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The Work Continues: Building Support for CSA Programs in Michigan

In early August, the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM) invited CFED staff to Michigan to present a full-day, intensive training on developing Children’s Savings Account (CSA) programs. Our intent was to make CFED’s design guide for CSAs, Investing in Dreams, come alive through an interactive session for our members so they can customize programs for their local communities.

With participants hailing from Detroit to New Buffalo and representing nonprofits, universities, banks, community foundations and housing corporations, our crowd showed the breadth and diversity of individuals and organizations who are invested in the hope and promise of CSAs.

We learned, however, that along with this hope, organizations have concerns about securing the resources – money, expertise, staffing, and leadership – to effectively launch and maintain scaled-up CSAs in their communities. Places where these four critical resources have coalesced have set the bar for the CSA movement. From San Francisco to Maine, as well as Lansing and Barry County, Michigan, CSAs have launched because of the right mix of powerful political and community leaders, boots-on-the-ground staff support, financial resources and help from field experts. And in places where family savings rates have been high – Wabash County, Indiana for example – the ability to mobilize a broad base of local champions has emerged as a fifth critical resource.

We are still trying to understand what will bring us to a tipping point with widespread support of CSAs throughout the state of Michigan. How can CSAs become a strategy employed by communities across Michigan (and the US), and not just a product of very special local circumstances and resources? Further, how can the operational efficiencies found in statewide CSA programs combine with the personal touch and relevance of small town efforts where children, their parents and the community at large understand, support, and engage with the program? We have to break down barriers to entry without losing the ability to impact children and their families at a very personal level.

Thanks to the generous support of the C.S. Mott Foundation, CEDAM was able to provide very high-tech technical assistance to Lansing SAVE and Barry County Kickstart to Career, city and countywide CSA programs that launched in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Moving forward we will have a more “packaged” form of assistance for CSA model replication in Michigan, easing barriers to entry and allowing us to support more programs.

Here’s some of what we’re working on now to get there:

  • Engaging the financial services sector to work toward a better fit product. We are looking for account products that have the efficiencies and reach of a 529 account combined with the accessibility of a community bank or credit union savings account.
  • Documenting what is working and what we still need to learn about matches and incentives, and sharing this information across programs. Designing specific incentives and matches can feel a bit like a shot in the dark for individual programs. We’d like to help programs make informed decisions about what incentives and matches to try, set up a method for evaluating their impact and facilitate information sharing so programs can learn from each other’s experiences.
  • Learning from other fields to better engage kids and their families. While auto-enrollment has solved the problem of low take-up experienced by earlier CSA programs, we would like to get a higher percentage of kids and their families saving in their accounts and participating in other program activities, like financial education. Let’s learn from the experiences of programs that have succeeded in engaging this population, like those focused on college access, youth development and even grassroots community organizing.
  • Empowering local leaders to pitch CSAs to their communities. Our training participants all expressed a need for help in designing their pitch and making the case for CSAs to their boards, funders and the community at large. We have strong local leaders making the case for CSAs in Michigan. For example, Bonnie Gettys, who through her work at the Barry Community Foundation, was able to secure full endowments for CSA initial deposits and matching incentives for Barry County’s Kickstart to Career program. Now we need to help others in Michigan develop the leadership skills they’ll need to start CSAs in their communities, with consistent messaging and a clear evidence base to support them.

With continued support of funders and national intermediaries, CEDAM’s ability to offer intensive training to jumpstart new CSA programs and provide ongoing technical assistance for communities designing CSA programs is setting the stage for an even brighter financial and academic future for children in Michigan.

Megan Kursik is the Coordinator of Michigan Communities for Financial Empowerment at the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan.