Reaching Cultural Markets with IDAs: 10 Strategies That Work!
Today, IDAs have become an extremely important tool in reducing poverty among refugees. Nationally, the 22 refugee IDA programs, supported primarily by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), show that refugees save regularly, are willing to wait on a list in order to get an IDA account, and count on the IDA program’s asset purchase process to aid in their success. Additionally, these programs have over 95% retention rates of their refugee participants!
Compellingly, these successes stem from the participants’ enthusiasm, and from creative IDA program designs that address the special opportunities and challenges of working with refugees effectively. Programs must embrace practical and flexible methods that ensure asset achievement for the refugee saver. Below are 10 strategies that strong IDA programs offer to serve refugees successfully. In them, we may find a broader application for incorporating refugee IDA participants into mainstream AFI IDA programs.
1. Target low hanging fruit. Refugee IDA programs are often housed within larger refugee service agencies. Educate the leadership and staff of these agencies about the benefits of IDAs. Give brief overviews of your AFI IDA program at ESL and other classes. Distribute translated program brochures, especially to new clients. Develop an easy referral system. Feature an IDA graduate at an agency staff meeting to discuss ways that the IDA program helped her.
2. Develop trust. Nearly all IDA program administrators say that this is the most important strategy to ensure high demand. Many refugees come from countries where distrust was rampant – especially concerning personal financial security. Once trust is established, word of mouth will follow. Overcome skepticism by creating a harbor of trust. Talk to community leaders. The day that the Imam, rabbi, priest or minister shares information about the IDA program with his or her worshippers, you will receive an influx of phone calls. Consider hiring members of the refugee/immigrant communities with multi-lingual capabilities. Develop an advisory board comprised of leaders of refugee/immigrant communities.
3. Publicize successes. Particularly when starting up your recruitment of refugees, you may face doubt by potential participants. The program sounds “too good to be true.” Conducting orientations and intake interviews amidst displayed photographs of IDA participants with their assets helps allay concerns. Take a photo album with you if you conduct outreach offsite. Spread the word in media that you know your immigrant/refugee communities follow. Again, ask graduates to attend orientation sessions and discuss their successes with prospective applicants.
4. Discover how cultural communities are organized. Cultural communities may be organized by ethnicity, race, religion and other common identifiers. Identify groups accordingly, talk to them, and display marketing materials where they worship, shop, eat and seek entertainment.
5. Go to work. Talk to employers of refugees and immigrants. Post translated flyers. Hold orientations at their work place. Encourage employers to provide additional matching funds as an acquisition and retention tool for employees.
6. Partner. Partnering is critical to your program’s success. Partner with other agencies serving refugees and immigrants. Hold orientations off-site at these organizations – community centers, ESL classes, refugee resettlement agencies. When establishing a financial institution partner, pick one that has branches near where refugees live, work or shop; that extends its banking hours on weeknights and weekends; and that hires bi-lingual tellers and mortgage lenders. Make lists of vendors that speak other languages and have a good reputation for working with refugees or immigrants. Invite credible partners to conduct trainings.
7. Know your refugee participants. Their cultural experiences may already have encouraged strong savings habits, primed them with economic or financial training, and fostered certain attitudes about asset acquisition and interest. It becomes essential to design a financial coaching program and curriculum that is more relevant for them. Replace time spent on the importance of savings with educational content that reinforces strong savings behaviors. Give concrete examples of investment tools offered in this country and their associated risks, discuss the earned income tax credit, and provide information on how interest rates work.
Consider developing a financial skills assessment test for some to opt out of the basic training you offer, and into more advanced levels, such as a component introducing the American banking system and the notion of FDIC (or NCUA – National Credit Union Administration) insurance. Many refugees have had bad experiences with financial institutions in their home countries, and need assurance that their IDA savings and interest will be safe in the bank, and will always be owned by them.
Encourage discussions about cultural attitudes concerning asset acquisition, such as home ownership. The concept of “starter” homes, for example, may not be universally shared. Many may prefer to wait for the perfect, permanent house. So explore this angle up front with your prospective homebuyers and develop a practical plan for purchasing a home within your grant’s timeframe. As a related issue, some refugee participants are uncomfortable paying or receiving interest. In these cases, work with your financial institution partner to offer interest-free savings accounts or to provide the interest as match to other participants.
8. Be flexible. Immigrants and refugees often work more than one job. Hold trainings on weekdays, nights and weekends, providing childcare and transportation, if possible. Change elements of your program, “tweaking” training content, frequency, or duration as you get to know your participants better.
9. Help savers establish credit. Many refugees have never established credit and have many questions about how to do so. Offer training early in the program to help overcome the difficulty of acquiring a home or small business loan later, for participants with a limited credit history. Incorporate ways to build nontraditional credit into your financial education classes. Tactics may include keeping records of: full and timely rent and utility payments, length of residence at the same apartment, job retention or upgrade. All demonstrate stability and lower risk to the mortgage lender.
10. Evaluate. Develop assessment tools to gauge your program’s effectiveness. Hand out surveys after your classes to assess course understanding and concept retention. Conduct exit interviews to gauge economic improvement. Importantly, ask participants for input on your program design and to be ambassadors for new refugee applicants.