Video: Realizing our opportunity: WoodGreen’s future in financial empowerment


Stephen Vanderherberg: Good morning, everybody. First wanted to thank FCAC and BEAR for having this symposium. It's been great to be here. I think what's most exciting, working in the area of financial empowerment and coming to a conference like this, is that –that you're joined by friends and colleagues who are very passionate about the financial wellbeing of individuals. And I don't know if it's an experience for you when you go to a dinner party and you start getting really passionate about – about financial wellbeing and your work, and people give you that blank stare and start to walk away. I think it's exciting, and this work really does create a lot of passion because the work we do really does matter as part of it.

And so before I jump into our work and how we apply research to our financial empowerment practice, just wanted to share a little bit about WoodGreen and maybe some reflections I had from yesterday. So WoodGreen, we're a United Way anchor agency. We combine significant scale and a proven track record, entrepreneurial mindset. We're continually seeking and developing innovative solutions to critical social needs.

We're founded in 1937, so we've been around for a long time. And through that time, we've grown to be one of the largest social service agencies in Toronto. We're now serving 37,000 individuals. We have 750 staff, a thousand volunteers. And through these services, we really help people with a long and extensive list of kind of services. And so we help people find safe and affordable housing, help seniors live independently, internationally trained professionals enter the job market, parents access child care, children and youth accessing after-school programs, newcomers settle into life in Canada, homelessness and marginalized people get off the street, youth find meaningful employment and training, and providing a wide range of mental health supports.

So our financial empowerment program lives within that context of an organization, quite a big and extensive service portfolio. Within that, I'm sort of housed within a new team called the Building Opportunities Team. I'm joined by my colleague, Marquita Evans, here. And we're really taking a fresh approach, trying to leverage our strong record – track record as a systems connector. So what we're doing is integrating a number of our core services, including our tax clinics and employment supports, youth programs and language training, newcomer welcome supports, and financial counselling. Because we believe we can significantly improve the experiences that people have and deliver better results and impact. Offering more choice and flexibility to clients – you know, maybe I'll get into that in a bit of my reflections from yesterday – we're able to really create those pathways or opportunities for people to go from income stability into sort of the next steps that they're trying to move forward with.

So some reflections from yesterday. And I think what was really kind of inspiring and affirming for me was some of the discussions on scarcity, and – and I think some of the potential opportunity that – that we have together. So over the past seven years, scaling our financial empowerment work, I was introduced to some work by ideas42. They're a non-profit firm using behavioural insights to address sort of complex social problems. They've come out with a white paper called Poverty Interrupted, which focused on promising behavioural insights approaches to chronic scarcity. Their advice was simple, memorable, and has – has stuck with me for, you know, the last three or four years since it has come out.

So they advise three things. Cut the costs. So remove barriers for low-income people, bundle services together, make it simple for them to understand. And so both the mental costs of absorbing what – what that service is as well as just the tangible costs of getting there, how then you can actually – how costly it is to be poor sometimes. Create slack. And so if we're talking about bandwidth, I think it's important that we look at time just as much as money as part of something that we need to create slack for. So opportunities for us to create more timely services or things that value the time of clients – not just value our own efficiencies in house but how efficient we're actually making it for clients to access our services. And being generous with people. I don't know how often being gracious with participants or being able to say it's OK that you're late, we're going to make this work, or these things go a long way in terms of creating slack or the perceived received perception of – of slack. And it's to reframe and empower. And so this is often one that I focus on most, is just making sure that we create an environment in which people can feel supported and work against sort of the toxic environment which poverty can be.

OK, let me just jump in and, you know, reflections and introductions take half your presentation, so let me be quick. So financial empowerment, what do we mean by it? There's a lot on this slide here. Really, just quickly, we deliver income tax clinics. We're one of the largest income tax clinic providers in the city of Toronto. Financial counselling to individuals, so that's one-on-one financial counselling to help people work through both debt, budgeting, money management plans, but often it's a focus on solving the problems that they have, and an extensive sort of portfolio of financial literacy, often with partners like the Toronto Public Library and others in which help expand our reach.

Our approach is really to low-income individuals, families with barriers. We simply just help them address financial barriers, increase their financial skills and capacity. We do this by being client-centric, going from problems that they have, and working to build goals with them. And I think we had talked a lot about yesterday people with goal mindsets and being able to work from there to move forward.

Our outcomes have been great, and over the past seven years or so we've had 33 percent growth. So we started from 500 people in our tax clinics, now to – I mean, we're going to approach 9000 over this bit. And we do that through the use of volunteers. We have about 200-plus volunteers involved in our program. But how we've developed over time was really keeping clients at the centre of our work. And co-design as a methodology has been really important to us to really – so how do we do this, how does it make sense. But that and strategic partners, and I'll sort of talk to some of the partners that we've been working with. And we hope to grow to 15,000 clients per year by 2021, and, I think, realize the potential opportunity we have based on, you know, as we talked yesterday, all the issues that are there that we really can and should fill the void.

