Can Cash Rewards Build Stronger Neighborhoods?
In 2010, Eric Leslie (Greater Philadelphia ’04) was principal of KIPP Philadelphia Charter School. One afternoon, one of his hardest-working students hopped off the school bus one stop early, found a classmate who had disrespected her, and socked her in the face. “All these words and values [at school] are great,” she told Leslie later, “but you know that’s just in here, right?”
Leslie was jarred by the disconnect between the progress his kids made at school and the pressures they faced in the world outside. “No one school, one institution, one person can change that,” he says. It would take the combined efforts of a community.
Three years later, on sabbatical in New Zealand, Leslie was struck by how local businesses— from pharmacies to coffee shops to grocery stores—banded together to offer shared loyalty programs, creating a competitive edge. Unlike single-vendor reward cards, shared points racked up fast, enticing customers to return more often. Leslie wondered if what worked for businesses could work for community organizations, too.
In 2014, he moved to Boston, his hometown. With the backing of local community groups, he launched Union Capital Boston, a loyalty program that rewards families with low incomes for taking actions that strengthen their communities. Users earn points, tracked on a mobile app, for engaging in activities such as parenting workshops, school fairs, or volunteering at the local farmers market. Points accrue toward Visa gift cards that families may use to pay for anything from medical bills to daycare to school uniforms.
Leslie sees UCB’s work as a promising new form of tech-driven community organizing. “I don’t think there’s an app for ending poverty or racism,” he says. “But there’s a new mechanism we can harness.”
Of UCB’s 400 members, the average participant earns around $200 from being active in the community over the course of a year—enough to notice, but not to cover the bills. The big payoff: easy access to UCB’s robust hub of family-focused agencies, schools, health services, and civic programs. Nonprofits pay to join UCB’s network. (The fee covers the rewards paid out to members.) In return, nonprofits get a boost in visibility and engagement, thanks to a team of 13 UCB super-users trained in community organizing. The 13 “diamond leaders” recruit members, promote partner-hosted events, and spread word of the network’s anti-poverty resources.
“We fill a role these nonprofits don’t have bandwidth or money for,” Leslie says. “The reward alone won’t do it. It takes slow and steady organizing.”
Diana Garcia, a mother of four, says the money drew her in, but the rush of becoming a leader in her community soon took on a momentum of its own. She now serves as the diamond leader for Bromley, the public housing development where she lives in Jamaica Plain. Garcia sits on Bromley’s board and chairs its youth development program.
“I wasn’t always the most confident person, being disabled,” says Garcia, who has cerebral palsy. “Before, if you were to ask me if I would ever dare speak in front of people or run my own workshop, I would’ve said you were nuts. But here I am, doing it."
Garcia has been rallying her fellow residents around a campaign to address safety issues at Bromley. Her activism has given her a new sense of purpose. Not long ago she took part in a Black Lives Matter march. "It was ground breaking for me," Garcia Says. "It brought me to tears.I am raising three African American boys, and I’m scared for them. I wanted to show them Mommy did this. I have a voice. We all have a voice."
About the Author
Ting Yu (N.Y. ’03) is the founding editor of One Day and a former member of the Teach For America staff. As a corps member, she taught seventh and eighth grade English and social studies in the Bronx.