Written By: Dorothy Nuckols, MPH, AFC®, Isha Chawla, PhD Candidate, and Kate Mielitz, PhD, AFC®
Shutdowns brought by the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pivot to a virtual training format, yet also the opportunity to compare virtual with in-person education outcomes. We were specifically interested in learning outcomes for a new volunteer financial mentor training program. In a virtual setting, where visual, physical, and even verbal communication is less natural, interpersonal interactions are more challenging. Would on-line participants feel as confident discussing financial topics with mentees, and with helping them manage challenges, as those who received in-person training?
The Value of Research
Ideally within the AFC® community, research informs the work of practitioners. Research in our field is important so AFCs® and other personal finance professionals can know that the work they are doing is, indeed, helping their constituents. The evaluation of that work then informs the basis for further research, so we continue to build and learn. Research is similar to embarking on a journey. We often use theory to guide the research journey to map out what we want to look for or what we may see along the way. Careful planning, ample preparation, sufficient resources and adherence to directions should get us to our destination. The experience might be as anticipated, perhaps better, or perhaps fall short of expectations. Occasionally, we encounter unexpected detours along the way. One such research detour occurred while pilot testing the aforementioned financial mentor training program.
Financial mentoring is, in many respects, similar to financial counseling. The objective of volunteer financial mentorship is for low to moderate income individuals to improve or develop positive financial behaviors. Volunteer financial mentors fill a much-needed gap in service for vulnerable individuals during challenging financial times.
Three characteristics of this specific mentor program combine to facilitate positive, research supported, financial outcomes. First, the relationship is initiated when mentee realizes a need, and a mentor is willing to address that need in a unique and individualized way (Collins & O’Rourke, 2010) Second, the relationship extends over a duration time, yielding incremental behavior change (Collins, 2007). Third, the program uses a social ecological framework (this is the theory part that helps the researchers evaluate the program). Volunteers are mentor peers within their own organization, therefore sharing common interpersonal connections and values (Hermstad et al., 2018)
Researchers have studied the topic of mentorship, and to a lesser extent, financial practice, but have done very little on financial mentoring. Two articles, one on mentoring, one on financial education, are below. Both provide an array of information, but we have summarized the points most relevant to mentor training.
Peters, N., Rijk, K., Soetens, B., Storms, B., & Hermans, K. (2018). A systematic literature review to identify successful elements for financial education and counseling in groups. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 52(2), 415-440. https://doi.org/10.1111/joca.12180.
Financial education and counseling must impart both knowledge and skills. Group financial education programs facilitate experiential and social-emotional learning, and provide a forum for participants to share advice.
Behar-Horenstein, L., & Zhang, H. (2018). From Contemplation to Action: Mechanisms of Change in the Mentoring Academy. The Qualitative Report, 23(8), 1876-1888.
Mentoring is a relationship in which a knowledgeable and experienced individual cultivates the development of another. Trust and time are important elements of the relationship. A mentor must understand a mentee’s readiness for change, and be able to communicate in such a way that the mentee becomes able to adapt positive financial behavior changes.
Synthesizing the insights:
To be a successful mentor, it is necessary to have skills and knowledge relevant to the mentee (Beutel & Spooner-Lane, 2009). However, mentors also need to know researched, theory-based, behavior-focused communication strategies because effective communication is necessary for learning and promoting behavior change (Collins & O’Rourke, 2012). Experiential exercises, case studies, and role-playing are all part of the volunteer mentor training program, specifically because they have been identified as important components of learning (Wesley et al., 2017). For this project, researchers administered a post program exam to test knowledge of personal finance and communication strategies. Additionally, used program evaluation to measure change in mentor self-efficacy. The goal of the program was to help program participants sufficiently develop their proficiency in mentor communication skills over a synchronous virtual platform.
Research to Practice:
Programs such as this are on the face, valid. They appear to do what they are supposed to do. Research helps to confirm validity of the program; confirm that it is doing what it sets out to do and furthermore can help with replicating the program to provide reliability. Reliability is important because it suggests that if the same program is implemented elsewhere under similar circumstances that the results will hold true.
Can both in-person and virtual settings provide adequate training in mentor communication skills? Nineteen individuals completed 20 hours of in-person financial mentor training in 2019, and twenty completed the program via Zoom in 2020. The training consisted of core financial management topics such as budgeting, saving, and setting financial goals, as well as client centered communication and behavior change theory. Sessions included practice activities, discussion, and role-playing.
What I learned:
Pre and post program results indicated that both in-person and virtual programs were effective for training volunteers in mentoring communication. Specifically, measures of confidence in discussing financial management topics and in helping clients manage financial challenges increased significantly. Volunteers need to feel confident in their own knowledge of financial skills and in their ability to use client-centered, change-evoking communication to mentor others. It appears that this program provides this necessary training even when conducted over a virtual platform.
My Ah-ha moment:
Mentor training in a virtual environment can work! It is important to note that the sample sizes tested were small, and the protocol changed too rapidly for rigorous data analysis or generalized conclusions. However, this pandemic-necessitated research detour yielded an affirmation of training methods.
Beutel, D., & Spooner-Lane, R. (2009). Building mentoring capacities in experienced teachers. International Journal of Learning, 16(1), 1-10.
Collins, J. M. (2007). Exploring the design of financial counseling for mortgage borrowers in default. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 28, 207– 225. https://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1007/s10834-007-9061-z
Collins, J.M. and O’Rourke, C.M. (2010). Financial education and counseling-still holding promise. The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 44(3), 483-498. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6606.2010.01179.x
Collins, J. M., & O’Rourke, C. M. (2012). The Application of Coaching Tech-niques to Financial Issues. Journal of Financial Therapy, 3(2).
Hermstad, A., Honeycutt, S., Flemming, S. S., Carvalho, M. L., Hodge, T., Escoffery, C., Kegler, M. C., & Arriola, K. R. J. (2018). Social environmental correlates of health behaviors in a faith-based policy and environmental change intervention. Health Education and Behavior, 45(5). 1-10. DOI:10.1177/1090198118757826.
Wesley, S. C., Jackson, V. P., & Lee, M. (2017). The perceived importance of core soft skills between retailing and tourism management students, faculty and businesses. Employee Relations, 39(1), 79-99. https://doi.org/10.1108/ER-03-2016-0051