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Want Your Financial Coaching Clients to Succeed? Don’t Give Them Advice!

August 24, 2012

LISC sponsored a Financial Coaching Training for Financial Opportunity Center staff this summer, offering bold, transformative lessons about helping others to help themselves.
by David Ferris

“Don’t give advice,” said trainer and coach Mary Beth Shewan at the beginning of the 40 hour intensive training for financial coaches, sponsored by LISC this summer.

Daisy Rosa, a financial coach from Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha’s (APM) Financial Opportunity Center in Eastern North Philadelphia, voiced her confusion: “What do you mean? But of course we have to give our client’s advice. That’s all we’ve done, all our years as case managers.” Shewan, a master coach and facilitator, hoped to inspire this kind of resistance and skepticism among participants. By giving participants a directive, by giving advice, she helped drive her point home.

“What happens when someone gives you advice?” she continued. “When other people try to give us advice about our lives or try to tell us what to do, don’t we all, most of the time, just ignore it? Don’t we feel like we know better, when it comes to our own lives?”

The seventeen participants sat in silence, wrinkled their foreheads, and thought hard. As case managers and social workers, they considered advice-giving to be central to their work. Helping financially-strapped families figure out how to find better jobs, improve their income, save more, and eventually build wealth, according to Shewan, would require a different approach.

“At first I thought it was absurd. I was like, ‘What?’” remembered Rosa. Yet, as participants reflected on being given advice, they began to understand and remember what it feels like to be on the other side of the desk, to be asking for help and trying to improve your financial situation. Shewan was right: being told what to do, especially by someone you don’t know, isn’t that helpful.

“When you think you need to give advice, you aren’t recognizing the other person as creative, resourceful, and whole,” Shewan continued. The fundamental lesson from the training is that clients are whole people who are the experts in their own lives, whether they’re cash-strapped or barely getting by, unemployed or over-worked. By treating people as capable instead of broken, coaches can enable them to take charge of their own choices, to change their own behavior, to do what they need to do to reach their goals.

“So, instead of giving advice, we want to ask our clients about their goals, help them focus on incrementally meeting those goals, and provide them with information and resources they need to succeed.” This is what financial empowerment looks like.

“I was right on point with Mary Beth there,” said Rebecca Smith, director of the FOC in West Philadelphia. She said her background in the nonprofit sector taught her the same important lesson: “You have to give folks the tools to think through their situations. I think we can guide them and inform them and help them to be educated consumers, but I agree that we should be careful about giving advice.”

Through its investment in housing and the built environment of communities, LISC has often championed self-determination at the community level. To support the work of residents to improve their own communities, LISC broadened the scope of its investments to include income-building services, economic development initiatives, access to quality education, community safety, and programs to support healthy lifestyles. Through the Sustainable Communities Initiative in the Eastern North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods, residents are the drivers of neighborhood change in these core areas.

Focusing on the economic stability of residents is just as critical to the health of a community as eliminating physical blight, which is why LISC committed more than $20 million in dedicated resources to helping families achieve financial stability and build wealth. The Financial Opportunity Center has been a national strategy of LISC since 2004, and LISC now supports more than 65 centers in 25 cities which help more than 3,000 people per year find jobs; 2,800 obtain public benefits; and 6,300 establish budgets to help them plan for the future.

When it came to supporting families at two new Financial Opportunity Centers (FOCs) in Philadelphia, LISC wanted to adopt the same people-centered approach it applies to community development: to empower residents to determine their own futures and provide effective, supportive structures to help them succeed. LISC offered the training as an opportunity to make sure its FOC partners and center staff – as well as its own staff – understood the fundamentals of best practice financial coaching.

According to Rosa, APM’s housing and financial counseling programs are already benefiting from the training. “We’ve changed how we approach our clients from beginning to end.” Instead of looking to enroll every resident in their programs, they invite only residents who are ready and committed to improving their circumstances. “One of the things I tell each client is, ‘If you are not ready at this time, that’s okay. We’ll still be here when you are ready,’” Rosa explained.

