Catholic Charities Sees Success with Save First Financial Program

In 2010, Providence Health asked Catholic Charities to help manage an emergency assistance fund for its employees. Catholic Charities’ employee Molly O’Donnell helped manage the fund, which was allocated to Providence employees when they faced an emergency financial need.

O’Donnell worked with those she calls the “working poor” — people who had jobs but still weren’t able to make ends meet because of budgeting problems or having too low of income to afford housing or get out of debt.

Though the fund helped employees in emergency situations, it was clear to O’Donnell that they needed to fix a deeper problem: employees’ lack of education about how to handle finances.

“It wasn't a long-term solution,” O’Donnell said. “When you look at Catholic Charities mission of solution to poverty, really just a Band-Aid approach was not what was our mission.”

So O’Donnell developed a financial wellness program, in which she and a team taught the basics of saving, budgeting and debt reduction in a class. A year after the program started, she added a coaching element, where participants could work individually with volunteer coaches to help with their financial needs for up to several years.

At the beginning of the program, Catholic Charities had about 500 participants per year.

O’Donnell, who is now the director of Save First, said the program today has grown to serve over 2,000 people per year — spanning employees of participating companies, refugees, and homeless people — with the help of over 80 volunteer financial coaches.

The program has been successful enough that other companies have now partnered with the program, including Burgerville, the Portland Clinic and the Vancouver Clinic. Providence Oregon is now looking to replicate Save First at its locations in seven other states, and Catholic Charities is looking to bring the program to other Catholic Charities locations.

Some participants can qualify for a match savings program, which is a federally, state- and locally funded program where clients can get a match to their own savings to buy a house, pay for college or start a business.

The participating companies, like Burgerville and Providence Portland, also operate an emergency financial assistance fund through the Save First program, which allocates emergency money to employees when they’re in a dire financial situation.

Programs like this are important for companies to adopt, O’Donnell said, because employees with any level of income can run into an unexpected crisis and not enough people have been educated on how to handle their finances.

“It’s accurate to say we’ve seen every level of employee,” O’Donnell said. “If you have a life event and you don’t plan for it, you can end up in emergency need. Most people don’t have a plan because they didn’t get this information when they were at the right age.”

And the program’s operators have seen the program be successful. After tracking Save First participants after graduating from the program, Vanessa Briseno, director of partnership at Catholic Charities, said that around 90 percent of the graduates use a budget and around 60 percent of them paid down debt.

“We know that this service works,” Briseno said. “We know that Molly’s business model is something we need to take to scale, both across Oregon and on a national level with other Catholic Charities agencies.”

O’Donnell hopes to see more companies adopt the program for their employees. She’s open to partnering with any other company who thinks employees might need financial education.

“The idea at Catholic Charities is, the more we can share this the better, because people did not get this information in school,” O’Donnell.

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