Innovator Profile: Canary

by Jeshua John, on July 17, 2023 at 10:51 AM

Initially incubated by The Workers Lab, this innovative organization is working with employers across the country to ensure workers have access to emergency cash when they experience a crisis that makes it difficult for them to pay for basic living expenses.

Canary started as a project incubated by The Workers Lab. It exists to ensure that in times of financial need, individuals can access emergency cash with dignity, giving them the peace of mind and confidence to recover quickly. Rachel Schneider, the co-author of the U.S. Financial Diaries, serves as the group’s Chief Executive. She was a key advisor on The Workers Lab’s very first design sprint that tested the effectiveness and best practices for delivering emergency cash to workers. Rachel has taken the learnings from the first design sprint to build a business centered around delivering a service to improve the financial security of workers at scale. We recently caught up with Rachel to learn what the organization has been focused on to date, and what it plans to do next to help workers. 

How has your organization changed or grown since you launched? 

We know that 63% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck and employers can be an integral part of their safety net. To address this need, Canary established Grant Circle — a sustainable, scalable emergency grant fund that delivers value to both employers and workers. Canary offers services directly to employers, including healthcare, financial services, and gig-platform companies, as well as a number of nonprofits. We were grateful to be able to launch these services through the fiscal sponsorship of The Workers Lab, Once we were ready to take on our own governance more directly, we established Canary Impact Lab, an independent charitable organization. Even today though, we rely on advice from The Workers Lab through Adrian Haro’s participation on Canary Impact Lab’s board of directors. 

Through Grant Circle, employees can receive grant money when they experience an unexpected, unavoidable emergency that causes financial hardship, defined as the inability to afford basic living expenses. Standard, precipitating emergencies include: natural disaster or catastrophe, medical issue, car issue, home or property issue, domestic issue, loss of income, eviction or forced move, death in the family, robbery or burglary, or past due bills.

To date, we’ve partnered with organizations such as Visionworks, Clear Channel Outdoor, Harvard Business Publishing, and others to offer access to emergency grants and distribute money to employees in acute financial distress. 

We also worked with The Workers Lab and the Workers Defense Fund to deliver emergency funds to workers and assess if and how emergency cash may lead to base building through a project supported by the Open Society Foundations.

What are you focused on today? 

Our focus has been on growing the number of employers participating in this program and educating employers and employees about how best to participate in an emergency fund. In addition, we focused on conduct research, advance best practices, and experiment with new approaches to bolster financial health. 

We’ve seen increasing interest in our solution across industries and from employers of all sizes. 

There is an assumption that an emergency fund is for financially fragile employees. But the reality is that the uncertainties of life can affect any of us—anyone can be a victim of natural disasters, intimate partner violence, or a health crisis. When the unexpected happens, coworkers and employers often respond informally, by circulating a GoFundMe for example, or offering a pay advance. But, these one-off responses don’t work very well. They can lead to confusion and shame for the recipient, and create a risk of treating individuals who experience the same problems differently – whether because one person speaks up and asks for help and another doesn’t, or for other reasons. They are also burdensome for human resources leaders to administer. It works much better for companies to work with a third party like Canary, and we can ensure that we deal with each individual who is in crisis with dignity and efficiency. 

What has TWL support meant to Canary? 

Without The Workers Lab, Canary simply would not exist. Administratively, of course, having a fiscal sponsor made it viable for us to get started. We were able to focus our early energy on launching proof of concepts with employers and researching impacts with employees, because we could postpone our work on governance and infrastructure.

But, The Workers Lab has been more than that – they have also been by our side strategically every step of the way. They are the perpetual voice helping to answer: “What are the ways that workers need to be supported?”

 We are still enthused and delighted to be a part of the The Workers Lab community. We don’t foresee a time, even as we grow, when that won’t be the case.. 

It’s important to feel supported as an innovator, to have people along the way who believe in you, encourage you, and help you nudge your idea into fruition. There is no social entrepreneur who is getting anywhere without that kind of support. The philosophical lense The Workers Lab brings will have a long tail of influence for us, particularly as it relates to centering our work with workers in everything we do. 

What advice do you have for new innovators trying to help workers?

Being an innovator is a funny balance between commitment, confidence, belief and passion in your own vision plus a willingness to ask others for help, which means incorporating other people’s ideas and feedback into that vision. You can’t accomplish anything of significance on your own, and that means inviting others into a dialogue. You have to genuinely listen and iterate on your original idea to get to the result that you want. 

I’d also say that, as a woman-led organization, we especially needed the support of The Workers Lab. Our idea to give unrestricted cash to workers for emergencies was not something many people wanted to take a risk on. But Carmen, Adrian, and the team at the The Workers Lab were all in. They were willing to take a risk and potentially fail, but also learn from that failure. They are used to thinking creatively, and making big asks about how society can change for the better. The diversity of the team absolutely contributes to that. 

Topics: Design Sprint| Learning Hub