“Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch”: Lessons for Sustaining Financial Capability Services in Youth Workforce Programs

Having a plan doesn’t necessarily equal success: This was one lesson shared during the Youth Financial Capability Fund (YFCF) convening on May 17 in Seattle, where five youth workforce organizations met to reflect on the process of understanding youths’ strengths and challenges, providing services to help improve their financial lives, and exploring what it takes to sustain service delivery over the long haul. Last summer, the Citi Foundation and Prosperity Now launched the YFCF to support national nonprofit youth workforce organizations to integrate and institutionalize the delivery of financial empowerment services—such as financial coaching, savings incentives, and access to safe and affordable financial products—into their existing employment training programs for lasting impact.

But true integration often requires a culture shift within an organization and a reframing of its goals. For youth employment organizations, it can mean shifting the goal from getting a job to achieving greater financial security and economic mobility. In coordination with The Prosperity Agenda, a Seattle-based organization that supports local nonprofits and government agencies in determining solutions to current challenges, we convened YFCF participants and local partners (YWCA Seattle and FareStart) to explore what is needed at the client, staff and operational levels to sustain financial capability programs within youth workforce programs.

Putting Clients at the Center

At the heart of any mission-driven program is its clients. Putting clients at the center of the work, and determining how to best serve them, is critical to success. YFCF clients are youth ages 16-24, who are or may be at risk of becoming out of school and out of work. Young people often navigate tenuous circumstances—such as employment and educational barriers, parenting and caretaking, documentation and legal issues, and past involvement with the criminal justice system. They also often lack a financial cushion or a support system. YFCF organizations are helping these young people gain financial independence by putting financial capability services in the context of youths’ lived experiences and needs, building on their existing strengths to improve their financial circumstances. They highlighted the importance of being non-prescriptive to support young people in establishing self-determined financial goals, and creating a safe environment where youth can “make mistakes, learn and start again.”

Supporting Staff through the Change Process

Organizational change requires buy-in from both management and staff – and to that end, the Prosperity Agenda shared a helpful model for individual change, ADKAR, which stands for Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability and Reinforcement. Moving staff through each aspect of the model helps to build institutional knowledge, reinforce the work over time, and smooth staff changes and transitions. Staff must be well supported through the change process, as financial capability services become part of the organizational culture; as Donnell Hill of STRIVE International stated, “burnout equals resistance.”

Shifting and Sustaining Program Operations

Operational changes are also essential:  infrastructure, technological tools and systems, internal processes, partnerships, and revenue to support long-term programming. Community Wealth Partners, a DC-based consulting firm, named six key drivers of sustainability: social impact, focused business strategy, economic viability, capacity to deliver, partnership building and stakeholder engagement, and adaptability. Participants explored each of these drivers and shared key insights, like the importance of bringing staff into the design process, ensuring alignment with new and existing partners, determining the actual costs of the program, securing unrestricted funding, and telling compelling stories.

Culture is instrumental to success – and making cultural change inside organizations can be hard work. But it can be done – and the opportunity to help young people develop lifelong skills and confidence to manage their financial lives is a powerful motivation to keep at the task!

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