Our Programs: Achieving Native Financial Empowerment

Achieving Native Financial Empowerment

First Nations Development Institute and its independent subsidiary, First Nations Oweesta Corporation (a community development financial institution), work in partnership with Native American tribes and communities throughout the U.S. to assist them in designing and administering financial and investor education programs. Our projects range from helping individuals and families understand the basics of financial management – opening and maintaining a bank account and using credit wisely – to helping individuals understand financial markets and a variety of financial instruments for borrowing and saving.

Learning how to manage finances ensures that Native people will be more likely to save and invest.  Our programs result in increased investment levels and economic growth in Native communities.

First Nations Development Institute uses the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum, which was originally developed by First Nations Development Institute and the Fannie Mae Foundation. For more information about this publication, visit our Knowledge Center.

First Nations Development Institute also coordinates the InvestNative investor education project (more information can be found at www.investnative.org.)

Current Projects

My Green Campaign 

First Nations created the My Green campaign and website in response to the demand to provide financial education to the growing number of Native youth who are receiving a large lump sum of money as part of their Minor’s Trust (Big Money) payout.

The campaign website went live on April 17, 2013 and is equipped with a variety of interactive money tools designed to help Native youth make the most of out of their per capita payments. Visit www.mybigmoney.org to try out the My Big Money online game, the different money tools and visit the Ask Mo financial advice column to get answers to your most pressing questions regarding financial planning.

The campaign is led by four Native youth, Denessa, Jordan, Dakota, and Hunter, who share their stories and lessons learned about their Minor’s Trust, or “Big Money.”

To learn more about the My Green campaign, signup for email alerts at www.mybigmoney.org. Please also like the My Green Facebook page and My Green Twitter account!

My Green FAQ

Q: What does Big Money stand for?

A: Big Money is a slang term for a large lump sum Minor's Trust payout.

Q: What are Minor’s Trust Payouts?

A: When tribes generate revenue from tribal enterprises or leases they have the discretion to issue per capita (or monetary) payments to tribal citizens. Many tribes that make per capita payments hold these payments for minors in a trust until they reach a specified age. At the specified age the minor receives the Minor’s Trust Payout.

Q: Who Receives Minor’s Trust Payouts and Per Capita Payments?

A: As sovereign nations, tribes have the discretion to decide how and when to distribute per capita payments and Minor’s Trust payouts to their citizens. Some tribes place conditions on Minor’s Trust payouts such as requiring minors to earn a high school diploma or GED before they can receive their Minor’s Trust payout.

Many tribes do not issue per capita payments or Minors Trust payouts. Some have decided against the payments. Others do not generate enough income to issue payments at all.

Q: Where can I learn more about Minor’s Trust Payouts and Per Capita Payments?

A: In addition to the My Green website First Nations has many resources available in our Knowledge Center as well as at our InvestNative website.

Q: Where can I learn more about Financial Education in Native Communities?

A: At www.mybigmoney.org of course! But the program section of First Nations’ website outlines some of the innovative projects we are undertaking in Native communities. Additionally we have many resources available in our Knowledge Center dealing with financial education.

Dr. Per Cap’s 2015 Financial Literacy All Stars

First Nations Development Institute is proud to partner with Dr. Per Cap during Financial Literacy Month to highlight the great work of some financial literacy heroes. Dr. Per Cap, as usual, provides his insight on all things related to Native American financial education.  

Dr. Per Cap’s Financial Literacy 2015 All-Star Picks

April is national Financial Literacy Month, so let’s celebrate by recognizing a few outstanding individuals who are working hard to expand financial education efforts throughout Indian Country.  In keeping with what has become an annual tradition each week in April, I will highlight the accomplishments of one totally awesome person who embodies the spirit of Native financial empowerment through selfless dedication, action over words, and an inclusive community vision. We’ve got five weeks in April this year, so here’s a bonus fifth All Star!

Financial Literacy: Life on Your Own Terms

First Nations Development Institute received a grant from the Daniels Fund to support the Financial Literacy: Life on Your Own Terms curriculum project, which has been piloted with a group of high school students at Gallup Central High School in New Mexico. The purpose of the curriculum project was to institutionalize a culturally appropriate financial and investor education class for high school students. The classes addressed personal finance topics such as responsible use of a credit card, avoiding predatory lenders, understanding banking, car buying tips, safeguarding against identity theft and basic investing skills.

Students at Gallup Central High School Participate in National Financial Capability Challenge

At Gallup Central High School (GCHS), First Nations Development Institute piloted a financial literacy curriculum based on the Building Native Communities series. Working with the school's principal, where more than 90 percent of students are Native American, First Nations received a grant from the Daniels Fund to offer an innovative financial literacy class to high school youth. After nine weeks of instruction, students in the "Financial Literacy: Life on Your Terms" class signed up to take the National Financial Capability Challenge.

