Magnifying glass showing a dollar sign on papers

(Illustration by Vanessa Lovegrove) 

A few years ago, my nonprofit organization, Moneythink, went through a digital metamorphosis. Since 2008, we have worked to increase the number of historically marginalized students graduating with college degrees while carrying little to no financial burden. Early on, we identified college matriculation and affordability as critical inflection points that were prime for innovation. In 2016, we committed to finding the most strategic intervention for the largest number of students who could benefit from our services.

Next Generation Nonprofits

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In partnership with the behavioral science firms and Ideas42, we embedded a human-centered design approach into our product development. Meeting with students, their families, and student-advisors helped us to understand and think through what successful digital experiences could look like for our primary beneficiaries—current and future generations of education consumers.

Between 2016 and 2019, we ran a virtual college financial-coaching program with one-on-one college and financial guidance for Pell Grant-eligible high school seniors in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our students were supported throughout the college application and matriculation processes, including FAFSA completion, college fit and matching, financial aid award letter comparison, and personal financial planning. Our coaches used an in-house prototype to have more effective advising conversations, which led our students to make more informed decision about which college to attend. We tested several tools within our program that expedited previously laborious tasks such as collecting financial award letters and translating their information by hand. And we discovered that our technology enabled students to quickly understand the affordability of college options, so that our advisors could then focus on the conversations that really matter.

Despite our successful virtual coaching program, we still faced barriers to large-scale growth and impact. Our in-person student recruitment and acquisition strategy was personal but time consuming and resource intensive. Our service model was hamstrung by the reality that our students truly benefited from our services when they were able to access a Moneythink coach in real time—but we weren’t available 24/7. In addition, our then-current model required significant finances to expand.

In 2019, we wondered how we might reduce obstacles to accessing our virtual coaching model to develop an automated, yet personal, experience that would enable students to receive real-time support without individual coaches. We knew we needed to become even more innovative, agile, and, frankly, more digitally centric to bring our vision to life. After considering our options, cloud technology proved to be the right solution for translating and demystifying confusing financial aid letters, thus allowing users to compare their college affordability options.

Once we identified AWS, we started building DecidED in the fall of 2019, which has become our core product strategy. DecidED is a web app that uses cloud technology to provide students and their families with guidance and support to understand financial aid options and budgeting for college costs. Not only is DecidED designed to engage and guide more students, but it is also used by student counselors so that they can have access to straightforward, effective, and precise data to more meaningfully support their students’ college decision-making process.

Becoming Product-Centric

The decision to pursue an open-access college affordability tool built on a cloud server presented us with a series of “risk and reward” questions and conversations about our business model, staffing structure, funding opportunities, as well as possible long-term strategic directions.

The results of those considerations led us down a clear path of next steps. First, we recruited experienced product-centric individuals to serve on our board of directors who could guide our strategic activities. Next, we purposefully included our long-time funding partners more closely in our impending organizational shift by explaining our intentions, asking for honest feedback, and inviting them to support our direction. We then added the necessary engineering capacity and technical expertise to our product team to facilitate long-term growth. Our final step was to assess the kind of organization we needed to be in order to deliver on our vision.

Cloud technology proved to be the right solution for translating confusing financial aid letters, thus allowing users to compare their college affordability options.

This work resulted in a big culture shift to becoming a “product-centric” organization. In practical terms, this enabled us to reimagine the kinds of structure, systems, and talent needed to propel our work forward. As the leader of our organization, it was important that I consistently communicated our refined “what” and “why” to our team, stakeholders, and community partners to continue creating buy-in and goodwill.

From a product standpoint, serverless technology helped us launch DecidED quickly and prepared us to scale with no wasted computing capacity. DecidED relies on a machine-learning (ML) service that automatically extracts text, handwriting, and data from scanned documents. When a student uploads a digital version of their college financial award letter into the DecidED app, the file uses ML to extract text, tables, and other data points. Moneythink categorizes these outputs and then inputs them into a standardized award-letter feedback dashboard the user can access to make visual comparisons between college costs.

DecidED was also designed for student counselors to maximize the assistance they give high school students to make financially informed college decisions. Before utilizing cloud technology, a college advisor would need to either manually interpret each financial aid document or ask their students to do so. DecidED’s award-letter processing gives practitioners cloud-based, verified college affordability information. Besides controlling for human error, it saves organizations hundreds of hours of administrative time.

Building DecidED on cloud technology has accelerated our overall growth. Already, we have thousands of students and advisors across 41 states. To stay ahead, we’ve increased our product team by 50 percent. We also doubled our organizational budget from $1.5 million to $3 million, while securing new philanthropic support to fuel DecidED’s expansion and potential influence on systems change, including major grants from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, Capital One Foundation, and other major supporters.

In 2021, Moneythink launched the DecidED API, which expands our database of college financial-aid data and provides public access in a bid for greater transparency around college costs. Because DecidED solves for an acute need in the marketplace, we’ve been able to serve our beneficiaries in ways that we never before could have imagined.

Three Takeaways

From our experience, we offer three takeaways for nonprofits considering building a digital programmatic component, developing an app, or pursuing a digital strategy:

  • Digital is not the endgame. | Rather, it is a powerful vehicle that can fuel your mission. Human relationships matter the most. Leading with empathy and compassion are what will give you a competitive advantage.
  • Determine the right intervention. | Allocate time to figuring out the parts of your program or organization that could be automated—without compromising your programmatic aims and your equity-centric mission.
  • Conduct lean, rapid testing. | Iterating helps mitigate early, unnecessary spending on what could be costly endeavors designing in-house technology. For Moneythink, this meant operationalizing a human-centered design approach so that we could find ways to build lightweight prototypes and use design sprints to test new tools and features. We also routinely tested our ideas with and for our end users. This has resulted in an accelerated and oftentimes cheaper development process.

Data-driven transformation can lead to and sustain greater mission impact. For Moneythink, this means systematically empowering students by giving them clear and correct information and ownership of their choices. It means holistically transforming the college success ecosystem by shifting the role that college advisors play using our automated solutions that allow practitioners more freedom to provide the support students really need. And it means informing college affordability practices and policies by leveraging our automated tools and predictive data sets that could influence efforts toward greater student financial and academic equity, research, and advocacy.

Digital shifts to cloud technology demand enormous energy, vulnerability, and high-risk tolerance. However, this effort was essential to better serve our beneficiaries and our team members.

Read more stories by Joshua Lachs.



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