Increasing our Impact: Examining Financial Education Efforts through a Diversity Lens Makes a Difference

Jun 12, 2014 4:55 PM ET

PwC CR Blog

By Shannon Schuyler, PwC US Principal and Corporate Responsibility Leader

Innovation is the watchword in business.  In a recent survey by PwC, business leaders said that growth depends on being ready to rethink everything from products and services to business and operating models.  This holds true for corporate responsibility (CR) as well.  A company fully committed to making a real difference through CR needs to invest time and resources to frequently reassess the progress and success of its programs.  As with any business initiative, this effort is important not only during a downturn, but also when things are going well.

Like our businesses, our communities face challenges from the “megatrends” that are rapidly transforming our world. Massive demographic shifts, including accelerating urbanization, pressure from aging populations on social programs and jobs, and the talent gap make new thinking about CR more important than ever.  Brainstorming and continuous evolution are essential to the fresh, energized and relevant CR initiatives that communities need in today’s dynamic environment.

Viewing CR efforts through the lens of diversity, including socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious, and gender differences, is key to effective CR.  At a recent CR conference, representatives from under-served minority and immigrant groups stated the two most important CR activities a business can champion are community reinvestment and supporting the development of minority civic leaders and community organizers. By committing to responsible practices that combine social impact and community involvement with a diverse range of people, businesses can invest their time, talent and resources in sustainable change with measurable, durable results.

As we approach the two-year mark for Earn Your Future—PwC’s five-year commitment to invest $160 million to improve our youth’s financial capability—we are asking the hard questions integral to increasing our impact.  Examining our efforts to date through the diversity lens, we aim to focus more heavily on reaching young people in under-served communities.  The breadth of Earn Your Future is unquestioned: the program has already reached more than one million students and more than 20,000 educators.  We are proud of how many lives we’ve touched, but the program’s size also brings an increased responsibility to identify the most effective ways to improve financial capability.

American youth sorely need financial education.  In 2012, Americans hit $1 trillion in outstanding debt, a fourfold increase since 2003, while only 20% of teachers feel competent to teach personal finance topics in the classroom.  But the needs in under-served communities are particularly acute.  A recent National Financial Capability Study found that individuals with household incomes below $25,000 per year and those without post-secondary schooling—two segments in which African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented—showed lower levels of financial capability.  We estimate that 75% of the students we aim to reach will be minority youth or in high-poverty communities.  It is essential that these communities succeed.  As the last financial crisis demonstrated, the cost of not understanding how a mortgage works or the difference between credit and debit is extremely high.  Financial capability is not only a path to individual prosperity, but also a systemic imperative for a healthy economy.

Businesses have very few of the answers when it comes to education, but we do have important strengths, including resources, networks and subject-matter proficiency.  We are eager to understand what is working, what is faltering and what we are simply missing from our business vantage point.  We celebrated National Financial Capability Month by hosting a conversation with leaders from community and minority-focused organizations and government.  Our goal was to listen and learn from their experience to more efficiently target our efforts toward the neediest areas.

Several important insights emerged from the discussion that will help us shape our CR and diversity initiatives going forward.  Participants emphasized the importance of beginning to talk about careers, education and financial capability at a young age and continuing that conversation at home, in school, at work and eventually with the next generation.  Another key theme was the effectiveness of tailoring lessons in leadership and financial education to specific communities.  By refining these teachings and conveying them through a trusted source, we can increase individuals’ comfort level with the subject matter, allowing them to better integrate it into their daily lives.

One of the most enriching things about CR efforts is their capacity to yield new and rewarding growth opportunities.  I think this is because CR constantly evolves as it draws on the cultures of both the corporate sponsor and the communities the company aims to help.  Many of the best CR programs do not follow a typical blueprint; rather we create the blueprint as we go, remaining nimble and willing to take advantage of new avenues.

It’s never been more clear; by leveraging the cultural intelligence of other organizations, a diverse talent pool, and a willingness to innovate; our CR programs can have a far greater impact.