17: Christopher Jacobs

Show Notes

  • Christopher Jacobs is the CEO of Communally (previously Solutions for Progress
    • Chris described their previous name as "wonderfully meaningless."
    • He came on board as the Chief Operating Officer in 2007.
      • He was excited to work for a company doing good in the world
    • After about 3 years, he became president (2010)
    • The founder and then CEO's interests were shifting in early 2013 and Chris became CEO in mid-2013
  • Communally was founded 25 years ago
    • They were a research organization, but found themselves sitting on a mountain of data
    • Communally is now a Software as a Service Company (SaaS)
      • They lease out their software platform to accredited individuals and groups
    • The Benefit Bank (TBB), their flagship service, grew out of their collection of data
    • TBB streamlines the tax filing and benefit eligibility screening process
      • A client meets with a counselor to complete and file their state and federal taxes using Communally's data collection system
      • After the taxes, they are asked if they currently have any social benefits (many people think they aren't eligible)
      • The counselor performs a "quick-check" using the information collected on tax forms to determine eligibility for benefit programs
      • Once eligibility is determined, the client will be asked if they'd like to come back with additional documents to file for various programs
      • Until this point, the client hasn't had to fill out a single form
      • Another benefit is that the client can go somewhere homely and fill out the form with a friendly neighbor instead of a government office
    • Shortly after Chris became CEO, they were approached by the Center for Financial Services Innovation and they funded Communally's newer service, My Budget Coach
      • The creator of My Budget Coach's framework lost its funding, so the idea was given to Communally
  • My Budget Coach is a one-on-one, web-based financial coaching system
    • The goal is to help people change their financial behavior
    • Instead of providing temporary assistance, My Budget Coach works to lift people sustainably out of poverty
    • The coach helps the client create a set of goals (both financial and life)
      • Everything from paying down debt to opening a bank account
    • They provide up to twelve sessions
      • Sessions are monthly, so up to one year
    • However, the client has access to the service forever, so they can create their own budget in the future
    • Real behavior change is noticeable between 4 and 5 sessions
      • This is observed in a reduction in debt, increase in savings, etc.
    • They administer The University of Wisonsin-Madinson's Financial Stability Index once per session
      • This is a report card for finance and behavior
    • Their pilot program was evaluated by University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Financial Security (the creators of the index) and found:
      • An average 35% increase on the index
      • 35 - 40% had lower debt
      • It also made no difference whether or not the coach and client were meeting in person, or interacting remotely
  • Chris says that one of Communally's major edges is scaling anti-poverty solutions
    • They are able to reach more people than most other organizations in their field
  • Chris is very passionate about their client-first mentality
    • He says they build system with three people in mind - 1) The client 2) The aid/counselor 3) The body receiving the application
    • This is very different from other services, which don't generally consider what is best for the client
      • Most systems which poor individuals interact with consider what the receiver (usually the State) needs to receive
    • They have consciously worked to put the client needs at the forefront of every decision they make
  • Chris also prides Communally on their mixing of technology and people
    • It is often hard to distill real-world problems into a set of programmable solutions and interface between social services and technologists, but Communally has been successful
    • Their approach has been to cross-train their staff to have enough understanding to frame their questions/solutions from the best perspective
      • This means that their policy researchers understand enough about coding to identify the problem in a correctable way, and their programmers understand enough about policy to code the solution effectively
  • Chris's philosophy is that someone is "sustainably out of poverty" when they begin to have real choices in their lives
    • Choices about where they live, what they eat, etc.
  • One of the biggest challenges is tackling rural poverty, which is a huge issue in Western Pennsylvania
    • Chris believes the remote aspect of My Budget Coach could help make a big impact in some of those rural counties
  • Communally is both a B-Corp and a Public Benefit Corporation
    • In 2017, Communally placed in the top 10% of all B-Corps with a score of 133
  • The next step for Communally is "Cloud Coach" (working title)
    • They intend to expand the remote use of their service

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