What a (not so) Long, Strange Trip it’s Been!

By Mae Watson Grote | Founder & CEO | The Financial Clinic

In Ideas that Work, Clara Miller, the President Emerita of Heron Foundation wrote “The urgency and size of the problems we face require that we work differently.  Everything at our disposal is now a mission-critical resource.” The series, on the whole, is a comprehensive and inspiring body of work, yet I’ve found myself at different points in the year coming back to this particular essay and passage when evaluating the small role The Financial Clinic plays in the pursuit of a more equitable economy.

In October, The Financial Clinic was honored to learn that the randomized control trial study commissioned by the CFPB in 2015 to evaluate its financial coaching model, “An Evaluation of the Impacts and Implementation Approaches of Financial Coaching Programs” had been re-evaluated by the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.  The findings were a welcome, additional validation of our long-held belief that financial coaching has a positive and significant impact on the financial security of low- and moderate-income Americans. The acceptance of the results by a distinguished peer-reviewed journal – with its particularly strong reinforcement of the study’s key findings – was on its face a proud moment for the organization; and yet, as I reflected further, I realized that the moment was more significant than just affirming our approach to service delivery.  This moment was about affirming the impact a growing field was having in a system of economic inequality towards the pursuit of lasting financial security for working poor Americans.

At the time, the idea of having our coaching model – something we believed passionately in yet simultaneously grappled with the reality that it was still unproven – independently evaluated in a year-long study was a daunting idea.  What if it wasn’t as effective as we thought? What if its impact couldn’t be scaled effectively? These were among the most frequent conversations we had while anxiously awaiting the study’s findings to be made public.

Indeed, this moment was about appreciating how far we’ve come as an organization and as a field. We didn’t know it at the time, but the RCT’s release would set in motion a journey that I’m so deeply proud to be a part of.  In 2015, when the study was released, the Clinic was regarded as a local nonprofit, growing in size and impact, but still very much rooted in its local community.  Today, we have national partnerships and have done work in more than 40 states. At the time, our quantifiable outcomes framework – assets, banking, credit, debt, taxes, and goals – had delivered a cash value of roughly 10 million dollars back into the pockets of our customers.  Today, that number is more than 80 million!

And lastly, perhaps on parallel tracks, not long after the RCT release we publicly launched our financial coaching social enterprise, Change Machine, a technology product rooted in our approach to coaching and our steadfast belief in its ability to deliver meaningful change.  Today Change Machine has helped thousands of practitioners build financial security for more than 60,000 customers.

While life events are rarely monocausal – the Clinic’s moment today certainly isn’t – it is fair to say that tapping into our own mission-critical resource in financial coaching was the best decision we could have made as an organization.  I’m so proud to be surrounded by a team that embraces the unknown and seizes the moment for self-improvement; we’ll continue to keep our eyes open for the next seminal moment and stay humble yet curious. Here’s to the next chapter, what a rewarding trip it’s been!