Won't spend too much time on this as it's familiar to most, but the challenges that our clients face with financial security and financial wellbeing, there's a – there's a wide range of complexity around personal situations that make it very difficult for people. And I often just take a pause here and say that when I talk to clients and I hear the situations that they're in, I try to reflect on how could I – I even do better in that situation. The ease of access issues on top of that make it quite difficult for people. And then, you know, if we're talking about bandwidth and the ability to then absorb the information is then understanding what to do next, or the financial literacy and tools that they have to really move forward. One thing that I'd emphasize is always the need for affirming, positive social interactions that help them feel like they can make the next step.

OK, so we – since our strategy is really to expand the reach of our services – high-quality, integrated services – we've really looked to bring in sort of different ways of applying research so that we could expand our reach. So here's three sort of short examples that I'll – I'd like to highlight. So we have a technology feasibility study that we're actually releasing in two days from now we're quite excited about. The study itself is – or the objective of the study – was to look at ways that we could provide financial services to people who are mobile, isolated, or otherwise facing barriers, using remote technologies and coordinated service approaches to improve accessibility, efficiencies, and ultimately client impact. Although we'll be sharing more about this on Thursday – and actually, if you are interested in the events, there is a few more slots that people can register in, and so you could actually just find it on our Twitter handle at if you would like to attend this event. And actually, Jane'll be joining us on the panel to discuss this.

Some of the key reflections – sorry I can't go into in full detail here – is that – well, maybe I'll just leave you with this. These clients are very interested in using technology to access services, and there are viable options that would really improve access and improve the way that we work with people. When we went into it, we didn't know that, or didn't know that fully as part of it, but in the exploration of this work we really were able to pinpoint exact kind of I would say pain points, for a lack of a better word, that both service – was feasible for service providers, made sense from both a technology and a resource perspective, but really spoke to the impact that people were trying to – trying to have in terms of being able to both move forward around their financial lives and access key aspects and supports that they – they needed.

So the Canada Learning Bond Letter Trial – and I'm sort of running out of time, so I'm going to have to be quick here. This was a very interesting letter trial that we had last year. We partnered actually with ESDC Innovation Lab, the BIU from Ontario, the Treasury Board Secretariat, and actually our partners at BEAR. We sampled three letters in which we distributed over 26,000 letters to eligible parents for the Canada Learning Bond across 14 forward-serving areas. Our intent around this was that in the city of Toronto there's about 120,000 kids that are eligible for the Canada Learning Bond that have not accessed the Canada Learning Bond. And for those who are not familiar, it's up to $2000 of education monies in an RESP. And so for us, we said, well, here's an opportunity, and how can we partner with researchers to really improve the uptake and improve people coming out to our events.

And so we sent out all these letters. We had 18 events that were happening. We said OK, lots of people will come in. This – you know, we're excited about this. What ended up happening – and it's – I don't know if you can see on the screen there, it's a beautiful-looking letter. And this one is I think particularly around sort of aspirational nudge to get people to say OK, what do we – they want their children to be and – and really sort of salient messaging here around how it might be important to them.

What ended up happening after the letter got mailed was that we got – we sort of had these streams of calls saying that you're involved in a scam, that the letter looks too good, and I don't think – and so what ended up happening is that we had more people attend our events with letters from the control around the basic, bland government letter than we had people showing up with any of the sort of different colourful letters that we had sent out. Really discouraging for us as part of putting a lot of effort and time into it, but a distinct learning. And I think this is what research is about, is that we do have to learn from our practice and say OK, how will people receive this. And of course there's probably many learnings that come out of it. It's interesting from our government partners. Basically, they said our brand is bland. (Laughter).

The last one I'd like to highlight – and again, this is just very distinct to being a service provider and how do we apply research here. We have a distinct operational challenge of high no-show rates. So people book an appointment and they don't show up for their appointment. And so we had reached out to partners to say OK, what – what are some viable options for us to move forward with. We were put in touch with the CRA's Accelerated Businesses Solutions Lab, who then highlighted to us some research trials that happened out the States around the – their volunteer income tax program.

And one of their – one of their trials was around sending text prompts, text reminders essentially, in a series of reminders to help people show up, or people who had now shown up in the past show up then for their tax appointment. We were just talking to them last week, so this is the Common Cents Lab has been working with the VITA program in the States. And they said it was upwards of 15 percent people showing up more than the control in terms of not showing up.

And so, like any good sort of research, to integrate the research into WoodGreen, we went through sort of a test phase this past summer, which went well, and the partnership was actually – we were able to really distinguish on who and what roles and really refine how that works within the tax operations for us to then go into phase two in March and April, which is the high tax season, and really look at do texts make a difference in our no-show rate. And if they do, in an operation of 9000 tax returns, 15 percent does make a huge difference for us.

There's more that we're trying to do to expand our reach, but I thought I'd just leave it at that. And I just wanted to thank you. (Applause).

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