I can still remember the day when an executive at Mountain America CU approached me about a big idea. He was well aware of the fact eight out 10 people identify money as a significant source of stress in their lives and that regardless of income 70% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. He wanted to do something about it.

Specifically, he wanted to build a culture of financial wellness and member advocacy that could spill over into the larger community. Since he knew I'd done similar work with companies such as eBay, Holiday Inn, 1-800 Contacts, and SAS, he reached out to me. He knew that Mountain America could better advocate for members in a big way.

We got to work on a program that would first get employees passionate about financial wellness and then engage Mountain America's members. The key: start with passion. Prior studies showed about 60% of any given workplace population desperately needs and wants additional financial literacy and help, but nationally only 5 %to 7% actually participate in such programs. I've done research on why that is and have found people generally have three worries: it's going to be boring, it's going to be a sales pitch, or they're embarrassed. So they end up avoiding the program even when they need it.

Mountain America proactively addressed those concerns in kickoff meetings. Employees could see firsthand the program would be highly engaging, that we would not be selling anything, and we would provide a safe environment for all participants. More than 800 of the CU's 1,200 employees voluntarily went through the program. That's a 67% engagement rate, compared to the 5% to 7% national engagement rate.

These employees opted in to regular classes both during work and after work. They were encouraged to bring a guest or significant other. All attendees received a workbook and had access to an online portal that included an assessment and a customized program to help them manage their money.

To measure the results, we administered a test at the beginning and end of the training. We found a number of promising results:

  • 98% had an emergency account, compared to 61% at the beginning
  • 84% knew their net worth, compared to 12% at the beginning
  • 88% lived by a budget, compared to 59% at the beginning
  • 88% knew their credit scores, compared to 59% at the beginning

The response from individual employees was overwhelmingly positive. "This is financial education I've been seeking for 30 years," said MACU's SVP of human resources. "It has changed my life and my outlook on my personal finances."
The next phase consisted of direct offers to members. Because employees had already taken the course, they were able to help members along their journey. This also helped members see Mountain America as a true consumer advocate — an institution that legitimately cared about their wellbeing.

In addition to giving access to the education portal, we offered regional member workshops where anyone could get in-person help with financial questions they had.

Finally, Mountain America launched a contest to see who could pay off debt, increase savings, improve their credit score, and get the most Facebook shares. With a $1,500 prize on the line, plenty of members joined in, and Mountain America got tons of great social media attention.

Taken together, the efforts from Mountain America represent a powerful instance of becoming a true advocate for members. It illustrates that above all it's crucial to first get employees excited about advocacy and then encourage legitimate change in the lives of members. Mountain America showed tremendous leadership by spearheading a project that included both of those concepts. As a result, the CU represents a powerful example of what can happen when an executive team is serious about consumer advocacy.

Brian Nelson Ford is the revivalist of financial wellness at MX, a fintech company that partners with financial institutions to change the way people interact with their money. Brian can be reached via email at brian.ford@mx.com or at 801-368-9511.