Editor's note: This is the second of three articles on the 2012 EBN-EBA Financial Fitness Challenge, an 8-week online financial education program developed by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser with Educated Investor and sponsored by Set for Life Financial. For information on taking part in the 2013 Financial Fitness Challenge, email info@educatedinvestor.com.

A CEO lighting a paper Olympic flame. A HR staff member dressed as Vanna White. What's going on?

It's the 2012 EBN-EBA Financial Fitness Challenge, an online financial education program rolled out by 15 employers to thousands of employees this summer.

For eight weeks ending Aug. 31, employees selected by the HR-benefits "Challenge Champions" at each participating organization worked to complete a special computer-based course on personal finance and retirement savings and investing created by financial education provider Educated Investor.

The goal of the Challenge is to provide employers with a proven way to help workers gain knowledge that will increase their financial health and wellbeing.

The need is significant considering some of the following findings from industry literature:

* Average Americans score below 55% on basic financial literacy tests

* 67% don't feel they know enough to make sound financial decisions

* 82% of employees want employers to provide more financial education

The good news is that Educated Investor's experience has documented that financial education can in fact lead to significant improvements in behavior. Recipients, it is shown, are more apt to create a budget or financial plan, save for retirement or other purposes, and reduce debt.

While the coursework created by Educated Investor is the same for all participants, each Challenge Champion is encouraged to run the program in the way that best fits that organization's business needs and culture. This year, some Champions developed elaborate communications plans and themes to encourage employees to buy in, and stay in.

 

Financial fitness Olympiad

Victoria Dolan, senior VP and human resources director at River City Bank in Sacramento, Calif., wrapped the Financial Fitness Challenge in an Olympic banner.

"We're going with an Olympics theme in honor of the summer games and in order to leverage the 'fitness' aspect of the challenge," she says. "We have a very performance-oriented culture [and] our employees are a very competitive group, so the competition aspect resonated with them."

The launch for River City's "Financial Fitness Olympiad" was gold medal-worthy.

"Counting down to our Olympiad, we teased everyone with weekly updates," Dolan explains. "On the day the program was launched, we sent the official announcement to our employees via a private YouTube link to a video from our 'International Financial Fitness Olympics Committee Chairman,' River City Bank President and CEO, Stephen Fleming."

In the video, scripted by Dolan, the Olympic theme music plays, and Fleming appears in front of a flag with five Olympic rings. He explains the RCB Financial Fitness Olympiad and tells the "athletes" that they are competing for bragging rights against 14 other companies.

"Our goal is 100% participation and 100% completion," he tells them, before taking a "torch," lighting the RCB Olympic flame and announcing with flourish, "Let the games begin!"

Next, the "coaches" from RBC's HR department deliver training kits to the "athletes" - all of the bank's 135 full-time and part-time employees.

"The kits have everything they'll need: Gatorade, water, nutrition bars with savings slogans on them, and other fun goodies, along with a tracking sheet with coin stickers so that each department can track its progress," says Dolan.

RBC athletes can bite into Crunch bars that say, "Avoid the retirement crunch-save now" and TLC crackers marked, "Give your retirement plan a little TLC."

"We wanted to drive home the retirement savings point," says Dolan.

Also included in the kit are paper torches and gold batons to round out the theme. The latter are particularly significant.

"When they unfurl the baton, there will be a message about how RBC is 'passing the baton' to them; it highlights the things we have done within our 401(k) program to set the stage for retirement savings success and outlines things that they can do to ensure their own success."

In keeping with the savings theme of the Challenge, Dolan spent mostly time and elbow grease on program promotion.

"We ended up spending only a few hundred dollars. I've been going to the Dollar Store a lot," she laughs. "Having most things made by hand goes along with our frugality message."

To keep athletes motivated, Dolan has planned a daily communications campaign with a variety of competition updates, savings tips from employees and helpful Web links.

The conclusion of the Challenge will be marked by a closing ceremony. There will be games, including a Dixie cup water relay, and medals will be awarded to the winning teams. Each participant who successfully completes all eight course modules will receive a "thank-you" gift and be entered in a drawing for the grand prize: a day off, plus four tickets to a Sacramento River Cats minor league baseball game.

At press time, RBC was well on the way to its goal of 100% participation in its Financial Fitness Olympiad.

"We're quite excited about it," Dolan concludes. "This program is right in line with helping us achieve our goal of getting our employees to save more." Appealing to self-interest

At Fidelity National Financial, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based Fortune 500 financial services company, Eva Marie Chavis-Cumming, AVP and director of retirement plans, is taking a different approach to the Challenge.

"I'm not using 'competition' as a theme. My focus is to reinforce the benefits of participation and the knowledge they'll be gaining," she explains.

However, like Dolan, she is striving to make the learning fun - and investing a considerable amount of her own time to do so.

To reinforce each Financial Fitness Challenge lesson and to keep employees engaged, Chavis-Cumming sends out weekly email quizzes modeled after Jeopardy.

"For each one, I'd create questions based on that week's lesson and add fresh questions for the prior weeks' modules, so there was always something new," she says. "I like the fact that I learned some things, too.

Chavis-Cumming targeted 993 employees for the Financial Fitness Challenge and is hoping for an 80% completion rate. Employees who pass the final exam will receive Target gift cards.

 

Vanna from Savannah

Ruth M. Foster, EAP coordinator, head of employee training and Financial Fitness Challenge Champion for the City of Savannah, Ga., also chose a TV game to communicate the Challenge theme. "Our HR team was brainstorming about what we could use, and someone suggested 'Wheel of Fortune' because we'd used it before," she says.

At press time, the team had just launched the Financial Fitness Challenge on the HR intranet page with the headline "Find Your Wheel of Fortune." The hope is to get 1,000 employees from the city's eight departments to participate. The HR representatives in each department are also making personal appeals to workers.

Foster considered making the Challenge a competition among the departments, but decided it would not be fair, since it would be easier for some employees to take the online courses than others. Firefighters, for example, have more down time and greater access to worksite computers than sanitation workers out in the field. Also, some departments' employees are more computer literate than others. "We didn't want to create hard feelings," she says.

The city will recognize every employee who completes the program. At the conclusion of the Challenge, Foster plans to have a party where workers can play a "Wheel of Fortune" savings game and win prizes donated by vendors, such as prepaid VISA cards and parking vouchers. A savings bond will be raffled off as well. "And, although he doesn't know it yet, I'm going to have one of our training staffers dress up as Vanna White," she says.

Foster learned of the Financial Fitness Challenge from a colleague, who sent her the information because she provides financial education as part of the employee assistance program. She sees the Challenge as a great fit with the city's other health and wellness initiatives.

"You don't separate mental from physical health," Foster asserts. "When we're stressed, as people often are over finances, it affects us emotionally as well as physically, and we're not as productive at work. Emotional, physical and spiritual health are all connected."

 

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