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.

Behavior Change
So what is Capital Good Fund about?  Opportunity.  Hope.  And, it occurs to me, behavior change.  Just like AA, just like Weight Watchers, just like book clubs, just like church groups, just like any other places to which people go to better themselves, we empower people to make the changes they’d find hard to make themselves.  After all, couldn’t anyone, in theory, work out at home using some elastic bands, a yoga mat and maybe a $50 kettle bell?  Lose weight by forcing themselves to eat less, or deepen their spirituality from the comfort of their home, or quit drinking cold turkey?  And couldn’t anyone stick to a budget, manage their debt, build their credit and savings balances and prepare their taxes, for free, by themselves? Yes, but it’s hard.

Which is precisely the point.  We are not in the business of behavior changes because we feel superior to our clients, or because we want to force particular behaviors onto them.  No, we are in this business because, just like Weight Watchers, there is a need to be filled.  Those that partake in our Financial Coaching use it like a gym membership for financial fitness, like a means of learning skills and, more importantly, having someone to hold them accountable to their own goals.

Weight Loss
I started thinking about this after my recent annual checkup.  It turns out that since my last checkup I’ve lost four (4) pounds (and actually lost far more from my waistline than that because I’ve built a lot of muscle from cycling.)  What’s interesting is that over the last year I’ve also used something called the Jawbone UP—one of a growing number of wearable fitness devices that track steps taken, calories burned, hours slept, etc.

 I use the band in order to keep tabs on how long I sleep, how many steps I take during the day, how many calories I burn and how many I consume.  Doing this requires an investment on my part: though the band automatically tracks steps and sleep, I have to manually enter (into the accompanying iPhone app) information about cycling and calories I consume.  So dedicated am I that I’ve catalogued over 98% of food I’ve eaten the last 14 months.  Perhaps this sounds obsessive, but it’s actually become second nature.  And the upsides are tremendous: simply being aware of what you eat relative to how much you move makes it much easier to make healthy choices.  Want to drink a soda?  Go for it, but keep in mind that you’re burning 5-10% of your caloric budget right there!  Want to stay up late watching a movie?  Go for it, but you know from the data that you are far less productive when you get fewer than 6 hours of sleep!

(I want to acknowledge that there is a danger in all this, especially for those with body image or eating issues…So please be sure you use these tools for the right reasons and with caution).

The Power of Data
I’m confident that I’ve lost four pounds, and am the fittest I’ve been in years, because of the extent to which tracking this data has held me to my goals.  After all, behavior change of any kind is hard to initiate and even harder to maintain—the more tools that can help us, the better.  Data supplements our own imperfect observations of ourselves with objective information that, used properly, can be transformational; you can’t change that of which you are unaware!

At Capital Good Fund, therefore, we can sum about our business by saying that we’re about empowering our clients to make the changes they want in the interest of meeting the goals they set for themselves.

I’d like to conclude with the following thought.  Everything we do online—every book we buy, every movie we stream, every Google search we make and everything on which we click—is tracked by a company that uses that data to understand our behavior and serve up ads for products it thinks we’ll buy.  This troubles some people; some people recognize that this is the tradeoff for free services online; and others are unaware.  Either way, it’s a fact.  Big data now rules, not only the online world, but also really much of the corporate world.  So if data is so powerful when it comes to making money, why not leverage it to better our lives?  Why not use it to make healthy eating choices, provide better services to the poor, improve health care, reduce traffic, and so on?  We have the tools, and they are affordable. So let’s get to it!

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