The Filene Research Institute hopes a new set of products will improve the way credit unions and banks help low-income consumers manage their finances.
That’s the goal of the firm’s new financial services incubator, a program funded by a $700,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
Filene will distribute five new financial service products and services to more than 40 credit unions that have agreed to test them for 18 months beginning in January 2014. The goal is test the products for use in mainstream financial institutions, both credit unions and banks, said Filene Brand Manager Kate Lawton.
Lawton said Filene will announce all five products by next month, but has already revealed four, including a program from the National Credit Union Foundation to help credit unions better price and manage auto loans made to low-income members. Other products include a program called Borrow and Save from the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions that helps credit unions make low dollar loans with a savings component; a program called Pay Yourself Back from the organization Innovations in Poverty Action that helps low-income borrowers shift loan payments into savings allotments after the loan is repaid; and, a program to help credit unions develop low-dollar loan programs in cooperation with SEGs.
“Really that means an employer business relationship,” said Cynthia Campbell, director of Innovation Labs at Filene. “And banks have those too. We just used the term SEG because we knew we were going to be talking to credit unions for the incubator.”
Campbell said she favors the product for credit unions in part because it leads them back to their roots as financial cooperatives, organizations helping the employees avoid predatory and expensive loans.
The point of the incubator is not to judge the different products and services, Campbell said, but instead to try them out in a wide variety of settings and with a wide variety of credit union members. The project will also help Filene better determine where the products work best and what adjustments could be made to adapt them to different circumstances.
“We and the Ford Foundation are both interested in getting a sense of these products and services in a wide variety of different places,” Campbell said. “That's one reason I am really pleased with the credit unions we have already enrolled in the program. They are large and small, urban and rural, SEG based and community based,” she said.
The products being tested were also chosen with an idea of tackling a broad array of challenges to helping low-income consumers improve their use of financial services.
“The fact is that no one product or service is going to work in every credit union or bank in every circumstance,” Campbell said. “Or, they might require different approaches in some circumstances than in others.”
Campbell also observed that the products needed to work for the credit unions as well as for members.
“Members might love something and it might work great for them, but if causes the credit to consistently lose money, it will need more work,” she noted.
As it announced its inclusion of one of the products developed in the program, the NCUF stressed the importance having an access to an automobile can have in the lives of low-income consumers.
“Eighty-eight percent of Americans drive to work, and without a car, a person’s options for work, groceries, child care and/or health care become extremely limited and can keep a person mired in poverty,” said NCUF Executive Director Gigi Hyland. “This program helps credit unions offer non-prime auto loans to consumers who can benefit the most from a safe, reliable used car. In doing so, consumers avoid the costly pitfalls that come with buying from the corner buy-here-pay-here auto lots and other predatory lenders.”