The National Council for Financial Opportunities was chartered two decades ago as Express Advantage, the nonprofit arm of a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Seattle, Washington. Today it supports economic mobility initiatives and partnerships between local communities, nonprofit community-based organizations, healthcare systems, schools, and CDFIs nationally.
The impetus for the National Council for Financial Opportunities occurred in the mid-2000s when the Medina Foundation noticed a pattern in the clients served by its grantees. Unable to access reputable financial institutions, clients turned, in large numbers, to predatory and high-cost financial services such as payday lenders. Anecdotally, at least, it appeared that the prevalent use of predatory lenders by an already vulnerable population effectively trapped people in a cycle of debt and poverty.
Medina set out to learn more. They conducted surveys of consumers and social service clients, as well as financial service providers. In 2006, The Brookings Institute shared its groundbreaking report, “The High Cost of Being Poor” which analyzed the dynamics behind the use of predatory, high-cost financial services. The report documented how this lack of access to traditional financial services effectively penalized already vulnerable people, serving, in effect, as a “poverty premium.”
Spurred on by the report, Medina undertook a systematic review of strategies employed by the financial services industry and by nonprofit organizations around the country aiming at serving the un/under-banked. From this research, it concluded that a new private market solution was necessary to fill the gap. It conceived of a client-centered nonprofit model of tailored education and financial services. Express Advantage was born.
In conjunction with its affiliated not-for-profit Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) services partner, Express Credit Union, Express Advantage enabled people to build the assets needed to stabilize households financially and to become more financially resilient.
Working initially in partnership with Medina Foundation’s financial asset building grantees, Express Advantage established and rapidly deployed its brand of high-touch asset building and financial education services for diverse populations throughout King County. By integrating its service delivery model into existing social services, Express Advantage was positioned to scale its services, and to meet its customers, literally and figuratively where they are.
As a result of the success of Express Advantage, it established partnerships with a network of CDFIs in Washington state. By 2016 there was national demand from not-for-profit credit unions and CDFIs to collaborate and test products and programs through the nonprofit. In 2017 Express Advantage was renamed the National Council for Financial Opportunities (NCFO). It works with CDFIs in 30 states. In 2020, the NCFO became an underwriter of a public television series Opportunity Knock$, along with Balance, one of the nation's oldest nonprofit counseling agencies. It is additionally facilitating the Opportunity Outreach and Advisory Council comprised of the nation's leading agencies committed to financial empowerment, literacy, and economic mobility.
The National Council for Financial Opportunities works in tandem with non-profit community-based organizations, regional community development departments, and CDFIs to provide targeted services to unbanked and under-banked looking to build a foundation of financial stability. It tests groundbreaking partnerships to increase opportunities in underserved communities, access to healthcare, healthy food, higher wage-paying jobs, affordable housing, and other services to equitably increase economic mobility.
What is a CDFI?
A CDFI is an organization that documents its mission and track record of service to receive a designation provided by the United States Department of the Treasury. The certification documents that an institution expands economic opportunities for underserved people and communities. The designation is exclusively provided to specialized organizations that provide financial services in low-income communities and to people who lack access to financing. By building the capacity of a nationwide network of CDFIs, the CDFI Fund works to empower low-income and underserved people and communities to enter the financial mainstream.
Almost any type of financial institution can become a CDFI if it meets the rigorous criteria which include board accountability to the underserved population, a mission statement ratified by the board that documents a social mission of improving economic opportunities, and the provision of "development services" that benefit and increase access to capital for the underserved. CDFI certification does not benefit any single type of institution in the financial sector. CDFIs include regulated institutions such as community development banks and not-for-profit credit unions and non-regulated institutions like nonprofit loan and venture capital funds.