MoneyThink recruits and trains college volunteers to serve as near-peer role models, college mentors, and financial coaches to low-income teens in high school classrooms within our communities. In partnership with schools and community organizations, MoneyThink volunteers lead 11th-and-12th-graders through a 21-week program focused on the real-world financial decisions that young people face. Moneythink is based in Chicago, IL. URL http://moneythink.org
About Ted Gonder, Co-founder & CEO
On the eve of the 2009 financial collapse, Ted Gonder and fellow students in the Blue Chip Investment Club at the University of Chicago were ruefully examining the existing data about our nation’s financial literacy: one third of adults don’t pay their bills on time; roughly half have no personal safety net. The numbers also revealed that 18-24-year-olds were the fastest-growing group filing for bankruptcy. On average, Millennials have a savings rate of -2% (Zumbrin, Wall Street Journal). Examining these numbers in the context of our country’s growing inequality made the students think: what if college students served as mentors teaching financial literacy and investment skills to low-income high school students?
Sophomore Greg Nance whose idea it was to give investment workshops to high schoolers was joined by freshmen Ted Gonder, Shashin Chokshi, and David Chen to expand the concept and create a separate club that combined financial literacy training with service learning. They found a willing partner in a charter school near campus and began place-based investment and financial literacy training.
Within a year, these full-time students had branded their concept into an organization called Moneythink, written the first version of a mentor-driven curriculum, and launched on 10 campuses across the country. A few months later, the group filed for 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
Today, Moneythink’s more than 600 volunteer mentors from 30 different college campuses reach 2,200 students each week with a powerful, relatable program on financial planning. Taking advantage of the similarities in age between the students and their mentors, the exciting lesson content is culturally relevant and engaging. In the past year, the successful model has been further enhanced by the introduction of MoneythinkMobile—an Instagram-like app that puts financial learning firmly in the hands of students where they need it most, outside of the classroom.
Driving all Moneythink programming are the cornerstone goals of knowledge gain, attitude change, and behavior change. The app drives the behavior change goal, as it allows for real-time feedback at the moment that financial decisions are being made.
Leading the challenge of transitioning from college club to a full-fledged organization was Ted Gonder. Among the close-knit group of Moneythink founders, he saw the club’s potential to be something bigger, something that could scale and have real impact. “It was apparent to all of us [that he was the natural person to create this new entity,]” commented co-founder Greg Nance.
Gonder has brought Moneythink to the national stage in a big way. In 2012, he spoke at the White House as one of 15 finalists for the White House Champions of Change award. Today, he is a member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans. In his young life, he has also served as Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, advising the Obama Administration on immigration policy for foreign entrepreneurs. He has also worked at the Kauffman Foundation and with the Chilean government on transnational entrepreneurship initiatives.
“A social entrepreneur on a mission to even the odds for future generations.” This is Gonder’s social media tag line, and it applies equally to his current work in the financial literacy space and his early social entrepreneurial efforts, in which he spearheaded a number of climate-change-related student initiatives and served as the student advisor to The Climate Project, an organization founded by Al Gore.
Those who know Ted well attribute his success to his intellect, authenticity, and his compelling vision. His purpose wasn’t always clear. “I was, like many teenagers: aimless, unmotivated, trying to find my way, occasionally depressed, a mediocre student,” he said in a January 2015 speech (Chicago IdeaWeek). It wasn’t until a 19-year-old Ghanian tutor who had saved money for a plane ticket to come to the US and pursue the American dream stepped into my life, that my trajectory transformed…[He] changed my entire worldview. Not just because he taught me math and helped me get back on my feet, but because he taught me to treat my life like an entrepreneurial venture and each of my decisions as if they were investments in my future.”
The power of that mentor relationship is central to Moneythink’s class-based financial literacy program. It makes it the lowest-cost and most effective financial education model in existence. “My relationship with my mentor continues to be very impactful and tangible,” reports Ryan Greenlaw, who recently graduated from Swarthmore five years after first taking part in Moneythink’s program. Volunteer mentors receive their training via an online platform called The Mint. Instructional videos, readings, and activities are focused on creating strong skills as mentors. Special care is given to broadening cultural awareness and building diversity. Training for the tools and technologies that are integral to the Moneythink program rounds out The Mint’s offerings. The online curriculum is augmented by a Summer Learning Institute. Mentors from around the country convene in Chicago for three days in late summer summer for “inspiration, discovery, and planning” for the next year. The event forges a strong national identity among the geographically diverse campus chapters. “They wanted me to inspire the mentors, but they inspired me,” remarked educator Shayne Evans, CEO of the University of Chicago Charter Schools, of his first experience with Moneythink as a speaker at the 2012 Summer Learning Institute.
