Left Behind Workers Fund
How the Left Behind Workers Fund Delivered $38.5M in Direct Cash Aid to Over 26,000 Colorado Households
Undocumented workers in Colorado faced inequities before the pandemic, but when lockdowns forced mass layoffs, these workers had no access to unemployment benefits, stimulus support, or programs like temporary assistance for needy families (TANF).
The pandemic brought the problem into sharp relief. As the virus spread, the effects of lockdown mandates were immediate. Businesses suffered unforeseen losses in foot traffic and income. Thousands of people were out of work with no indication of when they would be able to return. The need for aid to undocumented workers became even greater. Not only was there an urgent social imperative to help families in crisis, but the long-term health of the Colorado economy depended on a stable workforce.
The Left Behind Workers Fund was created in 2020 to solve this problem. Started by Mark Newhouse, board member at Colorado non-profit Impact Charitable, Ed Briscol, board president at Impact Charitable, and Katrina van Gasse, former VP at Silicon Valley Bank, the fund’s goal was to bring cash relief to Coloradans left out of pandemic aid due to their documentation status. Left Behind Workers Fund secured fiscal sponsorship through Impact Charitable and connected with other community-based organizations, such as Colorado Fiscal Institute, Colorado Peoples Alliance, The Savings Collaborative, and Colorado Center for Law and Policy, and championed bipartisan legislation, eventually securing the funds necessary to offer cash payments to recently unemployed undocumented workers of all types.
For the effort to be a success, however, the Left Behind Workers Fund had to build a way to set up applications, verify eligibility, and distribute funds at scale. There was no technology platform already in existence that could meet all of the challenges the fund faced. So Mark reached out to Ben Newhouse, Stanford-educated developer and former Head of Sync at Dropbox, to ask if he knew engineers available and interested in building a system to disburse the funds. Passionate about the cause, Ben asked if he could step in to develop the solution that is now AidKit.
Left Behind Workers Fund initially raised and distributed $200,000 to workers in need, later attracting substantial philanthropic and government investment and growing the amount to over $38 million. The effort was so successful that the technology platform built to power the Fund has subsequently gone on to power other direct cash programs across the nation.
The logistical challenges of distributing $38 million in a direct cash pilot were manifold. The Left Behind Workers Fund team had to securely collect personally identifiable information, verify eligibility, and distribute funds to people who may not have reliable transportation or bank accounts. At the same time, uncertainty around the pandemic loomed, and the team felt pressure to provide payments as quickly as possible to undocumented workers who had few other resources.
The team knew partnering with community-based organizations was going to be key. For example, LaMedichi, now known as the Savings Collaborative, had created an emergency fund in response to the pandemic and was able to disperse $1,000 grants to members in need. Groups like this already had the trust of their communities, so they would play a valuable role in reaching out and distributing cash to people in need. But these organizations did not have the systems or technology to support that aim. Many had other focuses than direct cash assistance and their existing processes were manual or consisted of spreadsheets, free online survey tools, and physically handing out checks to recipients of their programs.
As Katrina van Gasse, former head of Left Behind Workers Fund and now CEO of AidKit, put it at the time: “How do we create a unified, scalable system, work with the community to design it for their needs, and execute it in such a way that empowers community-based organizations?”
The Left Behind Workers Fund needed a more sophisticated and automated way of securely approving and making payments.
“As an organization, we have robust technology, but it's not designed for emergency services. It lifted so much weight off of us to have one organization to manage the eligibility verification process and act as a central knowledge hub during an uncertain time.”
Barbara Freeman, CEO, The Savings Collaborative
The solution was AidKit: a platform built to meet the needs of vulnerable communities like those served by Left Behind Workers Fund and of the local organizations that support them.
Impact Charitable and the budding technology company recruited 41 community based organizations from across the state that worked with immigrants and undocumented workers. These community based organizations played a very critical role in the program development of LBWF. Round-table discussions were held to gather feedback and give the community a chance to weigh in on program design. To understand all of the potential barriers/challenges, LBWF led pilots (with a focused smaller subset of CBOs and applicants) to test out the programs and iterate quickly based on learnings and feedback prior to a state-wide launch. The result was an efficient, scalable system that could be securely accessed by trained staff at participating organizations. The staff worked directly with undocumented workers to help them apply for $1000 one time payments through the AidKit platform. All told, over 26,000 workers received aid.
AidKit’s secure online applications were built to process a variety of forms of identification, recognizing that some of the most vulnerable applicants did not have access to government issued IDs. The platform allows applicants to use their phones to upload photos of the necessary documents - essential for those without desktop access. It presents instructions in multiple languages and features a text-to-speech option for any applicants who may need to hear, rather than read, the questions. The platform automatically detects duplicate applications or abnormalities, accelerating eligibility verification and lightening the burden on already stretched teams. When it comes to dispersing funds, there are a variety of options: Unbanked recipients can opt for a prepaid debit card rather than a direct deposit payment. And it’s fast. Once approved, payments can reach participants on the same day.
AidKit is also unique in that it is designed to be used by networks of community-based organizations like those Left Behind Workers Fund partnered with. Those groups were able to get the news about the fund out to target communities, handle applications, and ultimately, disperse the cash, all through the AidKit platform. Community workers were trained and mobilized rapidly, enabling them to reach eligible applicants in over 40 Colorado counties.
Over $38 million in total aid was disbursed to more than 26,000 households across Colorado after an initial $200,000 pilot project saw success. Impact Charitable’s report following the program found that recipients used the direct cash assistance to support both themselves and their communities. On average, each recipient used the funds to support three other people, likely people in their household. The same report found that recipients used the funds to pay for housing (79%), food (63%), and utilities (57%)-- basic needs many struggled to fill during the pandemic lockdown. Powerful emotional impacts were also reported by participants, one participant in particular shared that “receiving this grant made me feel seen, that I mattered. That finally, for the first time, I was recognized in this country.”
But the impact of the Left Behind Workers Fund extends beyond Colorado. The program was the impetus for AidKit, a platform that has since become a company in its own right and now powers some of the largest direct cash programs in the country. AidKit solves problems like cumbersome, paper-based systems, confusing fraud prevention measures, and language or banking barriers, and gives other direct cash initiatives a cost-efficient, dignity-first, secure way to make a difference in their communities.
“AidKit has the perspective and experience to inform program design. If it were simply a tech platform, partner organizations could miss the critical need for incorporating intent into programs more holistically. AidKit brought ideas like language accessibility and a community-based mindset to the fund, which proved to be wildly successful.” - MacKenzie Fair, Direct Cash Assistance Program Manager, Impact Charitable