Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Applying The Business of Behavior Change…To CGF and Myself!

What Are We About?
I’ve thought long and hard about what Capital Good Fund is really about.  Yes, we provide financial services to low-income families and we often say that we are about financial empowerment.  But that’s about as imaginative as saying that Apple is about selling software and hardware. No, if you really want to explain why Apple is the most profitable company in the world, you have to understand that, in essence, they are in the business of delivering a magical experience to its customers.

Does that sound hyperbolic?  Like I’m just another Apple fanboy?  Maybe, but have you ever looked at the eyes of a child the first time she picks up an iPad and starts playing with it?  Have you ever considered why so many people spend so much money just to have a beautiful and functional object they can keep in their pocket or their backpack, even though there are equally good and cheaper alternatives out there?  Of course it’s because of advertising and consumerism—of course, but that’s missing the point.  And actually, irrespective of your opinion of the company and its products, the main point still remains: what Apple, or any other enterprise, produces and sells is not necessarily the same thing as what it’s about. As Simon Sinek puts it, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Financial Coaching Fellow Profile: Matt Hoisl

Matt Hoisl, a Junior at Providence College, is following in his father’s footsteps:  he too plans to enter the public accounting field, and he too is passionate about saving money. Given Matt’s interest in financial services in general, and empowering people in particular, the Financial Coaching Fellowship seemed like a perfect fit (it didn’t hurt that a friend of his had served as a Fellow and highly recommended it.)  That said, he had always been a numbers guy—more comfortable with data and spreadsheets than with people—so when he entered the Fellow training program he focused especially hard on the soft skills: interacting with clients, helping them set goals, being empathic, and leveraging the power of motivational interviewing techniques.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mission and Revenue: A Balance

Money is King
Money is king, whether you are a for-profit, non-profit or government agency.  Without money you can't pay salaries, you can't pay the rent, and you certainly can't deliver products or services.  This is a truth that often masquerades as a dirty word in the social change sector...but it's still a truth.  Managing cash flow is the only way to keep the doors open at any organization.  I'd argue, however, that running a non-profit presents unique challenges, because not only do you need to meet payroll, you have to run programs for which it is inherently difficult to charge.

This creates a fundamental tension between the need to raise money and the need to change lives. How to maintain a balance between the two?  For me, it comes down to asking three questions every time we  make a decision: Will this have an impact on the client's life?  Will this make the client happy?  And will this bring in revenue?  These questions form a decision matrix: programs on which we lose money better have tremendous social impact; programs that don't have impact better make money; and regardless of what we do our customers better have a good experience.

Guest Post, Part 2: Muna Idriss, Coaching Fellow

This is part two of Muna's post.  You can read part 1 here.

Why Not Quit?
Now we’ve arrived at the $64,000 question: why doesn’t everyone just quit? There are certainly plenty of aids to help a person stop if they want to. Nicorette gum satisfies the oral fixation while also dosing the chewer with the nicotine equivalent of 1-2 cigarettes. NicoDerm uses a patch and a multi-week cessation program to wean smokers off the drug. Chantix and Wellbutrin act as agonists and antagonists to nicotine: they bind to nicotine receptors in the brain and are able to block nicotine from fully activating those receptors while also releasing small amounts of dopamine during the bind, similar to the effect nicotine has on the brain.

Regardless of the route, quitting smoking is an intense and personal experience. I, myself, thought the gum tasted foul and the patch was far too strong relative to the amount I smoked, causing dizziness, headaches and nausea. My ultimate issue with the Nico-product line most definitely was (and still is) the price. A week’s worth of patches costs around $40 and a 100-ct pack of Nicorette gum can cost upwards of $60. Considering the fact that NicoDerm advocates a cessation program that can take up to six weeks to complete and gum has a short “life span” in general, the immediate cost of these products far outweighed the cost of smoking. Ultimately, I was put on Wellbutrin (never tried Chantix), which worked out perfectly for me: I was able to quit after two or three cigarettes because smoking just didn’t feel the same.

There are caveats, however: Wellbutrin, like any antidepressant, has very serious and very real possible side effects; some of the ones I dealt with were heightened anxiety, suicidal ideation, and accelerated heart rate. Also, I am not technically prescribed Wellbutrin as a smoking cessation tool, and it is unlikely my provider would pay for it if I was (as most don’t), which would bump up the monthly cost from about $15 to as high as $250. Now, consider the 32.3% of smokers living below the poverty level and what their options are if they want to quit smoking: spend a month’s worth of groceries on smoking cessation tools or white-knuckle their way through quitting cold turkey.

Quitting cold turkey is an extremely unpleasant undertaking: there is a reason why only 3-10% of smokers are able to stop without help. As is often the case with any kind of substance withdrawal, the first 48 hours are the most harrowing. I was both fidgety and listless, as nicotine is chemically a stimulant but I had paradoxically conditioned myself to use cigarettes as a way to calm down. Now I was never calm, unless I was half-comatose. My every moment was either a mental fog or a splitting headache. I could barely be around people: I hated everything, snapped at everyone I came in contact with and the slightest whiff of cigarette smoke on my friends could incite a tidal wave of cravings. All the while, I knew that one cigarette would make it all go away. Just one. One can’t be that bad right? Only one, and then the rest of the pack will be for “emergencies”. Then, the “emergencies” started becoming more and more frequent, until I was back to my old routine. I don’t know if that’s how everyone backslides, but that’s how it generally happened for me.

