Before Rochelle Runge joined Northern Credit Union ($282.7M, Watertown, NY) in 2018, she worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension running a program focused on providing financial education to New Yorkers. In her work marketing the program to area credit unions, Runge connected with the North Country cooperative.
The Mad City Money program had been funded through various federal and state grants, managed by Cornell who partnered with Northern Credit Union to organize and administer the reality fair-style financial education curriculum to area students. That was, until Northern decided to fully fund the program and hire Runge to manage the Cornell partnership and the credit union’s marketing team.
“Northern is not focused on selling widgets,” says Runge, now Northern’s marketing supervisor. “We are focused on helping people lead better financial lives. Offering education is one part of that.”
Northern is one of several financial service providers in the North Country. To stand out and make an impact, the credit union goes beyond simple monetary donations and focuses instead on investing time and resources in events and causes, from winter carnivals and veterans’ organizations to financial wellness efforts that include Mad City Money and Banzai.
In this Q&A, Runge and Meaghan Strader, Northern’s marketing professional, discuss the need for financial education in the communities the credit union serves, its two major efforts to meet this need, and the best practices the credit union has learned along the way.
What is the need for financial education within Northern’s communities and among its members?
Rochelle Runge: Home economics is just not being taught in schools. Sure, students used to learn cooking and other basic skills, but they also learned the basics of balancing a checkbook and creating a budget. With increased budget cuts in schools, those areas aren’t being served as well.
What is Mad City Money, and how does it work?
RR: It’s a hands-on budgeting simulation. We go to schools, set up tables, and give kids a persona. Are they married? Do they have children? What is their income? We then give them budgeting tips and they walk around the room to purchase wants and needs that we have laid out on the tables.
We leave what they can and can’t purchase vague because it’s experiential learning. It’s a safe place to make a mistake. From your own life experience, sometimes you learn more from making a mistake than from someone telling you how to do it. We see kids who have that lightbulb moment, who realize the reason they don’t have money left over for food is because they spent $800 per month on a car.
What does it require to set up one of these events?
RR: Cornell funds cover part of the administrative costs, though Northern provides branded folders and pretend debit cards that we distribute to the students. Cornell finds the schools, trains the teachers, and sends a program educator day of to run the simulation at the school.
Northern runs the financial institution booth at the event, so we recruit internally for employees who would like to work it; we prefer those from a relationship center in the same area as the school or who have ties to the school whether an alumni or parent of a current student. We’ve had employees run other booths in a pinch if we don’t have teachers or other community volunteers. Depending on the size of the school, it can take anywhere from 12 to 25 people to run an event.
Meaghan Strader: Last year, we made certificates for the students who participated. If they brought those to one of our relationship centers and opened an account, we deposited $25 into it. If they already had an account, we still gave them $25.
What age groups do you target?
RR: The curriculum is written for seventh to 12th graders. However, we find that 8th to 10th grade is really the sweet spot because they’re eager to learn and they have the right attitude. This age group is not always forthcoming in a group discussion setting, but we use a conversational approach to uncover what they learned and what they think about all of it.
What are your goals with this program?
MS: There’s no clear ROI as you may have for another campaign. For us, the ROI is building brand awareness and providing education, not in how many accounts we’ve opened. That will come later. Plus, we’ve focused on getting into more schools in 2020. We’ve got 10 sessions already scheduled.
RR: The year is still early, and we try not to say no to any school. Usually, schools like to schedule in advance, which often means the last few months before the school year ends or the first few months of the new calendar year. We’ve had more than 2,700 kids go through the program since its inception, and we’re on track this year for more than 500 which will be our best year yet.
What else does Northern do from a financial education standpoint?
MS: We’ve partnered with Banzai since 2011, which essentially allows us to offer its financial literacy solutions and curriculum to schools to help fill the education gap. Because of our sponsorship, we can offer the materials for free to the schools.
In addition to the curriculum, teachers can either schedule a trip to the credit union or have someone from Northern come in and give an Adulting 101 presentation to the students. I’ve trained nearly half of our employees to give the presentation, which will help us get into more schools and educate more students.
What does the curriculum include?
MS: It’s a combination of question and answer and scenarios. There are three different levels each geared toward different groups: Junior, which is for third grade through sixth, includes basic concepts. Then there is Teen and Teen-Plus. Teen covers credit building loan debt, credit card debt, accrual of interest and Teen-Plus goes into more depth on budgeting. The older you are, the more relevant budgeting becomes.
We go through these concepts in the Adulting 101 presentation, as well. But we also talk about the difference between credit unions and banks and try to make the spending and savings goals more real and relevant.
RR: And, we tailor the presentation to the audience. A high schooler might have a real job whereas a seventh grader cares more about saving money for a video game.
Do you offer Adulting 101 to those older than 18?
MS: We have created financial education targeted for adults in the past, similar presentations that are branded differently and separated by topic. Recently, Banzai has expanded its offering to include more adult curriculum, which we believe offers us an opportunity to partner with community organizations.
How many students completed the program in the last full school year?
MS: In the 2018-2019 school year, we had 52 teachers use the program and approximately 2,000 students. In the 2019-2020 year, we’ve already helped 2,200 students. And, as with Mad City Money, our goal is not to open accounts. But when one is opened, the student gets $25 from us as a first deposit, and we also give $50 to each teacher. Of that total, teachers receive a $25 gift card to Staples for school supplies and the school receives a $25 check designated to a program or club the teacher chooses.
Cornell and Banzai do the marketing for you. How do you take that introduction and build upon the relationship?
RR: Having our partners make the introduction validates our work. Even though our reasons for offering financial education are altruistic, there could be the perception that we’re coming in to sell to students. We start from a place of trust and respect instead. That makes it easy to get into schools.
After that, it’s all word-of-mouth. We’re not in a large community, so when people talk, others hear. Teachers are always looking for resources for their students, and they recognize their deficit areas. They know where they do and don’t have backing from their school and are open to the idea of good actors in the community coming in to fill that gap.
Coming at it from a place of good faith is key?
RR: It’s about recognizing how important financial education is for students as they navigate through life. If you have your finances in order, the rest of your life is easier. By introducing education across thousands of students per year, we hope to make that happen.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
This is part of the “Anatomy Of A Credit Union” series, presented every quarter by Callahan & Associates. Read more about Northern or dive into a decade of archives. Contact Callahan to learn about gaining access today.