The National Financial Capability Challenge was an effort to help high school students develop the knowledge and skills needed to take control of their financial futures. In 2010, high school students nationwide were invited to take a voluntary online exam to demonstrate and to assess their financial knowledge. Based on national results, three students from the GCHS class scored in the top 20th percentile and received certificates.

"I am really proud of my students and what they have accomplished in their classes," stated GCHS instructor Arnold Blum.


FINRA's New Distribution Channels for Investor Education

First Nations received a grant from FINRA(Financial Industry Regulatory Authority) to provide financial and investor education to at least 500 individuals over a three-year period by partnering with the Office of Special Trustee (OST) to provide investor education trainings, with an outcome of changing financial awareness, attitudes and behavior. First Nations will also provide financial and investor education to students in Bureau of Indian Education schools. We are also conducting a national social marketing campaign that emphasizes the importance of saving or investing tribal per capita, or trust payment, wisely. The goal of this marketing campaign is to promote changes in financial awareness, attitudes and behavior by developing and disseminating marketing materials to educate community members about financial management and investing.

Learn more about the work that FINRA supports at http://www.finra.org/.

Celebrating the Success of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has created a unique financial education online curriculum that can be modeled in other tribal communities to help American Indian youth learn how to manage financial resources. The impact of the online curriculum has been so successful that the Native American Finance Officers Association (NAFOA) awarded it the "Financial Literacy Program of the Year" during its annual spring conference in 2011.

NAFOA noted during the award winner's gathering that economic development is vital to the long-term health and success of a tribe. And, included with the growth of economic development is the financial literacy of tribal members. NAFOA's "Financial Literacy Program of the Year Award" aims to honor a financial literacy program developed and instituted by a tribe. Kathy Dugan from the Eastern Bank of Cherokee Indians and Shawn Spruce, a financial education consultant for First Nations, were on hand to accept the award.


Oklahoma Asset-Building: Promoting Economic Security for Life

First Nations Development Institute received a grant from the Ford Foundation to launch the "Building Economic Security for Life" project. The purpose of the initiative is to promote an asset-building agenda at the state and local levels that will provide income and program strategies to ensure family economic security. First Nations has partnered with Oklahoma Native Asset Coalition and Oklahoma Policy Institute to promote a research agenda that builds on the momentum of family asset-building strategies.

Oklahoma Policy Institute
The Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy) is a member of Oklahoma Assets, a coalition of asset-building practitioners and organizations committed to identifying and strengthening programs and policies that help achieve economic security for Oklahomans. OK Policy, as one of the partnering organizations of Oklahoma Assets, received a grant to develop a series of publications and webinars on financial education. The following is a recent interview with David Blatt, executive director of OK Policy, on the importance of family economic security in Oklahoma.

An Advocate for Economic Security
A Conversation with David Blatt
In a small office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sits a gentleman fervently reviewing state economic policy and the latest legislation impacting families in the state of Oklahoma. David Blatt, now serving as the executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OK Policy), recently sat down with First Nations Development Institute staff to discuss why he is part of a growing movement for asset-building programs and financial education for Oklahoman families.

Blatt is recognized as one of the state's leading experts on financial policy, and he has been with the Oklahoma Policy Institute since it was founded in 2008. The Oklahoma Policy Institute is a nonprofit organization dedicated to building a state economy that provides shared prosperity for all Oklahomans through economic opportunity and financial security. OK Policy is a member of Oklahoma Assets, a coalition of asset-building practitioners and organizations committed to identifying and strengthening programs and policies that help achieve economic security for Oklahomans. OK Policy, as one of the partnering organizations of Oklahoma Assets, received a $40,000 grant from First Nations and the Ford Foundation to develop a series of publications and webinars on financial education.

First Nations: What does it mean to you to work towards family economic security in Oklahoma? What hope does your organization provide to the communities you work in?

Blatt: I believe that all families should have access to assets. Everyone should be able to own a home in a good neighborhood. OK Policy is a think tank, and we provide research, policy analysis and a framework for policy changes at the state level. In our financial education work, we focus on the importance of savings, investing and ownership of assets.

First Nations: Why should we continue to invest in asset-building programs?

Blatt: If you are going to have success in any community, you need asset-building programs. Everyone needs access to housing, education, healthcare and financial resources. Building assets leads to the reduction of poverty.

First Nations: What hope will Oklahoma Assets provide to families and communities in Oklahoma?

Blatt: We can bring partners together to make a difference. We can help people become homeowners even open a savings account. A savings account can change a person's life. We can create change in people's lives.

Ask Dr. Per Cap

Ask Dr. Per Cap is a financial advice column to help you travel the winding road toward financial independence.

The column was originally designed for tribal citizens who receive per capita payments. About 20 percent of the Native American population in the United States receives these payments, primarily from gaming revenues and dividends from natural resources leases.

