I couple of months ago I heard about a volunteer opportunity in my community involving personal finance. I stopped by the offices to get a feel for things before Christmas, and I’ve been volunteering a couple days a week since the beginning of January.
Here’s how it works:
Twice a month, the organization gives out $800 worth of financial assistance. We can grant assistance with rent and utilities. Clients call in and participate in phone applications, where the interviewer gets a feel for their situation, including what kind of income they have, their monthly bills, and special circumstances that are currently affecting them. I review all of these applications and determine how to divide up the money we can give out. No application can receive more than $200. Later that week, the applicants that have been approved are asked to come in for interviews. At this point they have already been approved – if someone comes in, they will receive the money we have allotted for them. However, it gives us a chance to personally connect with them, learn more about their situation, and hopefully learn a little about their attitudes. I generally do 2 to 3 of the interviews.
Recipients are expected to “give back” in the form of volunteer hours, at a rate of one hour per $10 of assistance received. No one checks up on them or harasses them about making up their hours. However, this organization LOVES paperwork. When someone applies for assistance, the first thing they do is pull the applicant’s file (if they have one) and see if they made up hours in the past. If an applicant owes hours, they are not eligible to re-apply for assistance. This place has been around for about 25 years, and it literally isn’t uncommon for someone to call for assistance when the records show they still owe hours from 10+ years ago.
Clients can give back by volunteering at any of about a dozen agencies around town. They can attend Life & Bible classes run by the organization. In certain circumstances, they can set up individual or small group classes with me, to learn about budgeting or other aspects of personal finance. So far I haven’t had a chance to lead any of these classes, but they will likely start soon.
Right now, the organization is undergoing a massive update – getting wireless internet and new computers, beginning the process of moving all of their paper records to the computer, and organizing other similar projects. They hope to have one or two computers that clients can use when needed for job searching or budgeting.
This week I created an Excel budget spreadsheet that lists Income and Expenses based on our clients’ lifestyles. I determined that creating one myself would be easier than finding one online, since most pre-made sheets include assets like stock and 401(k), and liabilities like mortgages payments. Our clients’ expenses tend to include things like lot rent and rental center payments (for furniture), and income frequently comes from Social Security Disability, Food Stamps, and WIC. It’s a very different world than that of most of us in the personal finance blogosphere! Not to say that our clients don’t work – many, if not most, of them do. But the economic downturn has definitely taken a toll on many of them. Various clients of ours have either been temporarily laid off or had their hours cut from full time to anywhere from 15 to 30 hours per week, depending on what their employers can afford that month. Also, most of our clients don’t have health insurance, so medical problems wreck financial havoc.
I’m also getting ready to start working on a database to house information about our clients, board members, volunteers, and those who have donated in the past. Right now everything is highly organized, but in a very inefficient way (with virtually nothing on computers). For example, volunteers have a sign-in sheet. Each volunteer also has a card, but they don’t touch the cards. Someone totals up each volunteer’s hours at the end of the month and records it in the appropriate places on their card. At the end of the year, all cards from that year are moved to a separate file for storage. Volunteers get a new card each year they volunteer, and those cards are stored in the appropriate year’s box. If I want to know when someone last volunteered, I would have to start with the 2009 box and work my way backwards, looking for their card in each box. I find this system absolutely ridiculous, but many of the volunteers have been there for 10+ years – since before computers became an integral part of nonprofits, and long enough to be set in their ways. Needless to say, I am quite interested in working with the new director to update this system! I have a feeling this is going to result in me spending many more hours than I care to think about designing databases and keying information into the computer – and then teaching other volunteers how to use the databases.
There are some other projects in the works currently also – the next few months should be pretty exciting. If I’m in town this summer, I’ll probably work on a few bigger projects of my own – most of them involving analyzing the large amounts of data collected by the organization.
If anyone has any suggestions about the program or topics for the small group classes, please leave a comment! If you’d like more information or details about the organization, please email me at girlnextdoorfinance @ gmail . com.