Beyond the White Paper: How Big Thinking and Bold Ideas Helped One Man on a Journey to Financial Freedom

Innovation isn’t just a non-profit buzzword.

Three dollars a month. For most of us, a negligible amount. What you’d pay for a small cup of iced coffee. Maybe two passes through a toll booth.

For Kisembo Ndahura, however, it means much more—especially when the average living wage from his home country, The Democratic Republic of Congo, is $422. Those three dollars represent a path to something once thought unattainable: financial freedom.

Kisembo, 20, emigrated to the U.S. in August, 2015. He arrived as a refugee, with nothing to his name and zero prior work experience. After accessing the refugee services of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS), a United Way partner, Kisembo was paired with a financial coach. Through this relationship he learned the nuances of saving, spending, debt control and everyday tips and tricks to limit expenses. Like opting out of a paper statement from his bank—and saving three dollars a month.

Harnessing the power of partnership

The financial coaching program is a centerpiece service of the Financial Opportunity Center, a joint venture between JVS and United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley. A core component of United Way’s work in financial opportunity, financial coaching offers a game-changing approach to helping people lift themselves out of poverty. The coach and the client develop a relationship based on trust and accountability, which translates into lasting, sustainable results.

“Financial coaching and capability is being adopted by human services agencies across the country,” says Gail Sokoloff, Senior Director of Community Impact for United Way.

Despite the initial success of the strategy, feedback from the partner agencies indicated an emerging need for professional development for the coaches. Enter the Financial Empowerment Learning Institute (FELI), a United Way-operated training program designed to augment the skills of financial coaches.

Don’t let the wonky name fool you though: these are practical, applicable teachings aimed at better serving real-world clients. FELI serves up eight to ten seminars a year, taking place at United Way’s Boston office and featuring experts who are brought in to deliver trainings on subjects like debt relief, financial planning and credit building. Attendance is free, subsidized by a grant from Citizens Bank.

“We’ve created standards around financial coaching,” says Sokoloff. “We’re recognized as one of the leaders in the country on professional development for coaches.”

The outcomes of FELI were recently recognized by United Way Worldwide as a Center of Excellence, an example for other United Ways to follow.

But that’s the 40,000 foot view. On the ground level, where Kisembo Ndahura is benefiting directly from the expertise of his coaches,  accolades, white papers and nomenclature don’t mean as much as what’s happening in his everyday life: one year after arriving in Boston with nothing, Kisembo is working a full-time job at Whole Foods, pursuing his GED and building a better financial future for himself.

Three dollars at a time.