Are You Enrolling the Right People in Your Financial Capability Program?

Generally, there are two types of programs that target adults: programs that broadly address personal finance topics to the general public, low-to-moderate income families or other target demographic groups; and programs with a specific focus on a certain personal finance issue, such as homeownership, retirement planning, and credit counseling (Lyons 2006, Martin 2007).

Therefore, it is important to identify the target population for your program, so you can 1) ensure that you are reaching the intended population, one that is likely to experience improved outcomes as a result of your program; and 2) tailor the program to serve them well (e.g., recruiting the right types of volunteers, coordinating with other services as needed, and training program staff to understand client needs).  Regardless of program characteristics, participants are more likely to stay engaged and achieve positive outcomes when their attitudes, skills, needs and expectations are a good fit with the program’s services.

Targeted Recruitment
Important questions to ask are “who needs – and can benefit from – this program” and “who are you trying to reach?”

Your financial capability program will be more effective if you recruit participants that can identify with your program’s curriculum so that they can immediately begin to apply what they learn. Your program objectives can help you determine the appropriate target population. For example, if your program has an objective to help first-time home buyers save money toward their closing costs then you want to target your recruitment specifically toward individuals that will benefit from your program and are in a position to apply what they learn to their current situations. If participants consider your program content to be timely and relevant, they are more likely to remain engaged and complete the training (National Endowment for Financial Capability, 2003).

Once your program decides on the targeted population you should create outreach and marketing materials intended to effectively reach those in need of financial education and assistance in your community. For programs that recruit participants directly, recruitment settings to consider may include community resources such as libraries and job training centers, local faith-based and community organizations, and the local department of social services. For programs that receive referrals from other organizations it is important to make sure that your program’s eligibility criteria and services are well understood and accurately communicated by the organizations referring clients to your program.

Define Eligibility Criteria
The first step to ensuring you reach your target population is to define the criteria you will use to discern whether an individual is likely to take advantage of and benefit substantially from your program’s services.  For instance, provisions for enrollment may include:

    • General program criteria such as meeting low-income guidelines, age requirements, literacy or education levels, or language barriers.
    • Motivation and competence to change financial management behaviors. While these factors can be assessed at intake via interview questions or assessment tools, it is also useful to have a recruitment process where applicants need to return more than once and follow through on specific requests. 
    • Level of financial knowledge or understanding of good financial management practices.  This can be assessed through interview questions about why an applicant is interested in or needs to participate in the program.
    • Availability and willingness to participate in all program activities, this includes having a plan for transportation to the program as needed.

Program applications and intake assessment tools can help to track whether potential clients meet eligibility criteria.  By analyzing historical data, it is possible to understand the primary reasons participants have dropped out of the program in the past and incorporate these factors into the enrollment criteria or intake interview questions.  At any one point in time, however, agreed-upon criteria should be clearly understood by program staff so that your program can better manage recruitment and enroll only those participants who are eligible for services.

Manage Enrollment and Make Improvements as Needed
While it is the responsibility of program staff to enroll participants who meet your established criteria, it is equally important that managers analyze data at the program level and use it to manage performance of the program as a whole. You should create a process that ensures frequent reviews of whether participants meet enrollment criteria. This may be done by regularly reviewing aggregate data points of all enrolled participants, if applicable. For example, if you are running a financial management program for low income clients residing in transitional housing, no participants should be enrolled without meeting this criterion unless there are significant reasons for the exception.

If your program is enrolling a substantial number of participants who do not meet criteria, those participants are less likely to benefit from your services, and aggregate outcomes are likely to be poorer. Investigate the reasons why this is happening. You should ask questions such as, does program staff disagree with the criteria? Is the pool of qualified applicants too small to meet enrollment target numbers? Do marketing, referral and recruitment processes need to be improved?

It is also important to look at enrollment to program-completion ratios, assuming “completion” is defined as having achieved specified meaningful gains in skill level, knowledge or behaviors. If the enrollment to program-completion ratio is high, the enrollment criteria are working well. If the ratio is low, investigate possible reasons and adjust your enrollment criteria and/or recruitment strategies.

Lastly, in order to assess participant characteristics that may not be known at intake, you should collect information by administering a questionnaire at the beginning of the program.  Collecting information on participants prior to or at the start of a program is known as collecting baseline information, which can provide information on whether you are reaching your target population.  If your program is not reaching your target population or the population outlined by the eligibility criteria for your program, it is important to examine reasons why. Depending on the cause of this mismatch, you may need to alter recruitment strategies or assess why the clients you intend to reach are less likely to join the program. You may also wish to re-assess the specific conditions and needs present in your community to identify whether your program is targeting the appropriate population.



Sources Cited

National Endowment for Financial Literacy (2003). Financial Literacy in America: Individual Choices, National Consequences. A white paper report on “ The State of Financial Literacy in America—Evolutions and Revolutions”, Denver, CO, October 9-11, 2002.

United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, A financial education provider survey (2006) and web-based, community toolkit (November 2007) available.