Volunteering Geelong’s new pilot program offers financial education

Volunteering Geelong Committee member Vaughan Lamb with a program participant
Volunteering Geelong Committee member Vaughan Lamb with a program participant

People living in the Geelong region experiencing financial difficulty are now able to receive assistance on how to manage their money and avoid reaching a crisis point, thanks to Volunteering Geelong’s pilot Financial Literacy Program.

Volunteering Geelong is an independent not-for-profit organisation that is committed to enhancing the quality of life within the community sector through volunteering. This new program grew from a joint initiative with the Geelong Community Foundation and Give Where You Live to foster a collective response to building financial capability for people in priority populations within the Geelong region. The Geelong Community Foundation’s 2021/22 $30,000 grant to Volunteering Geelong has enabled the organisation to offer the Financial Literacy Program, along with funding from Give Where You Live.

“What we love about this program is the role skilled volunteers can play to make a huge difference in people’s lives. The existence of waitlists to see a financial counsellor for those who just need to be heard and guided will ensure people don’t end up in crisis. This is a win for the client and a win for the service system,” says Gail Rodgers, CEO of the Geelong Community Foundation.

“The rising cost of living and ongoing impact of the pandemic has placed extra stress on so many people across our region. This program fills a much-needed gap, providing individual support to build financial knowledge and help prevent further financial distress,” adds Kerry Farrance, Head of Impact at Give Where You Live.

Along with partner agencies, Volunteering Geelong has developed a team of volunteers that are trained in financial-literacy support to deliver this program by helping participants build skills and confidence around everyday money matters. The volunteer-run free service began in February and assists people with building financial knowledge, setting financial goals, creating a budget, reviewing their income and expenses, improving their management of bills and exploring ways to save money, as well as offering financial mentoring and where to go for assistance. It is targeted at people experiencing financial distress who do not have access to financial counselling due to the waitlist that exists to get help. The service is designed to offer early-intervention support by providing primary financial counselling before the financial pressure reaches a crisis point.

“The program came out of work that was done to identify that there was a lack of financial counselling in the community service system, and it’s a way of taking pressure off that lack of financial counselling by having a tier below, which was an education mechanism,” explains Colin Dempsey, Operations Coordinator at Volunteering Geelong. “That’s the point of this – because there isn’t that education mechanism within the region – to get to people before they get into trouble,” he continues.

According to Vaughan Lamb, a retired lawyer and Volunteering Geelong Committee member, the most valuable feature of the Financial Literacy Program is “the ability to change the way people look at money”. As a volunteer facilitator on the program, Vaughan has seen first-hand how the service is changing lives. “Part of this program aims to help people to look at money and their finances in a different way so they develop a more global picture of their finances. For me, that’s been the highlight – the penny-drop moment with people where they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realise that’,” explains Vaughan.

Vaughan and Colin have discovered that many young people are at risk of experiencing financial difficulty due to challenging family dynamics. “The relationship a lot of young people have with their parents is fractious, and they don’t know how to break a financial cycle where sometimes there’s pressure put on by the parents to extract money from the children. That’s a really, really tricky situation for people who have a loyalty to their parents, but in some instances there’s financial abuse,” explains Vaughan. “Because we can’t give financial advice, what we do is try and educate people. We let them make the suggestions and remind them that they do have choices.” Empowerment is an integral part of the program. “It’s really important that they leave at the end of the process feeling empowered, with an ability to make decisions,” explains Colin. “We’re never judgemental. And empathy is really important,” adds Vaughan.

“The common theme is that they’re in some sort of financial difficulty, not necessarily in debt, but just in a position where they’re not managing their finances,” explains Colin. “So, we let them analyse what they’re doing with the education tools that we’re able to give them. Then they can understand their plight a lot better and go to that future stage where they’ve never been before, which is planning and putting something behind them and utilising all of the resources that are available … the key factor then becomes trust. Because when they come in, you’ve got to engage with them and bring them out of their shell, and once you’ve created that successful engagement, then things change,” continues Vaughan.

Vaughan explains how listening is one of the key roles of a volunteer on the program. “A lot of what you’re doing is just listening to people – they want to tell their story and they need to get things off their chest. If they’re talking and they feel like they’re being listened to, they open up – and they enjoy the experience. A lot of people are irritated by bureaucracy – they’re used to dealing with various government departments – and when they come to this situation, it’s just a nice open conversation. No forms to fill, no questions to answer – it’s a shared experience. That’s what they really appreciate, just having that ear and being able to actually communicate,” he explains.

For program participant Melissa Holmes*, her financial situation has improved drastically. Prior to seeking assistance, “I was in a really bad financial situation,” she says. “I realised that I was living pay to pay and it wasn’t working for me, and I finally decided that I needed to get help.” The mother of two says that her situation today is “amazing” compared to what it was like prior to seeking assistance. “I’ve got money saved; I have been able to get myself completely out of debt.” Melissa says that the two most valuable aspects of the program have been not being judged for her financial situation, as well as learning the skills required to transition from being in debt to saving money. She is also immensely grateful to Vaughan “for his help and giving me the tools to be able to succeed and progress in my future.”

“The reaction we’ve had from the people we’ve interviewed has been really uplifting – to see how they can change their circumstances,” shares Vaughan. From one woman acquiring a car without finance from a secondary lender to another woman with two young children purchasing a home in regional Victoria, the evidence is clear that this program is helping people turn their lives around. “There was a woman who, based on a referral, was being bullied by her mother into giving her part of her money to make ends meet. She wanted to come and talk about how to get out of that situation. We talked her through the things she needed to look at – getting her own accommodation, her own car – and how she needed to work towards getting those things. The conversation went from her being in a situation she was really uncomfortable with to walking out at the end with a vision of where she could be in 12 months’ time,” shares Colin. “It’s such a worthwhile program, when you see the results that come out of it,” adds Vaughan. “If we can avoid people getting into those crises, that’s a major achievement out of the program.”

The Geelong Community Foundation is dedicated to supporting services that are proactive and enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as Volunteering Geelong’s Financial Literacy Program.

*Name has been changed for privacy reasons.