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Measuring dollars and change

Comprehensive community development is a diverse field, with a wide range of communities, programs and people who are leading the way. In this, Loreal Mallett spoke with practitioners from around the country to hear about their work and how they approach the job of working with comprehensive community initiatives.

Jennifer McClain is a senior program officer at LISC, working with the National Family Income and Wealth Building Team. Based in the LISC Chicago office, Jennifer is responsible for the ongoing management and training for the client tracking system used by the different Financial Opportunity Center sites across the country. The FOCs provide families with integrated services in employment placement and career improvement, financial education and coaching, and accessing public benefits.

Jennifer McClain

Gordon Walek

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us! Start by giving us your role in your current position. 

I work with our Financial Opportunity Centers across the country. I manage the database called Efforts to Outcomes that all of our centers use to document their work. We help with developing the program, managing the program and using the [Efforts to Outcomes] tracking system. That allows us to aggregate the data.

How many sites do you work with?

We have more than 60 centers across the country in 25 cities.

Talk a little bit more about the database that you use.

Efforts to Outcome is an online database system that was created for social service agencies to be able to track the work that they do. We have taken it and built a template, the family financial tracking template, for people that are doing financial stability work to be able to document that work, as well as show progress over time.

We know that LISC has adopted the model of comprehensive community development and that’s the focus of the Institute as well. Tell me why you think it’s important to take a holistic approach to people’s employment and financial needs.

You know, it’s important because one without the other is not helpful. For an example, in the workforce world, it’s always been about let’s get the client a job.

But we found that jobs are not enough. Even if you get the client a job, we’re still finding that they have negative net income. So that additional piece of having access to a financial coach to help is important.

FOC success includes access to to a financial coach for clients.

Has it made a difference putting those two pieces together and working on them?

Yes, it definitely has. We’re servicing 20,000 people and we’re seeing net income increases for those individuals who stick with the program of about 50 percent to 60 percent. So I would say it’s working. 

We just went to The Corporation for Enterprise Development’s (CFED) Assets Learning Conference in Washington, D.C. last week and they were all about integration of services.

Our first center in Chicago was in 2005. So we’ve been doing this for nearly eight years. And we’ve always been talking about integration and bundling of services. We were involved in three sessions at this conference where we were talking about the work that we do at the centers. People are wanting to hear more about integrated services, and so those were well attended.

That speaks volumes. How did that make you feel being there and seeing the demand for the information?

It’s exciting. Even with the recession and unemployment at such a high rate, it’s exciting to see that we are able to assist people. Even making a difference in one person’s life, I think is worth it.

One of the Financial Opportunity Centers in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood.

Gordon Walek

Absolutely. Coming out of the recession you are able to do this. People are saying there are no jobs, but look at the number of people you’re able to assist.

One of the things I should keep being clear about, of course, is that LISC is not doing the work, so I give all the credit to the sites that we work with across the country. Our Chicago market, Detroit market, Houston, Indianapolis and our San Diego markets, those are our more mature networks that have helped us get to where we are today.

Recently I read that the typical American family lost nearly 40 percent of its wealth in the recession. Beyond unemployment, how has the recession and the foreclosures challenged the work of the FOCs?

I think it kind of changed the demographic of the people that we were serving. In our income supports program we track benefits. And in the very beginning we didn’t have a place to really track helping people get unemployment because [most of] our clients had been unemployed for a while and they knew how to get unemployment. 

But within the last three or four years, people at the centers have been telling us we’re dealing more and more with individuals who have been in the workplace for 20, 30 years and now they’re laid off. Now they have to go back and figure out, okay, how do I do this? 

When you’re dealing with a certain type of client you may follow a certain prescription, a certain way that you’re doing things. But when you start seeing a different type of client, you have to think of creative ways that will assist those clients to attain the goals that they want to attain. 

Clients who stay with the program have seen net income increases of more than 50 percent.

Eric Young Smith

If you had to pick out just one, what would you say has been one of the important results or impacts of the Family Opportunity Centers?

I’m going to go with how we use data to inform the work that we do.

An example is looking at our job placement numbers and then looking at our net income increases number. In one case, we had, say something like 750 job placements, but we only had about 100 net income increases. The assumption we would make is that not all 750 would have an increase, but we would think that a higher percentage of those individuals probably would.

When we looked into it, we were finding that the FOC staff didn’t have a process to get a budget with the client at the start of [that client's] time at the center. So we didn’t have a baseline budget to see if their income went up, so we weren’t able to count those changes.

And so we figured out a way to make sure their budgets happen before people got jobs, so that we can see these huge increases in their income. That lets the data document more of the work that we are doing.

If you had a crystal ball and could see into the future, how do you envision the Financial Opportunity Centers evolving or the next phase for them?

Our big things in the last couple of years has been client increases in net income, net worth and credit score. We really want to help people get from negative net income to positive or at least zero net income and also to help people get at least 650 credit scores.

We’re trying to figure out products and ways that’ll be helpful for individuals to get to those areas. And then also help them building assets when it’s appropriate for the client.

At LISC, we want to be seen as the thought leaders in this integration of services. And building out our work outside of the network of centers that we fund. We also want to be able to provide some kind of assistance to other organizations that want to do this work but who may not even know how to begin.

Posted in Evaluating, Family Income & Assets

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