The high schools hosting Moneythink mentors, often located just blocks from the gilded universities that the mentors call home, exist on the margins. But their leaders all share a commitment to change and, as such, give up an hour of instruction each week to make way for Moneythink programming. Financial learning takes place in small groups (the student-mentor ratio is 5:1) and is active, participatory, and fun. It is crucial that the mentors are just a few years older than the students, and that they deliver lessons in a culturally relevant way. Mentors lead students through lessons ranging from basic goal setting and applying for jobs, to budgeting and financing post-secondary education. Kelly Carlquist, former chapter leader at Northwestern University, agrees that the mentors are at the heart of Moneythink’s success: “The real power of the organization is the powerful, compassionate relationships it engenders. I’ve seen what the organization does at a human level.”
In 2013, Moneythink received a $150,000 grant from the Center for Financial Services Innovation, which allowed them to partner with the nonprofit arm of the design firm IDEO to develop an app that would expand access to financial learning moments. Two thousand students have since used the MoneythinkMobile app. It includes twelve Millennial-focused lessons, each of which is accompanied by a financial challenge issued by the mentors. The challenges are tightly integrated with the session’s lesson, and map to one of Moneythink’s four impact pillars: spending money mindfully, saving money, using money safely, and making money. Lessons cover a range of topics, from the basics of using financial products to job search skills. Students use the app to post responses and photos that show progress towards meeting each challenge, as well as savings moments and other financial decisions. Students urge each other on by liking posts, á la Instagram. Visa gift cards are awarded to the students who earn all the possible points for a particular challenge—incentivizing their behavior. Josh Sledge of the Center for Financial Services Innovation said, “The app’s affirmation of getting likes, etc. really engages the students,”—so much so that they’ve recently committed to another $200,000 grant so that Moneythink can continue to develop the app.
Operating on a budget of just under $1 million and a staff of eight, Moneythink has made its mark. Fifty percent of the 9,0000 students who have been in the program use a budget to make spending decisions by year’s end. Thirty percent are actively planning for their financial futures. All of them have résumés. All of the partner schools want to remain in the program. Even 80% of the mentors report feeling more comfortable with their own financial knowledge.
Corporate America is watching closely. Already American Express has approached Moneythink with interest in white-labeling their practices. “We’d need a lot of technical support to make that happen,” remarked Greg Nance, Moneythink’s board chair. For now, American Express has funded a pilot program in Mississippi that will build out the brand throughout Mississippi’s community colleges. And they’ve just unveiled a pilot of MobileMi$$ion, which uses the Moneythink app to connect returning veterans to certified financial counselors with expertise in veterans’ issues. Veterans are nudged through a series of challenges to build their financial heath, and given a platform to connect with other veterans navigating their finances.
Ted rises early each morning, works out, meditates, reads, and has a protein shake, before heading to the coffee shop across the street from his apartment to pound out the bigger tasks of the day. The routine continues at the start of the business day with a 15-minute scrum (term taken liberally from rugby) with his team, wherever they may be. They discuss that day’s challenges for the group, setting the tone before each staff member turns to their own tasks. It’s his way of staying in touch, despite his peripatetic schedule.
“Ted’s a go-getter, really high-capacity, crazy blue-sky visionary,” said Shayne Evans, who was so impressed with Moneythink at their Summer Learning Institute that he now sits on their board.
Josh Sledge has equally high regard for the organization and its leader: “To date, they’ve accomplished everything they’ve said they were going to do. They have a high ability to make it happen. A lot of this is because there’s nothing but commitment and a lot of passion from Ted about Moneythink and how they move forward.”
Each year, fully one quarter of high school students admit they are unprepared to navigate the financial decisions of adulthood (EverFi, 2013). Ted and Moneythink are changing that dynamic by building a compelling new narrative that builds financial capability among our nation’s young people.
Ted Gonder is a 2015 recipient of the Elfenworks In Harmony With Hope Award.