Values-first Redesign of Financial Services for a Social Justice Fiscal Sponsor
Getting and managing grants is a key part of sustainability for small orgs and projects. If the money’s not coming, it’s over. But — what about when the money IS coming but you’re not certain how to manage it? What about when you are making money and you realize it requires all new skills?
Over the last year I’ve had the pleasure of working with one of my favorite organizations, Detroit’s Allied Media Projects, to help them try to answer the latter questions, in partnership with the visionary, youth-led, media justice creating, Black-futures-building projects they act as a fiscal sponsor to.
A fiscal sponsor is a nonprofit organization that acts as a legal pipeline between funders and grant recipients, receiving grant money as a 501c3 (so that the funders get tax write-offs, often a requirement), and thereby making more groups able to access grant funding.
This case study is for two audiences, to help you answer the following:
As a funder or fiscal sponsor…
How can you help groups you fund manage money when you’re a funder / fiscal sponsor? What might simplify your financial tracking while enabling the people and projects you fund to use the money in ways that make sense to them? Can providing financial literacy align with and deepen your values and the ways you care for the organizations you fund or sponsor?
As a group that gets funded …
How might you use money in your project to deepen your connections among staff, volunteers, and community? If more people could contribute to the financial infrastructure, what might change in your project? What values would it lift up if project money was a shared skill and responsibility? What would have to change so money for your work was easy to get, track, and spend?
Additionally, UX designers, those working on financial services and technologies, and service designers may find this of interest as a reference.
As a progressive financial strategist, I was brought in to partner with Allied Media (AMP) to create a custom workshop after a previous financial literacy training had not been as values aligned and accessible as Toni Moceri, the Sponsored Projects Program Director at AMP had hoped.
The new hypothesis — based on feedback from the past training — was that their first offering was too detailed and advanced, and therefore Toni wanted to offer a training a few steps back in order to address folks’ needs.
Given that AMP had just re-grounded their values, we generated the idea of a values-based budget narrative, and I began creating a training around the idea. I decided to take a storytelling approach in the workshop and worksheet.
One page of the Budget Narrative we shared in pilot workshop 1:
I often design and run financial literacy workshops with organizations, and my method for this as with others was to do some light interviews, make an agenda and artifact, get feedback from my staff contact and make edits, and then give the workshop. AMP was uniquely flexible in that they were hoping to imagine this workshop as a pilot, and we planned a fair amount of feedback for after the workshop.
Good thing, too.
The two-hour training started off with framing around money, systems, and power; it was intended to get people to the “why” but very quickly questions came through that indicated that I’d underestimated where folks where at: my scale back scaled too far. In immediate feedback we asked for at the end of the workshop, it was clear we’d misinterpreted the need given the level of outstanding questions we had.
At a happy hour right after, I interviewed a few workshop attendees and two staff members to try to understand my miss in terms of the problems they were facing in regards to their project’s money.
It became clear there were a few really specific money management scenarios which people needed help with: brand new sponsored projects setting up budgets for the first time, ongoing accounting-type money management, and big projects with “advanced” financial questions. As well, it was important to AMP (and me) that financial literacy be grounded in meaningful values.
At the happy hour, one project suggested a choose-your-own approach. I drafted this visual aid (which later became a digital reference document!):
Mockup of the choose-your-own financial services sheet, categorized based on the questions we got in feedback from the first pilot:
Given the feedback, and the good traction we got from research, I proposed using a design process approach to iterate. In particular, I wanted to do user research to map out the financial services as they were experienced by both the hardworking staff and the funded folks, in order to identify high-impact steps in the process that weren’t working.
After processing a survey, we heard that “more AMP-specific money management skills & overall practicality” was wanted — but for exactly what? There were so many processes in place. I designed a research plan and with Toni’s curation ran a remote user interview a few weeks later, asking 1) project folks to walk us through how they use money in their project and 2) staff to explain how they interact with project money and creating a map of the responses. AMP, who gets it, compensated projects for their participation time, and we got really valuable answers.
Notes from user interview sessions. Exploring a three-stage journey from the perspectives of two types of staff and people representing three kinds / sizes of projects that receive funding:
There were a few illuminating insights!
- Staff had been assuming there was mass frustration at certain steps, but the feedback contained appreciation and understanding,
- The majority of projects that had the clearest sense of money management either got to hang around the office and get ad hoc explanatory support, or had experience running businesses,
- In particular, projects used one of the Monthly reports to draw a lot of inference and info out of, but weren’t always clear on how the information got into the report or how to meaningfully use that information to make decisions or be inclusive.
This gave us excellent focus for our next iteration of training: Using Reports to Inform your Budget. Nothing says exciting like comparing actual cash flow to projected amirite? But when those numbers represent a project you pour your heart into, in service of creativity and communities you care a LOT about — actually, there is excitement.
Slide from pilot training 2:
Finally, a segment from the second pilot training, focusing on making meaning and decisions based on the numbers in the monthly report everyone got — including how to prompt conversations about the content:
Key takeaways & insights:
First: there is no one approach to valuing money! Financial literacy CAN be grounded in meaning, but you have to understand what’s meaningful to people for that to be the case. Getting money? Folks care in as much as the money means the work can happen.
Second, from a design perspective, this was a reminder that a design process produces informed outputs. Our first hypothesis lead us to design a too-simple training; only after interviewing stakeholders and re-framing the problem did we level out the offering to the need. This was a relatively simple project involving only a few folks and a pilot series — how much more valuable is a design process if we’d been creating at more high-stakes level?
Finally, from a service design and IA standpoint, this allowed AMP to dive into their offerings, and the organization has updated processes and they’re now creating a whole handbook, informed by these and other insights from this work.
I spent years as an artist, social change activist, and progressive technology developer where I worked on a lot of projects in which I would have LOVED some guidance to make the money make more sense to everyone (so I was less burdened with handling it / figuring it out).
Fast forward — now that I work both as a financial strategist for values-driven individuals, partners, and businesses, and as a UX designer this project was the PERFECT meld of the two for me: and it let me live out my values as well, in supporting the end-user organizations to use the money they get to do their awesome work!