The FOC model, developed by Annie E. Casey and LISC, asks participants who are ready to take on three key actions: accessing benefits to support their immediate needs, increasing income by developing soft skills and connecting to better-paying jobs, and learning to manage finances through financial counseling and coaching. “The research shows that this model works,” said Smith. By providing support around these three areas, FOCs help people earn money, save money, and grow their money.

And when it comes to counseling residents on accessing benefits, finding employment, or buying a home, APM’s staff now refrains from trying to solve problems for their clients. “As financial coaches, our role is to get them to think more,” Rosa said, “to come up with their own solution and the steps they need to take to achieve whatever goal they have.”

This new approach does not mean that counselors and coaches refuse to offer any information or solutions. For example, “Robert Jones” who recently moved to Philadelphia, came to the FOC in Eastern North looking for help. For six months, Jones lived without any source of income. FOC staff explained how he could access food stamps, told him the paperwork he would need to provide, and supported him as he applied. Jones took the action himself, and now he has some income for food. With that success, Jones is now working with FOC staff to find employment so he can have a more stable source of income. Reaching a place of financial stability would have been hard without the information and support of the FOC – but Jones did the work to improve his own situation, and he continues down that path.

Some case managers may think this new approach is idealistic. But so far, empowering residents to find their own solutions has been successful in its application at the FOCs. Jones’ story is one among many. “I think you get clients to be more committed–more buy in– when they tell you versus you telling them what to do,” said Rosa.

Shewan, a Master Business/Life Coach, Trainer, and Facilitator, was joined by Karen Gomez, Achievement Coach at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM), and ­­Victor H. Garza, a Certified Financial Planner. Together, this team led participants in six days of workshops. Activities ranged from reflection to math problems to visioning to role-playing.

Gomez said, “We provide a five-day financial literacy training where the participants learn a ‘Coach Approach’ to working with clients, add new tools to their toolkit to help clients achieve their goals both with coaching and financial education and provide a familiarization with financial topics most impacting clients’ lives.”

The success of the training lies in its hands-on approach. Rosa says she and her staff learned both the financial concepts and coaching techniques well because they were given a chance to role-play, to pretend to be a client and a coach with their fellow colleagues, as well as apply the lessons to their own lives. “When it’s more personal, you’re able to apply it,” she said. “And you can actually relate to your clients now. Because you were able to sit down as a client, you can understand how your clients feel.”

Smith agreed. “When we were doing exercises, it touched our emotions and feelings, and at times it was overwhelming,” she recalled. “The training not only helped me to help our participants, but it helped me to help my own family.” Because Smith felt personally impacted by the training, she plans to use these exercises with her West Philadelphia clients.

Rosa, Smith, and the other participants in the training practiced being both coaches and clients. As clients, they reflected on their experience with finances, shared their emotional and psychological understandings around money, worked on setting their own individual financial goals, developed a personalized plan to align their work and effort toward these goals, and checked back in with other participants regarding their progress. A month in between the two sessions gave the coaches-in-training time to put their new skills and tools to work, and allowed them to bring new questions and issues to the group to the second session. As coaches, they strengthened their knowledge of the financial health model of debt and wealth, practiced using a financial calculator, aided fellow participants in setting financial goals, and learned about ways to improve credit scores.

Staff from APM’s FOC in Eastern North and University City District’s FOC in West attended the training. In addition, People’s Emergency Center also sent staff to incorporate the lessons into their existing financial coaching and workforce development programs, which they hope to develop into Philadelphia’s third FOC sometime in the next year. Finally, LISC staff and partners from other cities also attended, rounding out some diversity of perspectives and experiences.

Combining these lessons in effective financial self-management and effective coaching with the local experience of staff hired from the neighborhood will allow the FOCs to better connect with and remain relevant to the needs of residents nearby – their client base. It is crucial that these coaches will be able to bring back the knowledge gained to their centers and their neighborhoods. And while these coaches will be careful about giving advice, they will be able to offer effective tools and a supportive structure to help families successfully improve their own finances.

“Our clients do have the answers; they are creative, resourceful, and whole,” Rosa concludes. “We are empowering them to take the lead on what they need to do, to take action on their own.” Helping people help themselves – that’s what it’s all about.

 

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