Dr. Per Cap draws upon his experiences – some good, some bad – to help you learn skills, tricks and strategies to take control of your financial future.

Click here for more information.

Native American Family Economic Security

Native American Family Economic Security: Linking Asset-Building Programs in Indian Country is a two-year project made possible by generous grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Foundation. The grants target two Native communities in Washington and one in Montana.  The purpose is to develop, strengthen and expand programs/services that build the family economic security of Native communities through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites. 
Two existing VITA sites – Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC) in Montana and Northwest Native Development Fund (NNDF) in Washington – received grants from First Nations for two years of funding, and one new VITA site – Chehalis Tribal Loan Fund in Washington – recently received funding from First Nations to launch its project.  During the first year of the grant, NNDF doubled the number of returns it filed from the previous tax season to total 84 tax returns.  They secured more than $100,000 in refunds, brought back nearly $35,000 to their community through the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and saved their clients an estimated $21,000 in fees.  Similarly, CDKC filed 439 tax returns, returned more than $1 million back to their community, and secured $431,388 in EITC back to the people of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.  Both existing sites have successfully linked VITA clients to social services using an online social service portal (Bridge to Benefits and Washington Connection), and have also linked clients to asset-building programs such as IDAs, financial education and/or credit repair services.
In August 2012, First Nations held a convening for CDKC, NNDF and Chehalis.  In a collaborative small-group discussion, participants exchanged best practices and strategies that would enable them to expand the services offered and the number of individuals served.  The two existing sites assumed a mentoring role for the newly established site and imparted sound advice to assist Chehalis in achieving success in its first year.  All participants said they greatly valued the open conversation and felt revitalized and ready to have a successful tax season.   All grantees are currently preparing for the upcoming tax season.

Model Tribal Code

First Nations Development Institute has produced a model tribal consumer protection code. With funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, First Nations worked with staff at DNA People’s Legal Services, Inc. to produce a model tribal code that can be adopted to regulate a variety of activities on reservations. The code provides a legal framework for tribes to regulate economic transactions on their reservations, including a range of credit products such as payday loans. The model tribal code also includes the following chapters:

Chapter 1 – Fair Debt Collection Practice
Chapter 2 – Privacy Protection
Chapter 3 – Motor Vehicle Warranty
Chapter 4 – Rental Purchase Agreement
Chapter 5 – Repossession of Personal Property
Chapter 6 – Repossession of Manufactured Homes
Chapter 7 – Motor Vehicle Deficiency Charges
Chapter 8 – False Advertising
Chapter 9 – Pawn Transactions/Pawn Brokers
Chapter 10 – Pyramid or Multilevel Sales

For more information about the model tribal code, please email Sarah Dewees. To download the Model Tribal Consumer Protecttion Code, visit our Knowledge Center.

Bank Payday Lending: A Debt-Trap Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

First Nations Development Institute has joined a national effort to actively oppose “bank payday lending” by established banks and financial institutions. First Nations believes this new practice by large, respected companies will undermine the hard-fought gains made in Native American and military communities and others to curb predatory lending practices that particularly prey on low-income people.

According to Diane Standaert of the Center for Responsible Lending, five large banks are now making unaffordable, high-cost payday loans, typically calling them “direct deposit advances” or “checking account advances."  The banks are Wells Fargo, Regions, US Bank, Guaranty Bank, and Fifth Third.  She said that with their high fees and a single balloon-payment taken out of a customer’s next direct deposit, these loans create the same debt trap as expensive payday loans made from strip-mall storefront lenders.  They may also trigger additional charges such as overdraft fees, and can contribute to the increased likelihood of bankruptcy, late credit card and bill payments, delayed medical care, and even loss of basic banking privileges because of repeated overdrafts.

federal reserve

First Nations has joined the Center for Responsible Lending and a wide range of 250 national, state and local organizations – including consumer advocates, civil rights organizations, faith-based groups and social service agencies – to oppose the practice.  They are asking U.S. bank regulators in Washington, D.C., including the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Comptroller of the Currency, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to take immediate action to stop banks from making such loans.

"The very structure of a bank payday loan makes it likely to trap customers in long-term debt even while the bank claims that the loans are meant for short-term use," noted Rebecca Borne, senior policy analyst at the center.

"We recognize the need for emergency credit," Director Richard Cordray of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said recently. "At the same time, it is important that these products actually help consumers, rather than harm them."

Combating predatory lending has long been part of the mission of First Nations because it has a tremendously negative impact on Native communities. It is devastating because it destroys the potential for asset building that is critically needed to bring economic security to Indian families and communities. First Nations’ research has shown that predatory lending is stripping money from low-income tribal citizens, especially those who are unbanked or underbanked.

