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Nonprofit helping Howard residents balance checkbook

Mike Couch is executive director of MakingChange, a Howard County nonprofit that helps struggling families with financial coaching and wealth management.
Mike Couch is executive director of MakingChange, a Howard County nonprofit that helps struggling families with financial coaching and wealth management. (Photo by Nate Pesce, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Before being tapped to lead MakingChange, a Howard County nonprofit that offers financial advice and coaching to cash-strapped residents, Mike Couch's nonprofit experience was hardly bankable.

"I had no prior nonprofit experience, unless you count the [Centennial] High School's booster club," said Couch, who was named executive director of Making Change in June 2012.

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But what Couch lacked in nonprofit experience he made up for in financial expertise. A certified financial planner, Couch has spent decades in the finance industry working for General Electric, AOL and, most recently, local wealth management firms.

Nearly three years after hiring Couch, it would appear the Board of Directors' decision has paid off as the organization is poised to host potentially the largest event in its 23-year history with the upcoming Money Matters Fair on March 14 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Long Reach High School.

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This year's fair will feature approximately 30 exhibitors and three lectures, each focusing on a different aspect of financial planning. This is the first year the organization's Y-Fi Youth Finance simulation will be included in the fair. The simulation, traditionally a separate event, is geared for students ages 12 through 18 and takes participants through a 17-step simulation littered with financial dilemmas.

The simulation is one of several programs at the fair that aim to educate people about potential financial pitfalls.

There will also be a series of free one-on-one sessions for participants, including tax preparation, credit report checks and financial planning. Free child care will also be provided.

The ninth annual fair serves as a showcase for the nonprofit, which provides free financial coaching and assistance services throughout the year to residents in financial crisis.

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"At MakingChange we are dealing with a lower-income population, so it's not about investments and retirement, it's about helping them make the day-to-day financial decisions," Couch said. "We take on a coaching role, and we are asking them, what is their main goal? And how do we help them achieve it?"

There are two main struggles that people come to MakingChange with: credit card debt and balancing a budget.

Couch said they both come down to the same solution: spend less money than you make.

"The concept is very simple, but the challenge is it is very difficult to do that," he said. "We are a consumer-driven society. There is always balancing the needs and the wants."

Couch said the nonprofit serves a niche that is largely underserved, and that the goal of the organization is to ultimately give lower-income residents struggling to balance a budget the tools they need to become self-sufficient.

"We want to promote self-sufficiency," he said, "[to] act as a planning and coordinating mechanism throughout the community to help people find the resources so they can improve their financial situation."

Joanne Davis, chairwoman of MakingChange's Board of Directors, agrees, and says the key is the financial coaching.

"The idea that we can help people to be successful and independent by giving them some knowledge that they hadn't had or didn't have; it's the idea that we can teach a man to fish," she said referencing the proverb.

"This notion is so important and needed so much by many people who have no place to get it," she added.

In the 2014 fiscal year, the nonprofit reported 103 one-on-one financial coaching sessions, processed 309 tax returns and had 390 people attend their financial seminars.

Couch said most of the organization's clients come from Howard County, but the organization is not tied by region. He said most of the clients come from existing partnerships, which includes connections with the county government, the Community Action Council, Howard Community College, local banks and others.

Moving forward, Couch said the nonprofit is working on two major initiatives: putting together a strategic plan and creating a smartphone application for financial coaching.

Couch said the application was developed while the nonprofit was a participant of the Conscious Venture Lab, a business incubator created by the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

He said the application is still just a concept at this point, but the goal is to formulate a product that creates a video conference between a financial coach and client.

"Everyone says there is an app for that, but there really isn't one for financial coaching," he said.

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