Nonprofits Focus on Financial Empowerment
Project for Pride in Living offers homeownership workshops, oversees lending circles to help people save money, and provides other financial empowerment programs. Photo C/O Project For Pride In Living

Nonprofits Focus on Financial Empowerment

Financial literacy training helps people with low and unstable incomes chart their own destiny.

Minnesota Public Radio launched a new podcast series called Small Change in late September. The series is the creation of Chris Farrell, senior economics contributor, and Twila Dang, entrepreneur and podcaster. In each segment, Farrell and Dang talk to people with low and unstable incomes to learn how they make their way in the world and to help others do the same. The first season of Small Change has eight episodes; a second season is planned with eight more.

The podcast’s stories are compelling portraits—all Minnesotans—that speak to the tenacity and creativity of low-income people as they navigate elements of personal finance such as establishing credit, qualifying for a mortgage, and starting a business. Most of the stories have two things in common: They show how financial support comes from community and family members who form a network of interdependence and mutual aid in low-income communities. They also amplify the impact of many nonprofits involved in the financial empowerment of people with low and volatile incomes.

In fact, Small Change is as much about nonprofits as it is about the stories of the individuals they serve. One example is Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a nonprofit that’s been working on financial literacy for decades.

Most Twin Cities Business readers probably were exposed to financial literacy concepts in their youth. Business leaders and professionals are accustomed to holding salaried positions with benefits, having access to credit cards, and owning homes.

But what if you didn’t have any of those things? It turns out that nonprofits like PPL can help. “We’re not just about helping individuals learn job skills so they can earn an income,” says Paul Williams, PPL president and CEO, “but also about wealth-building. We want our clients to understand how to create wealth for themselves and their families. That means financial literacy and financial empowerment.”

Henry Rucker has served as PPL’s housing and financial coaching coordinator for the last seven years. Formerly a bank employee, Rucker leads programs such as Home Stretch, an intensive workshop that teaches the basics of qualifying for homeownership. He also oversees PPL’s lending circles; these help participants learn the benefits of saving money. “It’s expensive to be poor and to have bad credit,” Rucker explains. PPL staff members help clients with things like deciphering their credit report, building their first budget, and developing a wealth-building plan that will help them work toward qualifying for a mortgage and homeownership.

Often, clients get rejected for mortgages, have poor credit histories, and feel discouraged. “We don’t think of being turned down for a mortgage as a ‘no’; it’s just a slow ‘yes,’ ” Rucker says. With a motto of “Get Ready, Be Ready,” PPL helps clients learn what they have to do to improve their credit scores and get on top of their financial situations, despite low earnings or weak balance sheets.

Lending circles are expanding at PPL. These are small groups, usually six people, who agree to contribute money into a “kitty” once a month for six months. Then, once during the six-month program, each participant is given the kitty, amounting to around $300. Lending circles demonstrate the benefit of putting money away for savings and then having a larger sum to pay accumulated bills or to make the deposit on a new rental or the down payment on an important purchase. Lending circles demonstrate the benefits of mutual aid, since the groups meet monthly to talk about money and support each other’s efforts. The circles  aid those who lack access to bank loans.

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In analyzing success metrics, PPL tracks numbers such as improvement in an individual’s credit score, increase in net worth, and overall debt reduction.

PPL is among the most prominent organizations providing financial literacy training, but it is not the only one. A number of area nonprofits include financial literacy in their services, with the goal of independence for their clients. Those include Lutheran Social Service’s financial counseling programs focused on achieving financial wellness; CLUES, the Latinx organization that offers financial coaching services, tax preparation, and classes in homeownership; and Powderhorn Residents Group (now called PRG Inc.), which provides a number of programs for first-time homebuyers.

These services seem even more crucial as people face job losses and income insecurity because of shutdowns and downsizing of businesses and community organizations resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet media stories often highlight people’s need for a handout, not for financial empowerment. An uplifting aspect of the Small Change podcast is the stories it tells of the ingenuity and entrepreneurial bent that people with low incomes draw on to make a life.

Financial literacy and empowerment programs rely on contributions and volunteers. If you’re doing well during the pandemic, these organizations and approaches should be on your charitable donations radar. They’re in the business of individual and community empowerment, as well as lasting social change. And now there’s a podcast to share their stories.