Learning how to navigate financial hardship – no matter what the situation – is difficult enough. Add to this a pandemic and many are left with a learning curve that feels both steep and urgent – a combination that can be paralyzing for the nearly 43,000 Nevadans who filed for unemployment claims last week and the thousands more who have been waiting even longer for benefits to kick in.
Enter Opportunity Alliance Nevada (OAN), a non-profit that has – for the past 12 years – helped Nevadans achieve self-sufficiency through financial coaching programs. By training volunteers to coach (not counsel) clients on everything from limiting beliefs to debt to spending plans, OAN has been able to point low to middle-income residents towards financial literacy, historically taking a train-the-trainer (rather than direct service) approach to institutional poverty.
But even what’s working gets a rethink during a statewide shutdown. As a response to increased economic hardship, general confusion, and an uptick in call waiting times for helplines, the non-profit recently made the decision to fast-track its latest program, “Volunteer Financial Navigator Services” (VFN) – a helpline for Nevadans in financial need – which just went live on April 21.
“We’ve completely shifted our operations, our effort, our focus to designing a community response program focused 100 percent on the financial impacts from the COVID-19 health crisis,” said Executive Director, Lynda Hascheff, over the phone.
In three weeks and with four dedicated people, Hascheff explained, OAN created VFN from almost-scratch, purchasing a Zendesk platform, designing webpage traffic flow, and training two external contractors to set up the system infrastructure.
“We’re trying to help people prepare for what’s coming in the moment and connect them to every resource we know of,” said Hascheff.
Unlike services such as 2-1-1, which is more useful for a broad spectrum of crisis needs, OAN fills a longer-term money-specific niche that has the backing of state officials (the non-profit has a weekly advisory meeting that includes senators and representatives from Nevada Assembly) as well as the one-on-one support of “financial navigators” – many of whom are seasoned volunteers with OAN and hold day jobs as lawyers, bankers, accountants, and social workers. Through their training (which is currently underway), these VFNs are equipped to help with a range of issues.
“What our volunteers do is talk to [callers], because there’s not a lot of live people they’re going to get a hold of right now,” said Hascheff. “[They] walk them through waiting through unemployment, for example, and talk to them about what they can do in the meantime with their creditors. If it’s a mortgage company, what’s the number? The email? What do they have to have? Here’s what you need to ask them. Please document the day you talked to them, the time you talked to them, what your conversation was.”
For someone unfamiliar with the type (and sheer volume) of information needed to get any kind of state or federal financial assistance, having the help of a volunteer whose comfort zone is uncomfortable financial scenarios can be invaluable.
One of OAN’s two external contractors, Laurie Martin, has even observed repeat callers to the helpline, which has only been up and running for a week.
“One client got her stimulus money, called us back and said, ‘Will you help me budget?’ ‘How should I use this money so I can be more secure?’ She also said, “I sort of wing it every month.’ And many of us, that’s what we do.”
Martin is also speaking from personal experience. As a gig economy worker whose engagements were all cancelled, the musician and conscious dance coordinator can’t rely on her usual income of shorter-term contracts and freelance performances to pay her bills.
“I got my stimulus money and I’m like, ‘Woohoo! Oh, but wait … should I pay down my credit card that has the highest interest rate? Should I put it in savings? What is the best thing to do to get me through the next three months?”
For all of the questions, there seem to be less sure answers than before.
As Martin puts it, “The world, the country is just learning about what the financial impacts are and how are we going to recover in a way that we can thrive as employees and small businesses and landlords. It’s complicated and there’s not a lot of answers yet.”
In the meantime, OAN is taking calls and making tweaks to their system. They’re updating spreadsheets so that clients can be passed from volunteer to volunteer without a lot of overlap (all while staying confidential). They’re holding weekly stakeholder meetings to get the most up-to-date information about new legislation regarding small business loans, PPM’s (payroll protection monies), and what the heck landlords are supposed to do if they can’t pay property taxes (sit tight, there is no new relief as of yet). But perhaps the most immediate need for the non-profit is recruiting Spanish-speaking volunteers for their helpline. Of the current thirty VFN’s, only one speaks Spanish – not nearly enough to serve the growing number of “tickets” that OAN is fielding (Week One saw 25 calls).
The helpline is coming together – seemingly both in pieces and all at once – and Hascheff, for her part, is committed to making the program long-term.
“What we’ve done is designed the program, opened it up, and now – as executive director – I’m going to find money to sustain it,” said Hascheff. “It’s definitely something we knew was necessary, but probably felt like we weren’t in a position to execute. Now we just have to do it.”
For more information about VFN services or becoming a volunteer, go to http://www.opportunityalliancenv.org/. To contact the helpline, call or text (202) 925-8209 or click the “chat” or “help” button on the OAN website.