I’ll never forget my first day in the field: April 14, 2008.
I was at a credit union in the South Bronx and it was the second to last day of tax season. It was my first time leading a coaching session and I was understandably nervous. When my first customer arrived at the reception desk, I grabbed a blank action plan, pulled up my favorite bankrate.com calculator, and took a deep breath.
Little did I know then that over the next seven years I’d be training staff and leadership teams from social and human services all across the country to conduct their own financial coaching sessions. My firsthand experiences combined with conversations I've had with hundreds of practitioners over the years revealed how widespread the challenges are for people and programs to be successful. Three of the foremost challenges I have encountered over the last seven years are:
Challenge #1: “Knight in Shining Armor” Syndrome
The first challenge is what I like to call the “knight in shining armor” syndrome. We fall into the trap of thinking if we do not know ALL of the answers right NOW, we have somehow failed to serve our customers. The truth is, there is so much information out there that changes all the time, not to mention that each person’s life is unique and complex. Not every obstacle requires the same action plan to overcome it. Also, as coaches, we are working with customers to achieve behavior change. The reality is: Change takes time. So no need to charge in on a white horse.
Challenge #2: Program Implementation Paralysis
Programs struggle to identify the “right” training, the “right” curriculum, the “right” tools, the “right” outcomes to measure… and when they make one or even all four of these decisions... they often still struggle with the “right” staffing configuration and the “right” tracking system. What compounds the problem further is that even with the most perfectly executed implementation plan, nonprofits often experience high turnover. I’ve seen many instances of the financial coaching supports leave with the staff that were trained to provide those services. Organizations need a more accessible and sustainable way to incorporate financial security strategies into their programs.
Challenge #3: “Alone on an Island” Effect
An overlooked challenge I often see (and experienced) is that discussing money is still a social taboo. The discomfort factor that many of us feel about our own personal finances is very real, and this can create a serious barrier to putting financial coaching strategies into practice with customers. Practitioners need to plug into a network that destigmatizes this issue and makes financial conversations less daunting. By providing an outlet for practitioners to easily reach one another for support and encouragement, practitioners grow confidence in incorporating sensitive financial discussions into their work with customers too!
These problems are real, but they are not insurmountable.
We built Change Machine to bring together all of our institutional knowledge and best practices about how to address the challenges that I experienced in the field along with my fellow coaches and dozens of our nonprofit partners. Three of the top reasons we stayed motivated over the last four years to build Change Machine are:
Reason #1: Stronger Coaching Relationships
We built Change Machine to better serve coaches and practitioners everywhere. There is tremendous excitement about the power of using a “coaching” approach with customers, and Change Machine provides the tools that make financial coaching come to life. The platform arms coaches to identify decision making moments that leverage the information they uncover in a meeting and puts “bumper lanes” in place to ease stressful sessions. Practitioners have a mega-resource at their fingertips ㄧ a coaching companion ㄧ to support customers to achieve their goals through personal commitments and action planning that sticks.
Solution #2: Stronger Programs
We built Change Machine to better serve programs far and wide. Change Machine houses a financial security framework that has been rigorously evaluated and promotes lasting behavior change. We wanted to make real-time information accessible to everyone at the organization so teams are not only focused on using data to increase funding opportunities, but to have robust conversations and water-cooler chats about their compelling customer stories. Programs are one-click away from data and metrics designed to provide practical insights and actionable information to ultimately improve services.
Solution #3: A Stronger Field
Change Machine is built by practitioners for practitioners. It represents the field of professionals on the frontlines of poverty alleviation efforts. We built Change Machine to better serve our fast-growing field of practitioners and elevate their voices. Change Machine is not only a peer-to-peer support system, but the conversations that take place can inform research, as well as fuel policy and advocacy efforts.
4 years in software development, 10 years in the making!
Last week marked a very special milestone in The Financial Clinic’s history: The public launch of Change Machine. We thought the best way to celebrate was to declare October 15th – exactly six months before “tax day” – as National Financial Goal Day. Financial goals are the single-most powerful indicator of whether the Clinic is accomplishing its mission, so the day also marks the launch of a movement that captures the very essence of our work and what Change Machine is all about!
- Becky Smith, Director of Strategic Initiatives, The Financial Clinic