People in debt often feel isolated. People who have got themselves out of debt wish they could support others who are in that situation.
Co-op has always stood for solidarity and self-help - helping people to help themselves in times of trouble. Could we bring these people together in a way that benefits all?
Talking about money is awkward, even when things are going well
When things aren’t going well, it’s even harder to broach the subject of debt. Read the comments on forums such as Debt Free Wannabe on moneysavingexpert.com and you’ll hear the same story. Loneliness and shame, not being able to talk to friends and family, and an inability to see past the here and now.
Giving financial advice is a tightly regulated industry. If Co-op was to help people who have experienced debt support each other, we’d have to stop them from giving financial advice - something best left to the professionals.
People who help people
In previous research, we’d met two people who had got out of debt and then offered emotional and practical support to friends currently in debt. They were proud of the help they’d been able to give, and had found it a positive experience. Could Co-op do something to scale up this willingness to help?
We came up with Co-op Letters, a service for people who are in debt to receive letters from people who have previously been in debt.
We started with a hypothesis: We believe that connecting people who can emotionally support people in debt with those who want help will result in them feeling less ashamed and alone. We will know we’ve succeeded when we see a positive emotional change in those receiving the letters.
In the context of our current business activities, Co-op Letters is an unusual thing for Co-op to be doing. We wanted to learn how Co-op members would receive it and to learn what they would be happy to do to help each other when facilitated by a trusted mediator.
A handwritten letter
It’s a rare thing to get a handwritten letter. Personal communication happens electronically, via text, email or through social media. What lands on our doormats is almost always official correspondence, and for people in debt, a source of stress.
We were inspired by Jodi Ann Bickley and her Million Lovely Letters project. Since 2013, Jodi Ann has written over 4,000 letters of support to people around the world. We were also influenced by Postcrossing, a pen pal service that connects people by sending postcards.
Scaling self help
We posted an ad with a link to a brochure site on the Co-op members landing page.
28 people got in touch to share the story of their debt and explain why they wanted to help someone else. Although these numbers were small, they gave us confidence that Co-op could connect people and help them them to support each other directly.
I want to write because...
What we found in our interviews with people who had been in debt and had used that experience to help others was borne out by the responses to our ad.
I wasn’t the one in debt, my parents were. I want to give parents who are in debt the reassurance that they aren’t bad parents and they’re not letting their children down. I remember my mum being so upset when we had to sell our house to a company we now rent it off, thinking she’d let us kids down but we weren’t bothered as long as we were all together under the same roof.
I want to write to someone because I know how desperately isolating and terrifying it is to not have any money at all and to feel so desperate. You feel as if people will think badly of you even though the circumstances are sometimes beyond your control.
[I want to write because]... All my family and friends turned their back on me, my partner and our baby when it all happened and just to give someone that bit of hope that there are people out there who have been through it and come out the other side...
Making awkward things OK
We found that people who had been in debt were happy to talk about it when it was in the past or under control. But when the debt is current and out of control, it is hard to acknowledge the problem and seek help, either practical or emotional. How could we encourage people in debt to overcome their feelings of embarrassment and sign up to receive a letter?
We posted another ad on the Co-op members landing page, and 35 people got in touch saying they were interested in receiving a letter. Thinking that people in debt would be harder to reach, we designed the ad so that participation would seem appealing and worth the effort.
Inspired by a talk on Hacking Shyness by Sebastian Deterding, we followed these principles for encouraging participation:
- set clear rules for the interaction
- explain what it is and what it isn’t
- associate the interaction with a higher purpose so that there’s an excuse or reason to take part
- give a starting point so that it’s easy to start the interaction
We also knew that for people to take part, they would need to trust the other participants, despite not knowing them. We took inspiration from the way Airbnb design for trust, by Joe Gebbia. In our ad we showed an example of a letter from someone who had experienced debt where they talk about themselves and tell their own debt story.
What are the risks of a service like this?
We had to reduce the risks that could arise from the connections we facilitated between members. But we also wanted to take a platform-thinking approach to this service. A traditional approach would be to intercept every letter and check its quality. But the point of this experiment was to see what we could empower members to do for each other — at scale. Checking every letter would not be workable with more than a handful of participants.
We spoke to a contact from the Samaritans on how to reduce risk when working with vulnerable people. What we learned from this conversation helped us preempt some things that might go wrong and put policies in place to mitigate against risk.
Letter writers might give financial advice
Our biggest worry was that the people who had been in debt themselves might, with the best of intentions, give financial advice. We wanted to avoid anyone recommending a specific course of action. Instead we wanted them to focus on giving emotional support by telling their own story.
As well as providing guidance for letter writers, we tackled this risk through a simple training quiz. We designed the training so that it was not possible to move on without passing the test.
The service might have a negative impact on people’s emotional state
Being in debt means lots of chasing letters and emails and phonecalls. We agreed that we would limit our communications to the letter recipients to the minimum.
We agreed on another principle that every person in debt who signed up to receive a letter should receive one. We used our emails to the letter writers to make sure they understood that someone who was feeling vulnerable was expecting to get a letter from them. We designed the service with a reminders and nudges to letter writers to make sure they put pen to paper.
Mindful of our participants’ emotional wellbeing, we want to make sure the experience of leaving the service was a good one. On leaving the service we wanted every participant to understand that:
- their investment of time and emotional energy is acknowledged and valued
- the service is coming to an end
- we will not hold onto their data (and that their Co-op membership is not affected)
- expert help about debt is available (Step Change, Citizen’s Advice et al)
Letter writers might feel overwhelmed
There were a few options for facilitating the match between letter writer and the person receiving a letter. We decided to let the person receiving a letter read the profiles and then pick up to three letter writers.
This meant we could make sure that the responsibility for writing letters was spread evenly, and that there was a back up letter writer if the first one dropped out.
We might expose more sensitive data than is necessary
We worried about sharing people’s addresses. At first we assumed all letters should be forwarded via Co-op. In the end we decided to let participants decide for themselves. We asked them for their address, and whether they’d like to receive letters directly or forwarded via Co-op. Most people opted not to share their address — but not everyone.
We were also concerned about holding personally identifiable information. We got around this by building the service on Django on an AWS box. This allowed us to get quickly build a service without storing personal information. Anything identifiable was held in a spreadsheet held in a secure location. Within the service, the participants were only identified by a unique reference number.
People who have been in debt want to support people who are in debt
In our initial interviews with people thinking about retirement and what we learned from people who signed up to write letters, we found that people who had been in debt themselves were keen to help others facing a similar situation.
We used the Co-op members landing page to recruit participants, so everyone involved was a Co-op member. It’s unclear whether Co-op membership was a factor in wanting to help, people were more motivated by the shared experience of debt.
People like the idea of writing a letter, but it’s hard to get round to it
Out of the people who expressed an interest in writing a letter and receiving a letter, we managed to match seven readers and writers. However, none of the people who said they would write managed to send one (as far as we know).
Although this result was disappointing, it told us that Co-op members were willing to emotionally support other members in debt, but that the commitment of writing a letter and posting it was too great.
Talking about talking about debt seems to be helpful
One unexpected result from this experiment was a response from one participant — a reader — who got in touch with us to let us know that he no longer wanted to take part.
This was because seeing our ad and signing up to take part had been a prompt for him to review his financial situation and work out a budget and a plan for getting his debt under control within a few months.