Feeling Good About Self-Sufficiency

Guest Correspondence

“I signed up for health insurance for the first time!”

“I put down a deposit on a place to live!”

“I lost 15 pounds!”

Those were just a few accomplishments that participants shared a mere four weeks into a family financial sustainability initiative that kicked off in May. And while I can’t vouch for “losing weight,” the other achievements signify hope for some of our community’s most vulnerable families.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation partnered with United Way Suncoast to develop and quietly launch this ambitious effort. It takes a very different approach from traditional financial literacy programs. Financial sustainability, we learned, doesn’t begin with how people think about the choices involving money; it begins with how they think about money itself. Rather than just teaching things like how to balance a checkbook or create a budget, the program helps families understand basic concepts that many of us take for granted. Things like predatory loans with high interest rates are a bad alternative to pay for car repairs, or that saving for college begins when children are young rather than when they are in high school.

It also extends and complements our multiyear Homeless Children and Families initiative. Recognizing challenges faced by those who’ve been homeless or close to it, the initiative aims to help families attain the knowledge, support and assets they need to progress toward financial self-sufficiency.

We took the best of what has worked elsewhere and, with a focus on behavioral economics, built a new curriculum for our region. The approach incentivizes participation, creates accountable relationships and provides families with financial products—actual accounts and assets—to which they never had access before.

In practice, clients have attended 10 financial-education workshops so far. The 20 participating families were identified by The Salvation Army of Sarasota, where they receive case management and other assistance. The agency also offered its community center to host the workshops. Before each hour-long session, families were supplied with a meal they could enjoy together, and then Children First provided on-site childcare so parents could fully participate.

Between the workshops, clients met one-on-one with their volunteer financial coaches—and that’s where the real work happened. They created budgets, set goals and otherwise navigated their complicated financial situations. Participation incentives that were teased at the workshops but not delivered until the series conclusion further motivated clients to keep those meetings. But not as much as the support, encouragement and growing trust of their amazing coaches.

Early next month, our families and coaches will celebrate completion of the workshop series. But it’s really a transition as much as a graduation. The client-coach pairings now move into the next phase, continuing to work together for many months as the families negotiate the long, bumpy road to self-sufficiency. Meanwhile, we’ll welcome our next class of families into the program and make improvements to it as we go.

Early signs of success are only possible thanks to the community partners mentioned above and several others, like IBERIABANK, which opened matched savings accounts for each participant, and Sarasota County, which helped fund the workshops. We’ll need even more partners as we scale up to serve more families.

Our volunteers, meanwhile, are nearly as inspiring as their clients. Participants have described their coaches as “awesome,” “a great ‘cheerleader,” and “a good man.” One formerly homeless single mom now sees her coach and the United Way staff as her team of advisors—she calls them her “people.” Who knows, maybe some of these energized folks really will lose 15 pounds on top of everything else they accomplish.

Mark Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation. To learn more about Gulf Coast Community Foundation and United Way Suncoast’s Financial Sustainability Initiative, go to www.gulfcoastcf.org.

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