In our first “Good on the Ground” episode, we meet Kathy Brough and Anita Saville, the founders of Chelmsford, Mass., nonprofit Budget Buddies. Learn how they’re equipping homeless women to lift themselves out of poverty with the help of women volunteer “buddies,” who coach them in personal-finance basics.
SUE: (as music plays lightly in the background) You’re listening to Good on the Ground…
VARIOUS VOICES: …Good on the Ground…
COLLEEN: …You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange.
*Sound of Crash*
COLLEEN: What just happened there?
SUE: I think we’ll be asking that question for quite awhile. We’ll fight our way out at the end.
COLLEEN: Let’s get started. I’m Colleen DeBaise.
SUE: And I’m Sue Williams.
COLLEEN: Do you feel like things are broken these days?
SUE: Beyond broken. It’s a mess.
SUE: It’s a mess!
COLLEEN: So today…
COLLEEN: We’re going to share a story…
SUE: That we hope will take your mind off it all.
COLLEEN: Or at least…
SUE: Put it in a good place.
COLLEEN: This is the first episode of a new series…
SUE: A pretty amazing series…
COLLEEN: Where we’re profiling women who are doing “Good on the Ground.”
KATHY: I am Kathy Brough.
ANITA: And I am Anita Saville.
ANITA: Budget Buddies provides financial education for low-income women through an innovative program.
KATHY: You just have to care about women helping women
COLLEEN: OK, that’s who we’re featuring today -- two ordinary women from Boston.
SUE: Female entrepreneurs who are doing “Good on the Ground.”
COLLEEN: They’re using the power of business…
SUE: To tackle some of today’s most pressing social issues.
COLLEEN: So listen in.
SUE: We’ll be pursuing the theme of “Good on the Ground” not just in this podcast, but in upcoming ones, and in the videos on our website…
SUE: We’re pretty sure you’ll feel better by the end of this episode.
COLLEEN: For this podcast, we’re taking you to Boston, home of the Red Sox, clam chowder, those funny New England accents.
SOT: And another small startup…
SUE: Actually Chelmsford, Massachusetts!
COLLEEN: Well, close enough.
SOT: Hey! How are you!
-How are you?
-Good! Come on in.
SUE: We’re inside the conference room at Budget Buddies, where co-founders Anita Saville, and Kathy Brough -- and their small staff -- are going through paperwork…
COLLEEN: Matching homeless women with volunteer coaches.
SOT: Well, I have somebody here who says that they don’t know how to make a budget, they don’t have a bank account.
-I wonder if we should put her with a tough buddy.
SUE: Here’s Anita Saville:
ANITA: Women, one in seven women lives in poverty for various reasons. Their families have been living in poverty for years, and years, and years. They have little financial education. We still make 20 cents less on the dollar than men do. So then you couple that with poor role models, lots of personal financial challenges, and women are just overwhelmed by money issues.
SOT: Jasmine Torros, she wants to get her life back on track.
-So let’s do Cindy with Jasmine, we said?
KATHY: I’ve found working in the shelter with women, they’re there for so many different reasons.
COLLEEN: That’s Kathy Brough speaking.
KATHY: So often it’s such poor choices they’ve made, the relationships they’ve made, they’ve been in foster homes, they’ve been unable to have anybody that really gives them confidence.
COLLEEN: So, giving women who are really marginalized a chance to lift themselves out of poverty -- that is no small task.
SUE: It’s huge. It’s huge. Just take education, for example. Kathy told me that Massachusetts ranks last in terms of financial education in the entire nation.
COLLEEN: Which is kind of amazing when you think of Harvard, MIT, Wellesley --
SUE: Exactly. But there are very few financial education programs that focus on the homeless population.
COLLEEN: Let alone the homeless women population.
SUE: Anita and Kathy spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to do this.
ANITA: We spent a year researching, talking to case managers around the greater Lowell area and saying, “What would you like in a financial education program?” and they told us two things. One, it has to be comprehensive. You can’t just come in and do one or two workshops.
COLLEEN: And then the second thing…
ANITA: At the same time, you can’t take a cookie cutter approach because you have teen mothers who are just starting out. They may not have a bank account. They may not have ever thought about how they would put money into savings. At the other end of the spectrum you have older women who have a lot of debt, who find themselves at a homeless shelter because of physical illness, or mental illness, or divorce…
COLLEEN: In 2010, Anita and Kathy --
SUE: Who hadn’t quit their days jobs, mind you!
