Filene’s i3: Here’s Your Chance to ‘Turn Consumer Finance Upside Down’

In face-to-face meetings and weekly phone calls, i3 innovators create and then help implement financial innovations for consumers.

How many chances do you really get to “turn consumer finance upside down?”

That opportunity is what drew Matt Vance, Salal Credit Union’s senior product development supervisor, to Filene Research Institute’s i3 program, which gathers the next generation of credit union leaders together and asks them to create and implement financial innovations for consumers.

“I love building things that make people’s financial lives better,” says Vance, an i3 member since 2013. “I really hope that in the end, I can look back and see that I was pushed outside my limits, and that I really expanded my way of thinking about and building products and services.”

Filene will soon begin recruiting members for its next class of innovators. During four six-month innovation cycles, they’ll attend face-to-face meetings, participate in weekly team phone calls and follow the Filene Method to create financial innovations. More details, including how to apply or nominate a colleague, are available on Filene’s website.

Time at i3 (which stands for Ideas, Innovation and Implementation) is time well spent, says Jeanne Pickens, the senior vice president of marketing at Rogue Credit Union, who was part of the i3 team in 2007.

“Innovative leaders inside and outside the financial industry enable you to look at financial services through a different lens and to think outside the box,” Pickens says. “I’ve called upon contacts I made through i3 on several occasions throughout the years.”

Jason Werts, the chief operating officer at Unitus Community Credit Union, was an i3 innovator in 2011. If given the chance, he says, “I’d do it all over again. I learned a lot about innovation and the creative process, was exposed to a lot of outstanding ideas, and formed relationships with talented and passionate credit union leaders.”

Vance agrees on all counts.

“It has allowed me to be around people who, like me, want to change the world of consumer finance,” he says.

Change the world? I3 has certainly done that. Prize-linked savings, The Savings Revolution, Debt in Focus – all got their start as ideas presented at i3. In all, the program has generated about 150 financial innovations since 2003.

Denise Gabel, the Northwest Credit Union Association’s chief operating officer, helped launch the program with a group of 26 credit union professionals from around the U.S. The consensus, she says, was that “the credit union system needed more energy focused on the future.”

As Filene’s chief innovation officer, Gabel then took i3 to the next level, creating an environment where “‘no’ and ‘but’ were replaced with ‘yes’ and ‘and.’”

“The thing that makes i3 so special and effective is the language and the permission to experiment and fail,” Gabel says. “There is a process to innovation – it’s not just generating ideas.”

But when that process works, when participants experiment and succeed, the results can be spectacular. Consider:

  • Prize-linked savings: Dr. Peter Tufano, then a professor at Harvard University’s School of Business, planted the seed for prize-linked savings at i3 and worked with the group and Doorways to Dreams to create a pilot program in Indiana. That program spread across the country before coming to rest in Michigan, where in 2009 the Michigan Credit Union League expanded the idea into what is now known as “Save to Win.”

    Nebraska and North Carolina soon added their own programs, and the Washington Legislature cleared the way for “Save to Win” in 2011. Total savings to date in a program that provides an incentive to save for underserved consumers who may never have had a savings account before: more than $70 million. (Read more about Save to Win here.)

  • The Savings Revolution: Introduced and tested at i3 in 2007, The Savings Revolution uses credit union coaches to help families save money and reduce debt through a contest that Gabel describes as “The Biggest Loser meets financial literacy.” Credit union members compete to meet savings and debt-reduction goals, and then network with other members via social media and other channels to share their progress and find inspiration in how others respond to their own financial challenges.

    “The purpose of the program is to educate members about the importance of savings and drive deposit growth at credit unions,” Pickens says. “It engages real families in a savings challenge that educates them on how to save, and it’s scalable to reach more families than those selected, so anyone can play along at home.”

  • Debt in Focus: Consumers who are intimidated by traditional financial guidance continue to find help from Debt in Focus, an i3 innovation now known as SavvyMoney. The anonymous, online financial assessment tool allows consumers to quickly and easily receive free, customized financial guidance from their credit union around the clock, from anywhere with an Internet connection. Users are never required to input any self-identifying information, freeing them to openly share even the hardest-to-discuss financial data.

Several other projects stand out to Werts.

“One was a program that identified red flags of elderly financial abuse and applied them to a monitoring of member account activity to generate alerts,” he says. “Another one, created by one of my groups, is a phone application that allows a student to pick a major, a career and a college or university. The application will provide an ROI analysis on the cost of education versus the salary and income associated with the chosen career and major.”

Vance says he also really likes an i3 program called LIFT (Lower Interest For Timeliness), which he helped to pilot. “This was a great idea that allowed high-risk borrowers to reduce the interest rate on their auto loans by making consecutive timely loan payments,” he says. “It allowed for proactive rewards for high-risk borrowers, and it helped gain great loyalty via word of mouth for credit unions.”

Vance says he hopes to see one of his ideas on a future list of i3 successes. “I’d love to know that one of the ideas my team builds gets put into Filene’s ‘idea incubator’ and is pushed to a large-scale pilot project,” he says.

Gabel says she hopes other Northwest credit union professionals will join Vance in that quest.

“Curious, entrepreneurial, determined, resourceful, one-of-a-kind – these are the words that describe those who fit in i3,” she says. “The Northwest is known for its progressive credit unions and for fostering those kinds of people. So the question isn’t why someone from the Northwest should apply. The question is, ‘Why not?’”

For more information about Filene’s i3 program, including information on previous projects, a list of past and current participants, and details about how to apply or nominate a colleague, go to

Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216,

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