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Centering Community Voice in Decision Making

Date: October 11, 2023

Markita Morris-Louis

CEO, Compass Working Capital

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At Compass Working Capital, we recognize that our clients are experts in their own lives. We’re on a mission to end asset poverty for families with low incomes and narrow the racial and gender wealth divides by operating client-centered savings and financial coaching programs, delivering training and technical assistance to other practitioners, and shaping policy solutions that dismantle barriers to asset building. We partner primarily with families led by Black and/or Latinx women — with the key word being partner.

We believe in the hopes and experiences of our clients, and that by building relationships of trust we can support them to reach their goals. Clients often share how meaningful it is to have a financial coach who truly listens, who doesn’t judge or admonish decisions, but instead offers encouragement and resources that enable clients to make decisions for themselves. And we see the results of the trust bear out in the data — on average our clients increase their credit scores by 75 points and build over $8,000 in savings by the time they graduate from our program.

Our clients know the challenges they face, approaches that have failed them in the past, and which programs and policies should be implemented to improve lives. We don’t need to make these decisions for them — we need to work alongside them. It’s our job to listen, incorporate what we hear into our strategies, and advocate for client-driven solutions.

We have institutionalized this belief by making “client voice” one of our four guiding principles in 2018 under our ongoing framework for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion across all aspects of our work, and not simply at the direct service level. We live this guiding principle every day at Compass — with our clients, our partners, and out in our community.

There are three primary ways we make sure we actively listen to our clients, invite them to be part of our decision-making processes, and partner with them to tell the story of what we’re working together to achieve:

1. Routine Monitoring and Evaluation

To amplify a client’s voice, we first need to make sure we’re hearing it. Well-designed surveys at key intervals in a client’s journey in our program allow us to continuously learn and improve. We survey our clients after every meeting they have with a financial coach to get real-time reactions to our services. If someone expresses a lower-than-average satisfaction in a survey, a team member reaches out to learn more. We collect, measure, and analyze a significant amount of quantitative data and qualitative feedback from our clients to understand whether our programs are having their intended impact, to identify ways to improve our services, better support our clients to find success in the program, and expand the reach of our programs.

It can be easy for nonprofits — or funders — to get excited about a solution and start to build what they think makes sense in a bubble. That can lead to designing programs or tools that won’t have the desired impact. When we build new tools, such as our online enrollment portal, we engage clients in an iterative process. Clients are invited to take systems on test drives to ensure we’re on the right track. We think big but build small and empower end users — our clients — to provide feedback throughout product lifecycles to ensure they shape the ultimate product. Finally, we reflect back to our clients how we’ve used their insights in our work by using a section of our website to report back what we’ve heard from our clients. We learned from our time working with Listen4Good the importance of “closing the loop” by sharing how we’ve incorporated client feedback into solutions.

2. Designated leadership bodies to inform and guide strategy

Several years ago, we created a Client Advisory Board — a formal body of current and former participants or clients who give feedback on various projects and priorities. But we realized this didn’t fully reflect our values because our clients and graduates needed a spot at the main leadership table — not a separate table to the side. In 2022, we evolved this group into a Program Committee of our Board of Directors. Members of our team, primarily financial coaches who work one-on-one with our clients, nominate clients and graduates annually for board consideration.

As the CEO, I, alongside other organizational leaders, meet regularly with the Program Committee to gather feedback and input on a variety of areas of our work including policy change, marketing and engagement, innovation and testing, and even our approach to feedback, evaluation, and monitoring itself. We also report back to the Program Committee updates on how we’ve incorporated their guidance into our work because they aren’t just there to provide feedback — they keep us accountable to our shared goals.

3. Create space for clients to share and speak publicly

As the CEO of Compass, I frequently speak about our work and the importance of asset building in our nation’s anti-poverty work. But when it comes to communicating the impact of our programs, the urgency of our work, and how we can improve how our systems and policies operate, my voice isn’t the only one people should hear. They need to hear from the people impacted directly, and our clients are phenomenal at telling their own stories and sharing their own perspectives.

When we host conferences and events, it’s standard protocol to include clients and graduates as part of the suite of speakers. And, when Compass is asked to speak on a panel, we ask our hosts to create space for a client to speak as well. We aren’t doing our job as nonprofit leaders if we’re not actively carving out space for our clients to advocate alongside us in our work.

We compensate clients and graduates who participate in speaking opportunities because we recognize that they are offering their expertise and that expertise has tremendous value. Moreover, asking a client to speak at an event, and even travel, often means they may be taking time away from work or family. That’s no small ask, and we respect the contribution that they are willing to make in service of our mission.

It’s worth nothing that these efforts are successful in part because our team takes the time to build authentic and trusting relationships with our clients, so that clients feel comfortable and encouraged to speak their truth. This is all rooted in a deep respect for our clients that is carried out by every team member regardless of what department they work in.

Sabrina, a graduate of our Family Self-Sufficiency program with Metro Housing Boston and part of our Program Committee, recently shared, “As the chair of the Program Committee, it makes me feel like my voice is not just valued and heard but also implemented into how they do their work. My lived experience is celebrated and welcomed, which is evident in the revitalized mission and vision and strategic plan!We’re proud to partner with Sabrina and all our clients in our ambitious work to break down barriers to asset building for families and make a lasting impact. With their expertise and feedback as our North Star, we know we’re on the right path.

Markita Morris-Louis is CEO of Compass Working Capital. Find Compass on LinkedIn.

Hear more from Markita, alongside Damali Omolade, a current Compass Working Capital client, during a session titled “Building Robust Listening and Feedback Loops in Evaluation” at the CEP conference this fall in Boston.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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