You can support this effort by signing on as an individual, company or organization by contacting Diane at the Center for Responsible Lending at dianes@responsiblelending.org.  And you can support First Nations in its mission by giving generously online or by mail.

Tax Time Taxing Enough Without Deception

Tax time is taxing enough each year, so why pay more than you have to? First Nations Development Institute conducted research in early 2012 to see if Native American tax filers were being overcharged for tax-preparation services.

federal reserve

With support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations carried out a second year of secret shopping during the 2012 tax season to assess the quality of tax-preparation services and to discover if tax-preparation companies were steering people toward expensive products, such as refund anticipation loans or refund anticipation checks.

The most troublesome finding from this year’s research was that tax preparers manipulate clients into signing up for costly products like the Refund Anticipation Check (RAC) or Refund Anticipation Loan (RAL). Three of the 10 participants in our 2012 study were automatically signed up for the RAC option to receive their refunds, through questionable methods used by the preparers. Furthermore, seven of the 10 were offered a RAL loan and all 10 shoppers had some type of exposure to this expensive option through aggressive marketing. We found that some companies used a strategy of only accepting cash upfront for preparation fees, resulting in automatic enrollment of the client in a loan product if he or she did not have cash on hand. Finally, like the RAC disclosure forms, some preparers had our shoppers sign RAL consent forms without any consent.

One of our secret shopper’s experiences exemplified many of the concerning findings from our research. When she applied for a loan against her tax refund, a Social Security card and birth certificate were held as collateral for the loan until she returned to file her taxes with the company. When she later had her taxes prepared by the company, she attempted to pay her tax-preparation fees up front, which would have saved her almost $50. The company informed her that these fees were automatically rolled into her loan product and could not be removed to pay separately. The most significant issue, however, was that our participant was told that her refund came in almost two weeks after the IRS website said it was available. During this time period, our shopper, who had recently become unemployed, decided to take out another loan and the loan company enabled her to apply for another costly loan. This client later filed a complaint against the tax-preparation firm and received a payment from the firm for the fees associated with the third loan.

“We acknowledge that tax preparation firms can provide a valuable service,” said Sarah Dewees, Senior Director of First Nations’ Research, Policy and Asset-Building Programs in New Mexico, “but we expect them to act ethically and in the best interest of their customers. Our research suggests this is not always the case, and instead tax preparers are taking advantage of some Native American tax filers.” To read the report

Consumer Protection in Native Communities

In an effort to combat predatory lending and effect change at the federal, state and tribal policy level, First Nations has conducted two groundbreaking studies of predatory lending in Native American communities. The results show that predatory lending is a growing problem for Indians, who generally lack access to lending institutions for a variety of reasons. Based on our studies, First Nations has recommended that tribal nations act to combat predatory lending by:

  1. Providing financial and consumer education programs,
  2. Developing credit programs and borrowing opportunities that reduce the demand for predatory loans and help to repair credit, and
  3. Adopting interest rate caps and other consumer protection laws.

In 2008, First Nations Development Institute released "Borrowing Trouble: Predatory Lending in Native American Communities," a report detailing the predatory practices of lenders that target Native American communities. This landmark report is the result of a research study conducted by First Nations and funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. First Nations presented testimony on "Predatory Lending and its Impact on Native American Communities" at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 5, 2008. The testimony is available in our Knowledge Center.

To learn more about predatory lending, visit our knowledge center.

Building Trust: Consumer Protection in Native Communities

Building Trust: Consumer Protection in Native Communities is the first attempt to explore the complex legal dynamics related to tribal consumer protection legislation and to discuss what tribal nations are already doing to combat predatory lending through the use of tribal legislation. This report also highlights issues that tribal leaders should consider in developing legal and regulatory tools to combat predatory lending.

To learn more about Consumer Protection in Native Communities, visit our knowledge center

Guide to VITA Site Development in Native Communities

With funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, First Nations is conducting research on successful Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites serving reservation communities, and we are producing a practitioner's guide and providing assistance to pilot VITA site implementation. VITA sites are critical to helping Native communities because they provide a safe alternative to high-fee tax preparation and predatory lending. Research is also being conducted to help policy makers looking to legally limit the impact of predatory lenders.

Laguna Pueblo VITA Site Serves the Community

Native Community Finance, a community development financial institution serving the Laguna Pueblo and surrounding community, has run a successful Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site for many years. A VITA site provides free tax preparation for individuals and can help people save money on preparing their tax returns.Native Community Finance works closely with Tax Help New Mexico and other referring agencies, such as the local senior center and social service departments. Tax preparation fees have been reported as high as $450 in the area, so Native Community Finance helps people avoid high cost services. By providing tax services free of charge, the Native Community Finance VITA site saved local community members an estimated total of $96,000 in 2009 that would have otherwise been paid to commercial tax preparers.