Sue Woodrow - Community Development Senior Project Director
Published November 1, 2004 | November 2004 issue
A coalition formed by a diverse group of organizations is quickly gaining momentum in its efforts to promote financial education in Montana. The Montana Financial Education Coalition (MFEC)—a recently established nonprofit corporation and an affiliate of the National Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy (Jump$tart)—has grown dramatically in a short time. Just a year and a half ago, a handful of people sat around a table in Bozeman discussing a shared belief that all Montanans should have access to the training and resources they need to make informed choices about their finances. That discussion has since blossomed into an initiative that currently involves more than 20 organizations and counting, with the goal of bringing all financial education providers in Montana together as MFEC partners.
One year ago, the participants from that original discussion convened representatives of nearly 40 organizations from all corners of Montana for a financial education focus group. They talked about the critical need to promote financial education in the state and discussed potential solutions for meeting the need. Members were unanimous in support of forming a statewide coalition to help organizations across Montana promote financial education programs of all kinds, such as K-12 curricula, financial counseling for adults, first-time homebuyer education and retirement planning.
In the months that followed, the steering committee took the necessary steps to get the coalition going. It defined the organization's vision and mission, completed a comprehensive strategic plan, formed several teams to address the various key objectives identified by the focus group, filed articles of incorporation and drafted bylaws, elected a board of directors and officers, formalized its affiliation with Jump$tart and issued three newsletters that were each distributed to nearly 1,000 individuals and organizations across Montana. The collaborative efforts of the 20-plus organizations involved to date were crucial.
"Without an organized, collaborative effort, change will not take place," says Kelly Bruggeman, executive director of First Interstate Foundation and MFEC board member. "Only by everyone working together can a state our size, with a small population and limited resources, effectively address an issue as important as financial education."
Statistics underscore the importance of helping Montanans manage, save and invest more of what they earn. According to the Montana Department of Commerce, Montana's 2003 per capita income ranked 47th in the nation, at $25,920, and the state ranked 4th in the percentage of residents holding multiple jobs. Nearly 14 percent of Montana's population falls within federal poverty guidelines. In addition, personal bankruptcies in the state exceeded 4,200 in 2003, according to the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.
The vision of the MFEC is simple but significant: Montana citizens will achieve long-term personal financial health.To support this, the MFEC has articulated a mission that encompasses a broad and diverse constituency, with a focus on capacity building and creating a unified message:
The Montana Financial Education Coalition strives to improve the personal financial knowledge and decision-making ability of Montana citizens by promoting public awareness of the need for personal financial education, and by uniting and building capacity of financial education programs.
"MFEC's scope and impact are directed to help all Montanans, from students to retirees, take charge of their financial futures," notes Garth Ferro, programs outreach coordinator for the Student Assistance Foundation and MFEC board member. "Through addressing each target group, we will be able to craft messages they will understand, and then take action."
That action, the coalition envisions, will include statewide initiatives, such as annual conferences, quarterly newsletters and a Web site listing financial education news, resources and other pertinent information. The coalition will also feature support for grassroots efforts at the local level.
One local collaborative effort is a Missoula-based initiative called "Financial Fitness"—a financial education course for adults that has been in development over the last year. Initiated and coordinated by homeWORD, a Missoula nonprofit organization that develops affordable housing and offers homebuyer education, the program has become a model of community partnership. It includes participation by Montana Credit Unions for Community Development, Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Montana (CCSM), the YWCA of Missoula, Habitat for Humanity of Missoula and the Missoula Housing Authority, with grants and other financial support from the Montana HomeOwnership Network, Allstate Foundation and several local credit unions. The program was created to help families develop financial self-sufficiency to purchase and maintain their homes. To date, 32 individuals have completed the course, with another class scheduled to begin in mid-October.
Tom Jacobson, executive director of CCSM and an MFEC board member, has spearheaded a local financial literacy collaborative in Great Falls, and anticipates that the MFEC will be a source of support and resources, noting that "the MFEC will help local coalitions develop the capacity to deliver financial education that truly meets the needs of individual communities."
Board members believe the influence of the MFEC's efforts in this regard will ultimately extend beyond realizing improvements in the financial well-being of individuals and families. Norm Millikin, executive director of the Montana Council on Economic Education and MFEC board member, believes that the fundamentals of personal money management have a broader economic impact.
"Financial and economic education both play important roles in personal and economic development. Any economy, including Montana's, will suffer when individuals are ill-prepared to manage their personal finances," he says. "Individuals must understand the importance of personal financial management and the basics of how an economy operates. Individuals who are adept at budgeting and managing credit and see the importance of saving will become better consumers, producers and citizens. At the same time, they must understand the key factors in creating an economy that provides jobs, profits and incentives for business growth and investment."
The recent formalization of MFEC's affiliation agreement with Jump$tart will enable the MFEC and its partners across the state to tap into a wide range of services and other benefits to support their common mission. Although Jump$tart's focus is on financial education for children and young adults, the affiliation will not narrow MFEC's scope of addressing the financial education needs of Montanans of every age and description. The affiliation will, however, offer some advantages.
"Affiliating with the National Jump$tart Coalition will provide our state coalition with a variety of support services, from public awareness materials to instructional support and technology services," notes Karen Dunn, director of financial education for Montana Credit Unions for Community Development and MFEC board member. "The MFEC will have the flexibility to incorporate these services to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our ongoing efforts to fulfill our statewide cooperative mission."
Collaboration has been the hallmark of the MFEC since its inception, and coalition members continue to reach out to additional organizations. Annie Goodwin, commissioner of the Montana Division of Banking and Financial Institutions, is just one board member who is helping to spread the word.
"It's been a privilege to be a member of the Montana Financial Education Coalition," she says. "I've met with the Montana Bankers Association, the Montana Independent Bankers Association and the Montana Credit Union Network at their summer conventions and spoken of the valuable membership and the work of the coalition. Financial education is paramount in protecting Montanans. We need to continue to educate borrowers and give them the tools to make wise financial decisions."
As of October, 2004