Bringing Financial Coaching to Those Who Need it Most

Nov 24, 2014

For Beverly Sanders, living on a budget used to sound like going on a diet: It's the right thing to do, but it’s hard to know where to start.

“It sounded like depriving yourself, like starving yourself,” said Sanders, a nonprofit program manager. “While I'm a very well-educated woman, for some reason I seem to blank when it comes to sitting down and making a spending plan.”

That began to change in early 2014, when friends persuaded Sanders to try a new financial coaching program called the Financial Opportunity Corps.

bank_of_america_--_orginal_photo_for_blog_resized.jpgFinancial Opportunity Corps AmeriCorps VISTA members cheer during their swearing-in ceremony.

It's an innovative partnership between Points of Light, the Corporation for National and Community Service and Bank of America. The project annually trains AmeriCorps VISTA members to go into communities and recruit and train volunteer coaches to work with people in need of financial guidance.

Central to the program’s success – and what makes it different from other coaching models – is the engagement of these community volunteers as coaches.

Launched in 2013, the Financial Opportunity Corps currently operates in nine U.S. cities.

In addition to community volunteers, Bank of America employees have embraced the program and serve as volunteer coaches and financial workshop facilitators. The workshops and coaching sessions are designed to help people from low- to moderate-income households find strategies that will help them achieve better money habits and long-term financial health.

In the past year, more than 1,000 people have participated in the Financial Opportunity Corps' workshops, and more than 200 volunteers have been recruited and trained as financial coaches to work one-on-one with participants.

bank_of_america_--_financial_fair_--_resized.jpgAmeriCorps VISTA members based at HandsOn Broward, right, distribute information about the Financial Opportunity Corps at a financial fair in Florida.

It's an example of the “robust relationship” between Bank of America and Points of Light, said Kerry Sullivan, president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

“We understood the need for individuals to be better educated on financial issues,” Sullivan said. “It hit a sweet spot for us.”

The Financial Opportunity Corps is a key program of Bank of America’s involvement with Points of Light, but the relationship goes much deeper. For a number of years, Bank of America has invested in and served as a thought leader for Points of Light’s global expansion and offerings, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

This involvement and investment, coupled with other philanthropic partners, has served as a catalyst for extending Points of Light’s footprint to 68 cities in 29 countries, in only a few short years. The groundswell of interest in volunteerism outside the U.S. continues to grow: Last year alone, more than 100,000 volunteers engaged in Points of Light partner-led projects and activities.

Additionally, Bank of America invests in the broader service sector through Points of Light, through the company’s involvement in the Conference on Volunteering and Service and Sullivan’s guidance as chair of Points of Light’s Corporate Service Council. The council is a group of more than 70 industry-leading companies that form the premier global platform for increasing the quantity and transforming the quality of employee volunteering.

Through its corporate social responsibility program, Bank of America employees around the world logged 2 million hours of volunteer work last year. Employees are encouraged not only to take part in company-organized projects but to share opportunities to address needs in their communities.

This year, the company launched a Global Volunteer Awards program that recognized 20 employees for their outstanding service and commitment to their communities.

The Financial Opportunity Corps has allowed Bank of America employees to help people resolve many types of financial problems. Financial Opportunity Corps participants, or “clients,” are taught strategies for reducing debt, improving credit, building assets, saving for emergencies and planning for the future.

As a VISTA member assigned to HandsOn Broward last year, Melinda Matthews matched 27 clients with coaches.

“The clients are so appreciative. They all have their 'a-ha' moments. You can see it on their faces and in the way their attitude changes. That's priceless,” said Matthews, who now works as a development manager for HandsOn Broward, part of Points of Light’s HandsOn Network.

Program volunteer Mike Tsoi-A-Sue became a coach in January 2014. He has worked with four clients – including Sanders – meeting monthly for three to six months, depending on how quickly the client's goals are met.

“They all start with basically balancing expenses against income,” said Tsoi-A-Sue. Coaches are essentially “an accountability partner who keeps them on track.”

The clients’ situations are sometimes complicated, he said. But Tsoi-A-Sue tries to help them focus on goal-setting, whether it’s reducing debt, saving for retirement or something else deemed important.

Tsoi-A-Sue “couldn't be more different” from me, said Sanders. Formerly an accounting and finance worker in the petro-chemical industry, Tsoi-A-Sue is methodical and soft-spoken. But Sanders believes his calm, practical approach has helped her reach some breakthroughs in her attitude toward money.

“I come from a culture where when you have it in your pocket you spend it all,” she said. “I believe it's kind of a poverty mentality. I know how to save money for things, but I just didn't believe I was a person who could do it.”

Tsoi-A-Sue has helped her get control of her debt, gain focus and still have money in her pocket for the things she enjoys.

“What I realized is he wasn't there to teach me about money. He was there to support me, to ground my free-spirit thinking and provide me some structure,” she said. “It really was about, `What are your values?’ and, `Where do you want to see your money go?’”