Mutual Support Can Strengthen CSA Policy Work

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

As children’s savings accounts (CSAs) continue to gain the attention of state and municipal governments, philanthropy, and community-based organizations, actors in the field are beginning to look to one another for practical, results-based solutions for the design, implementation, and evaluation of their programs. Although no CSA is quite like any other, there are common challenges. These include determining the appropriate savings vehicle, identifying funding, ensuring long-term sustainability, evaluating both intermediate outcomes and long-term impact, engaging both parent and child in the savings process, and changing the conversation about college and how to pay for it.

Necessity is often the mother of invention, and for New Englanders--and in particular, the Northern Tier states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont--lack of resources necessitates ingenuity and persistence. Building on this premise, the leadership of Maine’s Harold Alfond College Challenge, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and state and local officials from Vermont and New Hampshire adopted an organizing/peer-support model to advance their respective CSA efforts.

Influenced in part by elements of the Collective Impact theory of change, the New England Children’s Savings Account Consortium now includes members from all six New England states, across multiple sectors. Participants meet regularly to share promising practices and to celebrate the region’s collective and individual successes. While collective impact or placed-based organizing efforts are not unique, I am hard-pressed to find another example of a regional CSA-organizing effort similar to that of New England.

Regional organizing efforts are inherently difficult, which makes what has taken root in New England in a relatively short amount of time particularly impressive. There is no doubt that the development of a regional vision, consistent communication, mutually-reinforcing activities, and the presence of “backbone” organizations (such as the Harold Alfond College Challenge and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston) have been instrumental to the success of the regional effort. As other regions contemplate the benefits to be gleaned from this type of collaborative approach, in the arena of children’s savings or elsewhere in the economic development landscape, I offer some reflections on our lessons learned.

Proximity & geography matters
New England, when compared to other regions of the country, is relatively small. Geographic proximity has allowed New England’s more mature CSA groups to meet with newer ones, sharing promising practices in areas like enrollment, savings, and financial education--without causing undue strain on individual members.

Necessity is a strong motivator
Recognition in New England that no state, municipal government, or community group can do a good job alone has been instrumental to the Consortium’s identity, cohesion, and success. This suggests that regional collectives may serve a different purpose—and potentially be harder to catalyze—in more mature fields, than in this still-emerging one.

The importance of mutually-beneficial & supportive activities
The Consortium began its conversation by level-setting participants’ understanding of CSAs and their potential role in asset-building and educational/economic opportunities, especially for low-income families. Since then, the Consortium and its individual members have travelled to neighboring states meeting with state advocates and sharing successes, failures, and promising practices--lessening the “learning curves” of new initiatives. Members have testified before various state legislatures in support of each other’s efforts and most recently collaborated on the design of intermediate outcome and impact measures that their respective programs might use to better understand the impact(s) on low- and moderate-income families. In the process, members not only add value to the field, building the knowledge base and spreading their influence; they also strengthen their bonds with each other.

The importance of “value”
More specifically, it’s about relative value. How much value do members get from their participation in the Consortium when compared with other alternatives that are available to them? Members join associations, peer groups, or consortiums for one basic reason – to have their needs satisfied. It’s in recognition of this that the Consortium has sought to meet the needs of its members through the sharing and development of CSA-related publications, networking opportunities, promising practices, peer support, and other areas identified as significant by members.

No state/effort dominates
New England’s CSA efforts are at various stages of development and are beginning to realize the benefits of their growing body of experience. Given these differences, it is essential that no one group or initiative dominate the Consortium and its direction. The highly participatory and democratic design has served the Consortium and its individual members by supporting the group’s “regional identity” while concurrently underscoring and lifting up the importance of each CSA effort. This approach has created parity among members, reinforcing the “we are all in this together” mentality of the group. Significantly, this commitment also ensures that innovative approaches have room to flourish, rather than the field prematurely closing in around a particular model.

Small victories, adversity, and the importance of the tortoise

Those of us who have community-organizing backgrounds understand the importance of small victories. This fact cannot be overstated and has been crucial to the Consortium’s success. Each effort’s setbacks and victories have been communicated by members across the region, allowing the leaders to realize that, while progress can be slow and at times difficult, positive outcomes can occur if you are willing to put in the work. This appears to have reinforced the cohesion and solidarity of the group and its individual members, while also sustaining champions for the work in their respective communities.

Something bigger than yourself

The Consortium has played an important role in connecting the initiatives to one another. As the Consortium’s regional identity begins to take shape, connecting to efforts in other parts of the country and the broader national CSA movement represents an important next step. Solidarity allows the Consortium and its individual members to realize that they are part of something bigger than themselves, which, as history demonstrates is critical to the success of social movements.

New England provides a unique opportunity to investigate the potential for regional approaches to CSA expansion as it’s the only region where a cluster of states have attempted to adopt CSA strategies. While the national conversation about the role of Children’s Savings Accounts in building assets and creating opportunities for the next generation of students continues to gain momentum, New England is, in many respects, leading the way. There continues to be a tremendous amount of work to be done, but it’s through the efforts of the Consortium and its individual members that the long-term success and sustainability of these programs will be realized. As Margaret Mead so infamously said many years ago, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The views presented here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston or the Federal Reserve System.

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