COLLEEN: -- no, they hadn’t. Anita and Kathy came up with a pilot program.
SUE: Matching homeless women with volunteer “buddies” who could teach them very, very basic financial information.
COLLEEN: So, they tested this program at a shelter.
KATHY: And one night somebody put out like 15 cupcakes and one of the young women instantly ate the frosting off of five so we knew she was not going to be too great in class. Anita very nicely said to somebody, “And what brought you here tonight?” and she said, “They made me come.” So we, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
SUE: The idea really just needed some time.
ANITA: It was new. It was novel. No one had really sat down with them on a sustained basis and talked about finance.
COLLEEN: That made them tweak the idea just a bit. Today, the program…
ANITA: …combines 12 instructional workshops with one-to-one coaching.
SOT: Do you have a savings account?
-Oh, yeah, no, I have a checking account.
ANITA: So in addition to learning the basics in budgeting, banking, credit, we also have workshops that deal with self-esteem, changing behavior, and really giving the women the confidence that they need in order to be able to go on and manage their money after Budget Buddies stops.
COLLEEN: So we’ve been sharing the story of Anita Saville and Kathy Brough, the co-founders of Budget Buddies.
SUE: I want to go back to something Anita said, about how no one had really sat down with these homeless women.
COLLEEN: Yeah. There are case managers, of course --
SUE: -- but they’re tapped out. They’ve got about 40 clients each.
COLLEEN: Right, they’re overloaded.
SUE: But contrast that with the wealthiest segment of America.
COLLEEN: The 1 percent.
SUE: They’ve got plenty of advisors.
COLLEEN: Yet the people who need the advice the most aren’t getting any.
SUE: That’s exactly it. And that’s what led Anita to do this work in the first place.
ANITA: I grew up in Philadelphia. I went to Penn State. I always wanted to be a teacher so I studied Education and History.
SUE: Anita taught for a while in Washington, D.C., where she also went to rallies put on by the National Organization of Women.
ANITA: I started dipping my toe into, into women’s rights issues.
SUE: Then she moved to Boston.
ANITA: I worked for Fidelity Investments as an editor and always felt that while I was writing for upper income and middle-income folks, what was happening for the folks who didn’t have advice on how to manage their money? So I, I had thought for a long time that I really wanted to work on some kind of a financial education program for low income women.
COLLEEN: Now, Kathy’s background is a little bit different.
KATHY: I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts.
COLLEEN: That’s definitely a New England accent you hear!
KATHY: I went straight from high school to work. I’ve always done finance and operations for small businesses.
COLLEEN: She got involved in political movements…
KATHY: …anti-nuclear movements and all the way up to Central American movements, and so I was always sort of working with the underdog. And I started volunteering at a homeless shelter 23 years ago. The part I like is helping the clients move on and get themselves out of there and into housing.
COLLEEN: Here’s Anita again.
ANITA: Then, Kathy and I met during, doing political campaigns, first for Deval Patrick --
SUE: That’s the former governor of Massachusetts.
KATHY: In 2004.
ANITA: 2006 I think it was.
KATHY: Oh, was it? Okay. Mm-hm.
ANITA: Yeah, 2006. So we realized that we worked pretty well together and complemented each other in terms of the things that we liked to do.
KATHY: Yes. It’s lucky that, you know, I don’t like the podium, and luckily Anita does. So I do the finances and she does the writing so, perfect.
SUE: They realized they shared an interest in helping homeless women.
ANITA: We sort of put our heads together and said, “Well, how would we do this?”
SOT: So thank you very much for filling out all those lovely surveys.
COLLEEN: So the idea they came up with…
SUE: The Budget Buddies curriculum…
COLLEEN: It’s a one-on-one workshop every other week…
SUE: For six months.
COLLEEN: Mm-hm. And you’ve got the homeless woman -- and then she’s matched with a volunteer.
SUE: That’s a key part of the program -- the volunteer doesn’t have to have a financial background -- these are pretty basic financial concepts -- but they need to commit to meeting one-on-one with their “buddies.”
COLLEEN: And then the buddy again is the woman in the shelter.
COLLEEN: Got it.
ANITA: So in our first six years we’ve had 35 programs at 19 different agencies, and so that’s helped over 400 women. We know of no other program where there are volunteer coaches that are dedicated just to the women, one-to-one, and the coaches stay with her for the entire six-month period.
SUE: 400 women! I mean, really, it’s incredible how many women they’ve helped.
COLLEEN: Yeah, it really is. And they’ve trained over 275 volunteer coaches, too.
