A SMART Way to Make a Difference

United Way’s innovative new volunteer coaching program builds wherewithal using accountability and trust.

What’s an effective way to empower someone to build financial capability and lift themselves out of poverty? As it turns out, it may not be rocket science; it just might be a person to talk to, learn from and trust.

That is the thrust of United Way’s newest financial stability initiative, SMART Coaching. This six-month program pairs individuals looking for support in improving their financial situations with volunteers from the community.

Coaches and partners have monthly meetings at Families First in Portsmouth, where they attend financial education workshops with fellow participants, then check in with each other to set goals and track progress. The key to success is to foster a trusting relationship, where accountability is king.

“The one-on-one partnership is the most important part of the program,” said United Way’s Meghan Farrell, coordinator of the project (pictured). “We are creating trust to achieve the ideal of financial coaching, which is to encourage financial behavior change for partners in the program.”

The genesis of SMART Coaching can be traced in part to a year-long research project by Lou Stamas, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer working for United Way of the Greater Seacoast in 2013. His findings led him to the conclusion that some of the most successful financial capability programs were coaching-oriented. In fact, United Way’s current SMART Coaching initiative is based on a similar model used in Rochester, N.Y.

“Financial coaching programs in general have been bubbling up with more frequency,” Farrell said. “We’re seeing them used in other United Ways and community coalitions.”

“As a locally owned bank, we have a commitment to making an investment in the community and the people who live and work here,” said Dan Morrison, president and chief executive officer of Optima Bank & Trust, who is sponsoring the pilot program. “From our perspective within the banking industry, we see the value in that one-on-one experience. It’s those types of relationships that embody trust, encouragement and accountability, and we see it every day in action.”

Today, SMART Coaching is a pilot program, with seven coaches trained and six partnerships formed. As coaches serve primarily as peers and accountability partners, coach training focused on relationship-building and cultural sensitivity toward people struggling with financial issues. Participants are referred from United Way partner agencies.

“Over the years, I have recognized that the culture of poverty is often multi-generational and supports need to be respectful and long-term,” said Georgie Clark, family services director for Families First. “I believe that SMART Coaching will help our families understand the value of financial planning, prioritizing and delayed gratification through education, coaching and peer support.”

For information on the SMART Coaching program, visit www.uwgs.org/smartcoaching.

(This story first appeared on Seacoast Online.)

Learn more about United Way’s approach to financial stability: Lynn Family Success Center Officially Opens Its Doors and No (Tax) Credit Left Behind.