Addressing the Evolving Financial Needs of Young People: A Conversation with NPower

While pilot site staff participating in the Youth Financial Capability Fund (YFCF)—a project that engages five national nonprofit youth workforce programs in providing financial capability services for young people—agree that creating pathways to financial success for young people aligns with their own missions, they recognize that embedding a new set of meaningful services presents challenges as well as insights and rewarding outcomes.

To learn more about the roles of staff in youth workforce programs, we spoke with Meghan Brown and Theresa Suarez-Johnson, Program Directors at NPower’s Harlem and Brooklyn offices who are engaged in the YFCF. The YFCF was launched by Prosperity Now as part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative in July 2017. As part of the YFCF, participating organizations went through a planning and design process to embed financial capability services—including financial coaching, access to safe and affordable accounts, and savings opportunities—into their existing youth workforce programming. 

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about NPower and your youth workforce programs.

Meghan Brown: NPower, based in New York City, is a nonprofit focused on creating pathways to economic prosperity by launching digital careers for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities. We currently operate in six states across the country and Toronto, Canada. Through our programs, we work with people in different stages of life. A program participant might be 18 years old and right out of high school and has not yet had to think about supporting themselves. This person might not think a lot about budgeting and might have never had a job. On the other hand, a program participant might be 23 years old with young children to support. Though they might have been working since they were 18 years old, they have come to NPower to build the right career.

Theresa Suarez-Johnson: Some participants look for a program like ours because college is not the traditional route they envision for themselves, and some might need more immediate support to make a better income. We also have participants who are staying in a shelter and need to create a solid foundation to build on.

What services did you incorporate into your programming as part of the YFCF project?

TSJ: We decided to integrate [financial capability] into our Tech Fundamentals program, which prepares young people to begin careers in the field of information technology by offering free tech training, mentoring from business leaders, paid internships, career development workshops at leading corporations and nonprofits, industry-recognized certifications, job placement services and access to a robust alumni network. We help young people open basic savings and checking accounts, enroll in health insurance and receive budgeting, saving and long-term financial planning strategies through group education workshops. Relevant staff at NPower are responsible for conducting a community scan, coordinating workshop dates with partners and implementing the financial outcomes survey to learn what impact the services had on young people.

MB: At the Harlem site, myself or another staff member led a financial goal-setting workshop that utilized activities from the Your Money, Your Goals toolkit and the Money Habitudes game to help start the conversation about finances. We also provided young people with referrals to more specialized and intensive financial capability service providers in the community who could support their needs and goals through credit counseling, financial coaching, or state or federal benefits throughout the session.

Note: Instead of training their staff to become financial coaches or counselors, NPower decided to leverage the wide network of providers available in the urban areas where they operate to provide services through partnerships or referrals. This reflected young people’s desire to learn from experts in their field, and allowed staff to benefit from the education and manage their internal capacity.

What opportunity do you feel financial capability services provides to the young people engaged in your programs?

TSJ: It allows the young people to make smarter financial decisions for themselves, earlier in life. The services have helped address some of the fears or myths that youth had about finances. We heard from young people that they had fears around using credit cards, and felt safer saving money at home, rather than with a financial institution. We learned that many of their thoughts about the financial systems were usually influenced by what they have learned at home.

How does this added effort enhance, or conflict with, your existing curriculum?

MB: It has been difficult because we have a jam-packed schedule. We had to find time in the class schedule for meaningful speakers. But I see the value especially as it ties into our mission. We’ve seen alumni who landed well-paying jobs, and then they might lose the job and had no back-up plan. I think these services could have been helpful to them in managing financial obstacles.

What were some of the specific challenges staff experienced integrating these services?

MB: As Program Directors, we oversee young people, staff and day-to-day operations, develop the calendar for the course and ensure that young people and staff are supported. We were responsible for finding the right partners and that took a lot of work. I overcommitted to the number of speakers for our workshops, but now I have learned the most useful and resourceful speakers are for our program participants. Time constraints are always a challenge in our work. Also, sometimes young people buy-in is tough and so when we first launched this approach some young people did not understand why budgeting was incorporated into the program. When doing outreach and recruitment for the current program cycle, we discussed financial capability as a component of the program curriculum in outreach, so getting buy-in has been easier because young people were anticipating the content.

TSJ:  The pilot approach was important because we got helpful feedback from staff and young people in the first cycle. Following the workshops, staff would ask young people about what they learned and whether the service delivery was compelling. Staff sat in on workshops to be able to understand which partners we would like to invite back. We also tracked the referrals that young people asked for during their regular, one-on-one check-in meetings they have with our Social Support Managers. Once a referral appointment is made with a financial coach or credit counselor, the Social Support Manager will follow up on their experiences, and whether it helped them make progress toward their financial goals.

MB: We did something similar. We learned that some speakers might have been too dry or that the delivery was more of a sales approach than an education and skill-building approach.

What have been some of the successes?

TSJ: We are hearing young people talk about their savings plans more intentionally. We also know young people are super excited about building their credit.

MB: There have been a lot of small wins: seeing young people who used to go to check cashing services enroll with us for direct deposit, reviewing the results of the pre- and post-outcomes survey that showed participants were more confident in managing their money after receiving the new services, and young people taking initiative to email a financial adviser or sign up for a secured credit card.

Has integrating financial capability services into your program impacted the way you approach your financial life, and if so, how?

TSJ: For sure! One of our workshop speakers shared personal anecdotes about how her finances impacted what she wanted to do with her life and she specifically mentioned taking out a CD and starting a 529 plan. That motivated me as a mother and so I recently started a 529 plan for my boys!

MB: This has kept finances at the forefront of my mind. I am also going to be a mother soon so I’m thinking about all the decisions I need to make. There is such a great opportunity to learn more.

What is your advice for other organizations interested in integrating financial capability into their programs?

MB: Be patient. There will be a lot of trial and error. Young people might not see the immediate benefit, but you have to trust that you are planting the seeds for the future.  

TSJ: Find a [service provider(s)] that is interested in unpacking the information that is most useful to young people. They should be someone who wants to positively influence young people and who wants to give back to the community. Search for opportunities to maximize the limited time you might have in your program.  

What are you looking forward to seeing this fall as you modify your delivery model?

MB: Smoother delivery this time around. Now that we have vetted the partners, we know what information we are trying to track. We expect that we will see more investment from our young people because the staff will be more confident in implementation.

TSJ: I’m looking forward to youth making financial decisions that are best for them. They are learning things they have never learned before and I think the next class will like the opportunity to interact with something new. 

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