The Power of Listening

NEFE Board Member Jim Kooler with his and NEFE staff members

NEFE Board Member Jim Kooler with his staff at Friday Night Live and NEFE staff during the 2014 Who We Serve tour in Fresno, California

By spring 2008, it was clear that the United States was in financial trouble. No one knew the extent of it then, but we knew it was bad. Already that year the Federal Reserve had reduced short-term interest rates for the fifth time in four months, and President George W. Bush had signed the Economic Stimulus Act, attempting to breathe life into the ailing economy.

Rather than guessing what underserved Americans might need to help navigate the impending economic downturn, NEFE decided to go to the source. In May 2008, NEFE get out on its first Who We Serve (WWS) tour to Tampa, Fla., to better understand and address the financial needs of our audiences.

A small group of NEFE staff facilitated focus groups with low-income families, survivors of domestic violence, retirees, former foster children and homeless or nearly homeless individuals in the Tampa area to discuss the participants’ financial fears, challenges, dreams and opportunities.

Within the first few minutes of these conversations, NEFE staff learned that these individuals trusted their case workers more than anyone else to guide them towards better financial knowledge and decisions.

From that point on, NEFE Who We Serve tours always have included talking to caseworkers and program managers — those on the frontlines in the fight to help the underserved.

Getting to Know Our Audience

The goal of these conversations was not to use the participants’ stories in NEFE marketing or educational initiatives, nor was it to give advice or promote NEFE. The sole purpose of the tour was to listen and gain insight to help shape better, more relevant financial education resources.

It was one thing to read stories or analyze data about Americans struggling to make ends meet — it was quite another thing to hear straight from those who were living it. The first Who We Serve tour was so impactful that NEFE did the second WWS tour later that year in San Francisco.

Since then, NEFE staff (with the help of NEFE Board members) has completed three more Who We Serve tours, including Minneapolis, Minn. in 2010; Cincinnati, Ohio in 2013; and Fresno, Calif. in 2014. Earlier this year, we held Who We Serve focus groups in Denver; and in December, we will return to Florida to talk to aging adults and their caretakers about the financial issues facing older Americans.

Shaping Our Message

Over the years, we have met with a wide array of demographic groups ranging from firstgeneration college students and immigrants to trade workers and single parents. The insights gained influence not only what we do, but how we do it, even down to the language we use.

For example, during the 2013 tour in Cincinnati, many WWS participants said they would never have enough financial cushion to establish an emergency fund. Upon reflection, NEFE staff suggested promoting an emergency “plan” instead, emphasizing the importance of thinking through contingencies, regardless of one’s ability to save a prescribed amount of money that feels out of reach.

Although the American economic climate has changed since the early days of the Great Recession, NEFE’s mission to inspire and empower better financial decision making remains driven by data. Whether through formal research, Harris Polls or informal focus groups, NEFE’s programs and resources are made better by listening to those whom we serve.

See the full Nov/Dec 2015 Digest or download the PDF.


  • Paul Golden

    Media Relations Director

    Direct: 303-224-3514
    Cell: 303-918-3620

  • Patricia (Pat) Seaman

    Senior Director of Marketing and Communications

    Direct: 303-224-3538