in need of products in mind first, as opposed to a force-fitted afterthought. With Onward, low to moderate income workers everywhere will know they are valued.

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Ashoka page or contact

11. Bring it to life: Please walk us through a concrete example of how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address

One user at a manufacturing plant we serve in Kansas City Missouri, unfortunately experienced a domestic violence issue in her home. Her abusive husband led her to flee with her two children in tow, with virtually nowhere to go. While this is an extreme case, she remembered that she had signed up for Onward and had begun contributing $25 a week for a future emergency. That time had now come and she was able to get secure housing for herself and for her children. With Onward she had built up her financial cushion, gained a better understanding of her options and avoided needing to use predatory or alternative loan products. Though this is a fairly simple concept, making savings effortless and allowing someone to set up an account with no judgment has helped workers that thought that they could not save $100 accumulate over $1000 much quicker than they ever could have realized.

12. Skills Matching: HSBC Employees will have the opportunity to offer skilled-volunteering. If matched, which of the following skills would you be most interested in receiving?

  • Planning & Strategy
  • Board Development
  • Marketing Strategy, Design
  • IT Infrastructure/CRM

13. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.

foundation or NGO grants 70%

corporate contributions 10%

grants or contracts 15%

earned income (product or services sales, licensing, franchising, consulting, financing, etc.) 5%

14. Financial Sustainability – please tell us more about how you plan to fund and scale your project over the next 12 months.

Historically, Onward has relied largely on Accelerators, Pitch Competitions, Corporate and Foundation grants to invest in the infrastructure for our product. Since founding in 2016, we have raised $2.1 million from Stanford, BlackRock, JP Morgan Chase, The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and many others. Our current funding is allocated approximately 65-70% towards programs and the remaining towards fundraising and administrative expenses. Our ambition is to switch the ratio of grant funding to earned income to become a sustainable non-profit fintech. We plan to do this by initially charging a service fee to access the platform and earning shared interest income from accumulated savings that the employee contributes in addition to any match incentives provided by the employer. Taken together, we see a path towards sustainability in 4-5 years.

15. Growth Strategy: What are your main strategies for scaling your impact?

We now offer a self-service employer portal that now gives employers the ability to offer Onward as their own custom program with little to no assistance. In order to make Onward as ubiquitous as the 401K, we are looking for the government to create a tax-advantaged status for emergency funds in the same way Health Savings Accounts and 529 education accounts operate. This would give employees and employers a greater incentive to participate. 

16. Activating changemakers: How are you giving people the power to control their own destiny and support other people to become changemakers in their communities?

We are seeking to make every Employer the Hero of the Story. By offering Employers a gamified Portal to manage Onward like a financial wellness campaign and giving them a dashboard to monitor progress, we are putting every employer in the driver’s seat to take specific actions to increase enrollment, savings, and engagement. We hope to create employers championing responsibility for the overall financial health of their employee base within their own communities and among their peers. 

17. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?

MetLife Inclusion Plus USA Winner

2019 JP Morgan FinLab Winner

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Communities Thrive Challenge Winner

2016 Stanford Social Innovation Fellowship Winner

Fast Company Most Innovative Company Finalist

18. Tell us about how collaborations and partnerships would enhance the scalability and impact of your project

We are currently planning to pilot personalized financial coaching through the non-profit Neighborhood Trust to help Onward users discuss everything from paying down debt to avoiding eviction. We believe this would help workers move beyond the crisis phase to building more competency and confidence in their financial lives. Additionally, we see an opportunity to directly connect workers who have saved over $1-2k in their accounts to begin contributing to their long-term retirement account. 

Finally - Your Selfie Elevator Pitch: Share a 1-minute video that shares a quick summary of the problem you would like to solve, how you’ve chosen to solve it, and the impact you hope to see.

Evaluation results

2 evaluations so far

1. OVERALL Evaluation:

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2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

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3. Does this entry have SOCIAL IMPACT?

Yes, absolutely! - 50%

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4. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

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6. FEEDBACK: Highlights

IMPACT POTENTIAL: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) – and you have a concrete plan for future impact. You have specific tools for measuring impact. - 100%

QUALITY OF INNOVATION: You have a great understanding of the problem, have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful solutions - 0%

FINANCIAL AND OPERATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work operationally and financially in the present and future; your plan is specific and you value sustainability. - 100%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: You have a good plan on how to activate changemakers and empower them to innovate through your product or programming - 0%

Other option - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: Areas for Improvement

IMPACT POTENTIAL: make sure to provide specific instances of your social impact (or how you plan to measure impact) – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, the main activities/products, and provide evidence of (or plan for) impact evaluation - 0%

QUALITY OF INNOVATION: make sure to describe how your solution is unique and innovative – it is helpful to include the research you have done on past solutions and how your solution is different from (and/or builds upon) these. - 0%

FINANCIAL AND OPERATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY: make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 0%

CHANGEMAKING ACTIVATION: make sure you describe your plan for how to empower others to become changemakers through your programming, service, or product - 100%

WRITING STYLE. Try to be concise, descriptive, and specific. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 100%

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