A few years ago, The Workers Lab and Canary recognized that emergency cash grants offered an immediate way to support workers facing emergencies. Today’s workers need short-term solutions to help them address unexpected emergencies, and our country’s existing systems and policies fall short for far too many workers. Through multiple experiments, we’ve learned valuable lessons about why emergency cash should be embedded into the social safety net. We’ve identified that most often these funds do not need to be tens of thousands of dollars to help a worker address their emergency—in fact, grants as small as $1,000 can provide the lift a worker might need to stay on track.
Since 2017, The Workers Lab and Canary have completed three separate experiments to help identify benefits and best practices in distributing emergency cash, as well as how providing emergency cash can help worker organizations grow their members. Our first experiment was the Workers Strength Fund, which piloted a simple process where workers could apply for emergency cash. This pilot delivered $350,000 in emergency cash over the course of the project, which found that 61% reported being unable to work because of their emergency. Of those, 75% returned to work as a direct result of receiving funds, most within one or two weeks. Because of this prior work on emergency cash, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were able to become a financial first responder through our second experiment, The Workers Fund: COVID-19 Rapid Response. Through this effort, The Workers Lab delivered $2.8 million in emergency cash to more than 12,600 gig workers across the country.
Given The Workers Lab's leadership over the last several years on emergency cash, we knew we had an amazing opportunity to explore how giving unrestricted emergency cash to workers might not only meet their immediate needs, but also help grow the membership and power of worker-focused organizations. So last year, we engaged a variety of nonprofit worker-focused organizations to partner on our third experiment, which included two phases to understand this unique moment and test a model to draw a stronger connection between emergency aid and broader organizing engagement.
For phase one of the project, we gathered information about how a wide range of worker organizations delivered pandemic relief from March 2020-2021, and how they thought it affected their work to increase membership and member engagement. These organizations distributed over $50M in emergency cash grants and used a variety of mechanisms for distribution from direct cash pick-ups and mailed checks to gift cards picked up at activation day drive-thrus to online bank account transfers. The diversity across these programs allowed us to study the challenges, goals, and successes of different types of emergency grant programs.
Through phase one interviews, we repeatedly saw how recipients deeply valued receiving cash grants and that they could be both a strong tool to build organizational membership and a way to strengthen the engagement of members already involved in an organization.
In phase two of the project, The Workers Lab partnered with Canary and the Workers Defense Project (WDP) to build the Proyecto Defensa Laboral Grant Circle. We used Canary's software and customer service to help individuals apply for funding and receive funds. The hypothesis was that this software would help mitigate the operational lifts on WDP staff and streamline the dispersal process. Additionally, WDP received capital to compensate member leaders on their Emergency Fund Committees for community outreach, recruitment, screening and build out an activation pathway for grantees to become members of WDP after they received funding. This was part of an experiment to democratize and delegate pieces of the mutual aid program to the member leaders who move in and identify with the communities they sought to serve and engage. In total, the Grant Circle gave 70 eligible families in Houston and Dallas $500 cash grants.
Through studying the rollout of the grant circle, we learned that such a program could successfully increase membership, but that meaningful administrative and organizational hurdles remained. Of the grantees who responded to our follow-up impact survey, 94% strongly agreed with the statement that their experience with the Grant Circle and the direct assistance programs made them feel good about joining Proyecto Defensa Laboral. All recipients have attended at least one additional WDP event and 34 of 70 of grantees became WDP members.
These high-level learnings are just part of the case study we’ve compiled about this project. We invite you to learn more about what we discovered in this full case study.