KATHY: And those women come from all walks of life -- financial backgrounds for some but others are teachers, retired nurses, or active nurses. You just have to care about women helping women.
SOT: Hi, how are you! So good to see you!
-You too. Nice to meet you.
COLLEEN: So let’s just back up for a second here and talk about how this became a business.
SUE: Yeah. The word “bootstrapped” comes to mind.
COLLEEN: In fact, Sue, you had a chance to visit their very first office headquarters, as it were.
SUE: Yeah, sort of. I guess you could call it that. For the first five years, Anita and Kathy would meet at The Owl Diner. It’s a classic old-fashioned diner, around the corner from one of the homeless shelters they work with. They’d get a table and have strategy sessions over eggs. Eggs -- they are very into eggs!
COLLEEN: Or sometimes they’d meet in Kathy’s family room.
KATHY: So we had no overhead and we also had no salary --
ANITA: That’s right.
KATHY: -- for four years.
SUE: So how did you two support yourselves?
ANITA: Well, I was, I was still working full time as a, as a freelance financial writer.
KATHY: And I was working part time in another small startup doing the finances and operation. And it was like the year I could’ve been thinking of retirement but I tried it for 20 minutes and it didn’t work.
COLLEEN: Like a lot of the women we’re interviewing for “Good on the Ground,” they decided the nonprofit business model made the most sense.
SUE: They formed a 501(c)(3) in 2012.
ANITA: Coming from a corporate background, it’s been interesting to me how much help there is out there for nonprofits. And we got a $7,000 capacity building grant through the Department of Health and Human Services, which was enough to get the pilot off the ground.
COLLEEN: After that, they got grants from state agencies, family foundations and individuals.
ANITA: The first couple years, it’s hard to convince funders that you’re going to be around. You know, because you’re running on volunteer fumes, you don’t have any money, you know, how are you going to be sustainable?
SUE: Budget Buddies now runs on a lean annual operating budget of $363,000.
COLLEEN: Which is enough for Anita and Kathy to draw a modest -- very modest -- full-time salary, plus pay for an office.
SUE: Yeah. They finally moved out of the café.
COLLEEN: And it helps them pay for a small but dedicated staff.
SUE: In coming years, Budget Buddies hopes to scale what they’re doing.
ANITA: It’s stunning to us the changes in the buddies from the time they come into the program to the time we leave.
KATHY: It’s amazing.
ANITA: 71% of our buddies leave the program saying that they feel confident about their ability to manage money, versus 21% when the program starts.
SOT: I just want to know how many of you thought you would get here.
SUE: Locally they’ve become something of a household name.
COLLEEN: Now they want to train agencies in Boston and beyond to run their own programs based on Budget Buddies curriculum.
SUE: One thing that’s special is that Anita and Kathy still attend every first workshop.
COLLEEN: And then every graduation ceremony six months later.
ANITA: Personality wise, someone who couldn’t look you in the eye to begin with is like talking away at graduation about how much she’s learned, and where she’s going, and what she’s doing and so forth.
COLLEEN: One woman told Kathy the best part of the Budget Buddies program was that she didn’t feel tagged.
KATHY: And I said, “Tagged?” She said, “Oh, yeah. When they know you’re homeless you get treated differently.” She said, “I, we were just all women together.”
ANITA: There’s a, there’s a tradition we have at graduation. Because it’s the last night that the group is going to be together, we have the buddies say something to the coach and the coach say something to the buddy. And it’s just, we bring Kleenex --
KATHY: Yeah. Very touching.
ANITA: We, it’s really very emotional and it’s largely because the buddies are just so grateful for the support that they’ve had.
SUE: Let’s listen to some tape we have of graduation night at House of Hope, a homeless shelter in Lowell, Massachusetts.
SOT: Julie -- she is like family to me.
-Nessa has been given a bad set of circumstances -- but she has just come shining through. And I just think, like, you are just showing your daughter so much, because I know my daughter’s a part of me and I know your daughter will be proud of you someday.
SUE: And here’s Anita talking to all the graduates.
ANITA: You have done something that a lot of people never do. Never make a budget, never really put money away for savings, never track their expenses to see how much they’re spending. So you are so far ahead of most of the people in this country. And for that, we give you applause.
COLLEEN: And we give applause to Anita and Kathy, and we thank them for sharing their story.
SUE: It’s been a perfect podcast to begin our “Good on the Ground” series.
COLLEEN: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or…maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.