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Volume 13, Issue 3, 2013   Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Collaborative Program Finds Financial Pathways for Houston Families

Over the past five years, many Houston families have made strides toward attaining financial stability through a community effort launched and led by the United Way of Greater Houston.

The program, known as United Way THRIVE, is a collaboration of 21 nonprofit agencies providing comprehensive services to help Houston families find the path to financial stability.[1] The collaboration began in July 2008 with a goal of extending its reach each year to 100,000 families by 2020; this year to date, it has touched 52,000.

The United Way THRIVE initiative grew out of a community study commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership that pinpointed financial instability as a leading issue for Houston families. United Way found that while many programs were addressing pieces of the problem, there was a need for a more coordinated effort, so it pulled together elements of the various programs to create a more holistic approach. United Way initially invested $3 million and joined forces with social services providers to work with low- to moderate-income (LMI) families making less than $40,000 annually.

Anna Babin, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston since 2005, says that during strategic planning for 2006–07, the agency determined that its mission was not only to improve individual lives but also to tackle big issues that would create systemic change. United Way THRIVE does just that.

United Way THRIVE seeks to enable individuals and families to reach their financial goals in three ways: by increasing income, building savings and acquiring assets. The program is credited with a long list of success stories.

Changing Lives

Among United Way THRIVE's success stories, single parent Daisy was able to find a job, save money through an Individual Development Account and work toward her dream of buying a home for her daughter.

Babin is passionate about United Way’s mission to “increase the organized capacity of people to care for themselves and others” and sees United Way THRIVE as an important tool in achieving this goal. She is quick to say that services alone will not address all the issues; having good public policy helps as well. She cites as an example a defeated Houston payday lending ordinance designed to limit the fees and interest rates of these short-term, high-cost loans.

Babin aims to help working families attain emergency savings goals and head off the catastrophes that financial emergencies and payday loans can lead to. In such situations, she says, “$300 in savings can make a difference.”

Attorney Lynne Liberato, partner at Haynes and Boone LLP and chair of United Way THRIVE’s council, says she has seen the difference United Way THRIVE has made in people’s lives. “It goes beyond the day-to-day routine to the evolution of being able to live the American Dream,” she says. “It’s what most everyone wants: a safe neighborhood, good job and a future for their children.” United Way THRIVE partner Stephan Fairfield of Covenant Community Capital likewise says that United Way THRIVE “allows people to see that their dreams can come true.”

The program demonstrates trust, reputation and relationship to the Houston community, Liberato says. She characterizes it as “1+1=5”: By using a holistic approach encompassing social services, education and the community, United Way THRIVE creates an impact that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Now, Liberato says, the mission is to scale the program to the population. Currently, there are United Way THRIVE navigators (partners) at several community colleges and workforce offices to provide support and services.

Other community partnerships, such as those with financial institutions, have also been a tremendous boost to the program.

“United Way of Greater Houston appreciates the strong support of the banking industry,” Babin says. “They have invested in Neighborhood Tax Centers, financial education, savings programs and workforce development to help United Way strengthen families in our community. Their support has bolstered the work of United Way THRIVE and has helped families acquire the skills and education that lead to better-paying jobs, develop better financial habits, build savings and connect with a range of banking services.”

The Power of Collaboration

United Way THRIVE has demonstrated that the collaborative model works. In its fifth year of operation, the program has achieved remarkable success. About 10,600 of the 52,000 families it has touched have received financial education, about 5,100 have increased their savings accounts, and more than 6,900 have received assistance through workforce development services.

Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership and a United Way THRIVE council member, sees the power of the collaborative model: “A big takeaway from United Way THRIVE is getting the agencies together to target the clients to achieve a series of interactions.”

Harvey also sees the power of a delivery system that includes community colleges, workforce development offices, financial institutions, employers, and city and state organizations. He says the United Way THRIVE network has been carefully developed to target hardworking lower-income families, which are often the ones that fall through the cracks and need to overcome barriers by acquiring skills to fill jobs, especially those requiring the ‘middle skills’—such as computer technology, nursing and high-skill manufacturing—that require some postsecondary education or certification but not necessarily a four-year college degree.[2]

United Way THRIVE’s comprehensive approach addresses the complex issues and sometimes overwhelming obstacles facing families, enabling them to achieve their dreams for financial independence and establish the foundation to realize new and better possibilities.

“United Way is about creating hope and opportunity,” says Babin. “The investments we make are changing lives and making Houston a better place for all.”

—Jackie Hoyer


  1. From the United Way of Greater Houston presentation, June 27, 2013.
  2. See Who Can Fix the “Middle-Skills” Gap? by Thomas Kochan, David Finegold and Paul Osterman, Harvard Business Review, December 2012, reprint R1212F, p. 3.

e-Perspectives, Volume 13, Issue 3, 2013

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