Life After Smoking?
See, life is forever changed once you become a smoker. Putting down the pack is the easy part: the awfulness of withdrawal comes on with a vengeance but ebbs away eventually. It’s the challenge of living a life full of triggers that’s the hard part. The idyllic experience of watching a sunrise with a friend is accompanied by the wistful thought that, wow, a cigarette would make this experience all the more perfect. The soothing feeling of smoking is practically the stuff of daydreams during a hectic and stressful finals season. The awkwardness of being in a room full of smokers who are casually taking drags and gesturing with their smoking hands, all the while being more social than you, and thus making you feel all the more uncomfortable and left out.

The unfortunate truth about cigarette smoking is that the cigarettes are not the problem. The feelings of dissatisfaction, loneliness, and anxiety are. The reasons why smokers start are the same reasons why they can’t seem to quit. Of course it is unhealthy, but the human mind is myopic and melodramatic, prone to demanding satisfaction and comfort, no matter the cost. Smokers not only have to deal with this cognitive dissonance of the brain demanding something that ails the body, but also with an intense alienation from society. Smokers have to go outside and, in some places, designated areas a certain distance from doorways or buildings to smoke. People specify they do not want to date people who smoke. Even when I quit, I was a man without a country, so to speak: I could barely be around the group of people I related to and I still feel fundamentally misunderstood by the group that once ostracized me. When I talk to my parents about quitting, we might as well be having two different conversations: non-smokers do not understand the difference between being a non-smoker and being a smoker who stopped smoking.

My client and I were able to bond over this; our discussion about smoking cessation was not so much about the direct health or financial benefits, but rather about the psychic rewards of breaking a bad habit and shaking off a dependence which happened to be both expensive and unhealthy.  So rather than demonize smokers for behavior they are well aware is detrimental, let’s try to be compassionate and to understand that there must be deeper issues at play if a person is willfully paying hard-earned money to poison themselves. Tackling those deeper issues, examining what ails the human spirit rather than judging the behavior symptomatic of that ailment, is what will empower people to throw that pack in the trash and leave smoking in the past. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Guest Post, Part 1: Muna Idriss, Coaching Fellow

Muna Idriss is a Financial Coaching Fellow at CGF and a Senior at Brown University studying Africana and Slavic Studies
Macro - Cigarretes

My Name Is Muna Idriss, And I’m A Smoker
So, I have an interesting quirk. While I’m relatively inattentive to most aspects of my surroundings, there’s one thing I always notice: smoking. I can smell stale smoke on the clothes of smokers, I eye cigarettes in the hands of students as they walk to classes, I see advertisement collages wallpapered on the windows of convenience stores, and I always find a pack or two around on weekend nights when people are having a good time. I notice these things because I am a smoker.

I am also a Financial Coaching Fellow here at Capital Good Fund (CGF), providing one-on-one Financial and Health Coaching to low-income Rhode Islanders.  One of the things I’ve observed is that while what we cover may seem elementary to some, it is revelatory to many, and the strategies we use to work with our clients are so effective that I have yet to meet a fellow Coach who hasn’t personally put at least a few of them into practice.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cynicism, Get Thee Gone!

I’ve been in the “social change business” for over five (5) years now, and one thing has become eminently clear: it’s hard work. Neither changing lives, nor raising the funds to do so, is easy.  In fact, these two facets of my business represent the greatest challenges to the success of Capital Good Fund in particular, and the social change sector, in general.  Hardly a month goes by without a grant denial, or an instance of a client whose life has taken a turn for the worse, or a failure of a system, policy or procedure.  And because it is so easy for the human mind to focus on the 1 out of 10 negative cases, instead of on the 9 positive ones, a pernicious pall of cynicism can begin to infect the attitudes of those doing this work.

We Musn't Let It Happen!
Unfortunately, I am starting to feel the tug, the allure of negativity and defeatism creeping up on me, which is why I am writing this post to announce to the world that it is time to banish cynicism from our hearts!  We must do so for several reasons:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sharks in the Water: The Wild West Of Online Payday Lending

From 'Brick-and-Mortar' To 'Zeros and Ones'
Last week we launched a 'micro branch' in Woonsocket, RI out of which we will be offering an alternative to payday lending (you can see photos here and read, listen to or view some of the press we got from the ribbon cutting).  The reason?  In Rhode Island, payday loan branches can charge up to 260%, trapping low-income Rhode Islanders in a debt cycle from which it can take months or even years to escape.  Funded by United Way of Rhode Island, the goal of the new branch is to divert customers from the predatory lenders to us by:
  • Offering a loan with a far lower interest rate
  • Reporting loan payments to credit bureaus so that borrowers build their credit
  • Delivering free financial coaching to further empower clients
  • Offer a customer service experience--quick, convenient and friendly--comparable to that of the payday lenders
We are confident that the program will be a success: we did five (5) loans in our first week!  Obviously, we have a ways to go (the volume of payday lending in RI is around $70 million--an astronomical number for a small state), but as a recent NPR story makes clear, the predatory loan problem runs far deeper than the Brick-and-Mortar payday loan presence.