The Hidden Lives of America’s Poor and Middle Class
The Hidden Lives of America’s Poor and Middle Class
This series explores how current programs and policies for helping families escape poverty, build stability, move up the ladder, and invest in the future need to change.

How do lower- and middle-income Americans manage their finances day-to-day and month-to-month? The US Financial Diaries project aimed to shine a light onto this important but little-studied subject. This article series has aimed to share insights from the project to help turn learning into action.

Turning learning into action is perhaps the greatest challenge for researchers and funders who aim to catalyze change. The researchers and funders who came together for the US Financial Diaries believed that quantitative data and detailed stories capturing the financial challenges and opportunities facing US households could not only shed light on the issue, but also move public and private sector stakeholders to action with good reason. When we started this project four years ago, wealth inequality wasn’t a top-of-mind issue for many, but the considerable attention devoted in the last few years to its growth in the United States exemplifies how data can shift the discourse and prioritize an issue.

There is a huge gap between conducting research and gathering data, and a broad movement toward better products and policies for lower-income American households. Often, foundations fund and researchers produce data and analysis, but don’t adequately invest in dissemination of and engagement with the work, and therefore fail to create tangible impact.

It’s not just a question of money, or even attention. There is a skills mismatch, exacerbated by dramatic change in the world of communication. The best researchers may not be the best communicators of research (and the rules of academia particularly rarely reward, and in fact often punish, the kind of communication necessary to catalyze broad-based social change). Researchers and funders need to build comfort operating in an environment where sound bites rule the day. It’s not easy to take 18 months of field research and distill it into a one-page infographic, but it is possible—and necessary. Funders, for the most part, are not experts in communication and engagement either, but they have a vital role to play in helping partners build capacity. On the other hand, there is often temptation in communications efforts to prioritize the catchy, the hip, or the hot over accuracy and nuance. We shouldn’t be building social movements on slogans unsupported by data. That’s why both funders and researchers have to stay deeply engaged in the communications process and not just hand it off to PR firms.

The Playbook is Still Being Written

We—a funder and a researcher—by no means think we have all the answers to these challenges. In fact, it will be several years before we can fully assess whether what we have tried in the US Financial Diaries project has actually worked. But we believe that this area deserves more attention from funders and researchers, and hope that others can benefit from hearing what we’ve tried and learned.

The methods of communication and engagement are getting more confusing and uncertain. There used to be a standard playbook for disseminating research on social issues: Fund a reputable academic to do the research, publish a paper in an academic journal, host discussions at relevant think tanks, launch a report at an invitation-only event (and mail a printed copy to your contact list), submit an op-ed, write a book. Those things are still important (and we’re doing most of them), but they aren’t how large-scale social and economic movements are sparked today. We risk losing relevance if we don’t innovate and invest in an influence agenda.

Patient Urgency: Balance Research and Communication

Funders of such projects have to strike a balance between being patient, because high quality research takes time, and pushing researchers to produce useful information in the near-term. Researchers understandably (and often correctly) resist the pressure to share short-term, interim, or early outputs, but there is clear value in them. Early outputs force everyone involved to think about an important question: “How are we getting others to take notice and use this research?”

Creating early versions of future research outputs was also a tremendously valuable exercise in the US Financial Diaries project for other reasons. It allowed the researchers to consider some additional questions and data collection in time to make changes in the field (and create a clear statement of value to secure additional funding). It also helped us begin engaging with interested parties in the sector and with media, and identifying who might use the information. That, in turn, helped us see the gap between our initial communications plans and our goals. We had to adjust our strategies—including spending more and allocating more staff time to communications—and we couldn’t wait until the end of the project to sort it out.

Build in Flexibility in Communications

As we revisited our plans, one particular hole in our strategy surfaced: We had no funding or plans to allow for being opportunistic in our communications efforts when circumstances allowed. We had a communications plan and a set of communications deliverables outlined in grant agreements, but no fallback or adjustment plan. Given the radically different communications and engagement tools available today, it’s more important than ever to build in flexibility. For instance, the “data journalism” movement hadn’t started when the project began. That was an obvious niche for us to target—the news site Vox ultimately wrote a couple of articles based on early outputs. Similarly, we’re using the blogging platform Medium, which didn’t exist when the project started, to make our research more accessible. Beyond new platforms, you never know which tweet, graphic, document, or presentation is going to catch the right audience at the right time and begin generating momentum.

We changed our planned outputs (and the timing of those outputs) numerous times. Our initial plans focused a lot on telling households’ stories, and what formal and informal financial tools households were using. But analysis made it clear that income volatility was a much bigger issue for a much broader swath of households than anyone, including us, had understood. We shifted the focus of our efforts so that we could communicate those findings more clearly. We also saw that our issue briefs and graphics were getting more attention than our household profiles, so we emphasized those outputs more.

The funding structure of the project inadvertently created room for flexibility and allowed us to regularly revisit our strategy for dissemination. Funding was split between the Ford Foundation, Omidyar Network, and Citi Foundation.

That funding structure required regular meetings to deal with financial management. Those meetings quickly became a forum for ongoing, focused conversations about strategy adjustments, and the need for and use of additional funding for communications—conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Ultimately, we pursued all the traditional, planned elements of a communications strategy and committed to experimenting with good ideas as they came along. That has meant a lot of leaps of faith—we didn’t have a clear idea of how useful some of our efforts (including Twitter campaigns, infographics, live events, and webinars) would be. Some reached larger audiences than we anticipated; others didn’t meet our expectations. If we had to start over again, one major change would be to put more emphasis on developing relationships, but we’ve been working hard to correct that, in part by investing more staff time on opportunities to collaborate in communications.

While we won’t know how well we’ve done on some of these efforts for a few years, we do believe the US Financial Diaries project has unveiled critically important data about the financial lives, needs, and struggles of low and moderate-income American households. We hope this data and our communications efforts will prompt government, nonprofits, and foundations to actively pursue improved policies, programs, and products that benefit those households.