MassMutual’s Mo Reed-McNally discusses their new poverty simulation project and its impact on their corporate responsibility strategy

MassMutual Director of Community Responsibility Impact and Engagement Mo Reed-McNally and her team recently took on a unique challenge — they deployed a poverty simulation pilot at the organization.

The poverty simulation pilot came about through MassMutual's partnership with a local hospital in Springfield, MA.

Almost a year ago, Mo's extended CR team launched the Live Mutual Project, which connects community members to neighbors, resources, and services in their neighborhoods and helps them build strong foundations for financial well-being.

When we have volunteer opportunities or opportunities to engage with the community, our employees will have an understanding of what members of the community might be experiencing Mo Reed-McNally
“During the planning phase, we came across a poverty simulation that a local hospital was facilitating for their physicians, nurses, and medical students to build empathy for their patients,” Mo said.

Mo and her team were invited to attend the hospital's simulation, which gave them the idea to host something similar for employees at MassMutual. From there, they purchased the Community Action Poverty Simulation kit from an organization called Missouri Community Action Network and held their first simulation in May of this year.

The simulation provided an opportunity to increase employee-awareness of the Live Mutual Project.

It also helped increase employees' empathy around people living in poverty and create a baseline understanding of community needs. “The hope is that when we have volunteer opportunities or opportunities to engage with the community, our employees will have an understanding of what members of the community might be experiencing,” she said.

The simulation itself was a two hour-long activity that took place in the office cafeteria.

Mo's team invited a pre-selected group of employees based on their proximity to community responsibility work and their previous exposure to the Live Mutual Project. “We also invited our business resource groups, diversity and inclusion professionals, and some C-suite leaders as well,” Mo said.

Depending on your family profile, you had to face different financial and life challenges. Mo Reed-McNally
The team set up the cafeteria like a town — complete with a school, bank, grocery store, payday lender, pawn shop, and other retail businesses. When participants walked in, they were assigned a profile and given a small amount of fake money and a packet of information describing their age, job, and income.

“There were typically four people to each family,” Mo said. “The profiles were based on real clients that were served by the Missouri Community Action Network.”

The two-hour simulation was broken down into four 15-minute segments to represent different weeks of the month. “Throughout the simulation, you experience what day-to-day life would actually be like for that person,” she said. “Depending on your family profile, you had to face different financial and life challenges.”

Then, after the simulation ended, the group spent 45 minutes debriefing to discuss what they learned and how they felt throughout the activity.

According to Mo, getting the buy-in they needed from leadership wasn't difficult once they made the connection to the company's CR work.

It's easy to connect this type of work to what the company is about, Mo said, because part of MassMutual's vision is to provide financial well-being for all Americans.

“An initiative like this that focuses on low-income communities isn't dissimilar to what we're doing on the business side,” she said. “We showed leadership that this could be a way for employees to understand what we're doing outside the organization in the community.”

Once they had buy-in from their division's leader, he sent the message out to leadership across the organization and encouraged his direct reports to participate in the pilot. “The intent was for people who experienced it to want their whole team to go through it,” Mo said.

She said the kit itself was affordable, but the biggest costs came from the time and space the setup required.

The room had to be set up in a specific way to house each different station and “family,” with space for 80 to 100 people. They even gave stipends to community volunteers to come in and manage each different station in the simulated town.

An initiative like this that focuses on low-income communities isn’t dissimilar to what we’re doing on the business side. Mo Reed-McNally
“The challenge has been around space and availability of the rooms when we need them,” Mo said. “There was also a challenge around the information that people wanted leading up to it. We intentionally left the invitation and announcement vague so people wouldn't have preconceived notions about what to expect.”

Because they're the first team to do something like this, she's thrilled to see how well it's been received.

“I'm excited that it's being embraced and it's becoming a success story for how we can connect employees directly to the community,” she said.

During the debrief session after the Community Action Poverty Simulation, Mo said leaders stood up and said it was an amazing experience. “They had no idea what life could be like or how challenging the system makes it for some people,” she said. “Everyone had their hands in the air because they all wanted to do something about it.”

They were also approached by different business units who wanted to use the simulation to help them understand their clients and the challenges they face. “We had somebody who wants their whole department of 60 people to go through it together,” Mo said.

She said they've been receiving inquiries about when the next simulation will be — and the team has already scheduled two more.

Their next one will take place in December, then the third one will happen in March. “We plan to book them two at a time, so when we have the December one, we can tell managers, ‘Your team can go through this, the next one is scheduled on this date,'” Mo said.

I’m excited that it’s being embraced and it’s becoming a success story for how we can connect employees directly to the community. Mo Reed-McNally

They're also looking for ways to optimize how and when they host simulations — like planning them back-to-back on the same day, or setting up for one during the afternoon and having the second one the following morning. “Then we can increase the number of people that can go through with the same amount of upfront work and expenses,” she said.

Moving forward, Mo foresees the Community Action Poverty Simulation becoming a requirement for employees to complete before volunteering with the Live Mutual Project.

“It's an official part of our strategy now,” she said. “We anticipate this will be an ongoing engagement opportunity to continue to understand our work in our Live Mutual Project communities.”

According to Mo, the best way to share corporate responsibility work across the broader employee population is through experiential learning.

“If there is a way you can provide experiences to your employees that could get them thinking in a different way and help them grow, the natural outcome is that they'll raise their hand to help the cause,” she said.

Mo Reed-McNally has been a member of the CSR Board since 2019. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.