Financial Well-Being from the Ground Up
Using technology and finance for good, we’re leveraging the power of community, social trust, and cultural assets to build financial power.
Showing the story of MacArthur "Genius" Fellow José A. Quiñonez, a financial services innovator who creates pathways to mainstream financial services and non-predatory credit for individuals with limited or no financial access. Video published by the MacArthur Foundation.
I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
I am over 18 years of age
My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States
Where are you making a difference?
California: San Francisco (94110)
California: Marin (94924)
California: San Mateo (94602)
California: San Jose (94602)
California: Contra Costa (94509)
California: Alameda (94509)
California: Solana (94510)
California: Santa Cruz (95010)
Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.
Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)
Website or social media URL(s) (optional)
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.
MAF was created in 2007 after the Levi Strauss Foundation donated proceeds from the sale of their SF factory for community benefit. When José Quiñonez was selected as the first CEO, MAF’s founding Board of Directors gave a clear mandate: help hardworking families in SF’s Mission District build and improve their financial security. But, what was the best way to help low-income families in a community where 50% lacked a checking account and 44% were credit invisible? José knew the problem wasn’t that people lacked aptitude for handling finances; rather, families simply needed a bridge to connect them to the financial mainstream. This was MAF’s “aha” moment - discovering a way to build a bridge based on what was already good in their lives.
2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?
Millions of Americans are financially invisible without access to basic financial tools like checking accounts and credit scores. No matter how hard they work, without credit scores, they are locked out of the financial system, can’t get loans to start businesses, buy cars, or even rent apartments. High-cost predatory lenders make life worse, eroding what little they have, thereby perpetuating a cycle of poverty.
3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.
When people lack access to banks, they often turn to one another and create their own solutions. Despite lack of money, people are resourceful. Across the world, from Mexico to the Philippines, people come together to lend and borrow money from family and friends, leveraging their resources and relationships to access credit. MAF’s Lending Circles program is grounded on this time-honored practice, but with the benefits of formalizing these social loans to allow participants to start or build credit histories and credit scores. MAF services these loans and reports activity to credit bureaus thereby making participants become visible and active in the credit system. The program works. People’s credit scores increase on average 168 points, opening up a world of opportunities for them. MAF developed a franchise model to replicate the program across the country with other nonprofits. Now, MAF is building new tools to scale the program even further. The MyMAF App allows clients to track and manage loans, receive financial education, check FICO scores, and engage a financial coach. Next version of the app will allow clients to form their own Lending Circles.
4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.
MAF serves low-income and immigrant people who lack access to the most basic of financial services, impeding them from achieving their full potential. Through Lending Circles, 90% of credit invisibles successfully establish a credit score within 6 months, with an average increase of 0 to 650 points. Participants who begin with existing credit scores realize a 20-point credit score increase on average. Lending Circles benefits clients like Alicia, who used to sell her homemade tamales door-to-door, making $20 or $30 on good days. Passionate about food, she struggled financially, but her business was impeded by her inability to secure lines of credit. Things changed in 2010 when Alicia joined Lending Circles. Over the years, she built her credit score and formalized her finances. Her business now employs 22 people and supplies tamales to 44 Whole Foods stores in Northern California.
5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?
MAF helps low income and immigrant families build their financial security by creating timely and relevant financial products. Grounded in their reality, MAF co-creates products to meet their specific pain points, allowing our clients to: increase savings, build credit, access grants, and finance immigration related applications. MAF uses the best in technology to efficiently deliver our suite of products through a national nonprofit network of nonprofits to ensure clients are low income.
5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:
6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?
Being poor is expensive. Our clients don’t have access to the best of financial products and services, making it that much harder to get out of poverty. Nonprofits try to fill the gaps by providing financial literacy classes, as if clients are illiterate, but all too often education alone is not the solution. MAF is showing a different approach. Now, fin-tech companies (Esusu, EMoneyPool, Yahoo Money) are creating similar products for mainstream clients. While they don’t report activity to credit bureaus, these products provide more options for people to improve their financial lives.
7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?
Since launching Lending Circles in 2008, we have managed over 9,100 loans totaling $8.4 million. San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute recently conducted an evaluation of the program, finding that on average, Lending Circle participants increase their credit score by 168 points within 10 months of joining the program. The report also found clients decreasing debt by over $1,000 while accessing mainstream credit; in fact, the typical client added two more tradelines (i.e., lines of credit) to their credit reports. Lending Circles is also extremely effective; the default rate is an incredibly low 0.7% compared to the microcredit industry average of 14% to 15%.
8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?
MAF’s approach to scale is additive; we create a menu of financial products that address specific needs, like building credit, saving for citizenship, or accessing small-dollar business loans, then we engage a national network of nonprofit organizations to deliver solutions most needed in their communities. We show our partners how to deliver our models, giving them customized training, tools, and resources. The cumulative effect of these local actions is profound; by building coalition, MAF is able to achieve much greater impact than we could on our own.
8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?
Franchising, Licensing, Accreditation
Large Scale Partnerships
Industry Standards (labels, certification, awards, etc.)
9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?
MAF is fortunate to be backed by private foundation and corporate funders, some of whom have made multi-year investments in our organization. In addition to grant funding, our diverse revenue streams include earned income from licensing fees, program-related investments, local government grants and contracts, and funding from CDFI to expand loan capital. In recent years, we have made excellent progress in building a strong individual donor program to ensure a healthy financial balance sheet.
10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?
MAF’s Board and 22 FT staff comprises enthusiastic, committed innovators who excel in their field and bring exceptional talent. Our team believe that creativity leads to better solutions. We are: immigrants, parents, creative thinkers, constant tinkerers, and great storytellers. Our diverse, multi-lingual core team is headed by founding CEO José Quiñonez, a highly respected visionary leader in the nonprofit fintech/asset-building field and a 2016 MacArthur “Genius” Fellow.
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)
Hispanic, Latino/a, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)
Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)
How did you hear about this challenge?
Recommended by others
Ashoka page or contact
Word of mouth
Mission Asset Fund (MAF)
Program Design Clarity
Lending Circles provides a seamless client experience, beginning with an online application and mobile-friendly financial education modules. Thereafter, they are invited to join an LC formation session to join others and decide contribution amounts, loan schedule and form a sense of community. MAF services the loans and reports activity to credit bureaus, sharing information with clients to keep them engaged and involved in their own success.
Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?
education / literacy
Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work
Product innovation (Introduction of a good or service or improvements made to existing products)
Process innovation (execution of a new or considerably improved production or delivery method)
Institutional innovation (Creation or changes in organizational structures, the setting up of new types of financial intermediaries, or to changes in the legal and supervisory framework)
Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.
MAF works with multi-sector partners to bring top-rate financial solutions to low-income consumers. Through our Lending Circles network, we provide technical assistance to 50+ partners in 17 states and Washington D.C. MAF also partners with local governments to create specialized financial solutions. Tech partners include Twilio, Salesforce, and EverFi. MAF is a founding member of Nonprofit Leaders in Financial Technology (nLIFT).
If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?
MAF will invest $50,000 into the launch of MyMAF App, utilizing the power of technology to integrate financial education with practical management tools. The app will be disseminated to Lending Circles partners nationwide, engaging clients with financial products and features at their fingertips.
Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?
MAF’s groundbreaking Lending Circles program has received notable recognition by media outlets such as TIME Magazine, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Economist, Public Radio International, The Wall Street Journal, PBS, and Forbes.
In 2016, MAF CEO José Quiñonez was awarded the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship for his vision and creativity as a financial services innovator.