Lessons Learned from Personal Economics Program Pilot


For the last eight years, the Financial Health Institute has been teaching courses at nonprofits across the country. From this experience, our faculty noticed a recurring trend in the sector—massive staff turnover. We understand that personnel change and movement occurs in all sectors, however, there are additional consequences and effects this may have in a field that is largely dependent on interpersonal rapport and trust. People who are trying to recover from issues like substance abuse, plus gain and maintain housing and employment, among a litany of other challenges, may depend on the relationship they have built with their patient, experienced and knowledgeable human services staff to guide them through their recovery process. This is not to say that we expect or desire all things within organizations to remain static. We accept and understand that this is the “nature of the beast,” we just think we might have a partial solution.

We created the Personal Economics Program (PEP) to ensure that the customers of nonprofit agencies were provided consistent and in-depth education in the areas of Financial Health, Employment Sustainability, Benefits, Housing Exploration, and Health Literacy. Each course is 12 – 24 hours of content and 6-12 hours of directed assignments, so participants can practice what they have learned. This 12-week comprehensive program was piloted in November 2015 and has been even more successful than we could have imagined. As a result of the program’s success, we have been asked to continue to provide the course at the original pilot location and at two more organizations. We truly believe that the curricula taught in this program enable customers to gain essential knowledge that will allow them to successfully navigate their lives and begin to make essential behavioral changes.

In light of the completion of the pilot PEP, I recently interviewed Joanne McLain, PhD, one of the instructors of the program and co-creator of the curricula.

  1. What do you think are the most valuable lessons that participants learn from PEP?

“I think the most valuable lesson that participants gain from PEP is a sense that they can do things to make a real difference in their own lives. They also develop valuable skills that will transfer to other areas in their lives, like improved attention, critical thinking, goal-planning and a future focus.”

  1. What gap do you think PEP fills in the human services system?

“It can be hard for human/social service programs to sustain education over an extended time like this. Instead of one or two sessions, PEP participants attend classes four times per week for three months. This allows us to dive more deeply into complex and difficult topics and take longer to discuss important issues. It also helps in the development of skills for discourse and critical thinking. In my experience, our focus on the combination of financial health, employment sustainability, health literacy and benefits exploration is unique in the field. Participants have expressed sincere appreciation for the knowledge they are gaining.”

  1. In your experience, what is the largest educational need of the participants in the classroom?

“The ability to sustain focus over time and to mentally grapple with complex concepts are skills that can be difficult to develop when you are living within the reality of poverty and substance abuse. As a result, all other knowledge and information becomes hard to process.”

  1. What has been the largest lesson you have learned as a PEP instructor?

“How incredibly varied the participants’ lives and perspectives are and how gracious most of them are, despite the difficulties that come with running a pilot program.”