Building Native Communities Curriculum Goes Virtual

The Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families Train-the-Trainer Workshops certify individuals in the Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum to go on to help more members of Native communities adapt traditional skills for financial management. In 2020 and 2021, in the outbreak and fall-out of COVID-19, these important trainings shifted to an online format. In this Impact Story, First Nations’ Programs Consultant Shawn Spruce shares his experiences reaching audiences in a new virtual environment.

Pivoting Training in the Wake of COVID-19

By Shawn Spruce

Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families Train-the-Trainer Workshops, along with the Financial Skills for Families Participant Workbook, are part of what is commonly known as BNC, Indian Country’s go-to financial education curriculum for teaching budgeting, credit, consumer awareness, and other hot topics. The BNC brand also includes a basic investing curriculum and Oweesta’s recently launched teen and young adult curriculum.

As flagship BNC training products co-owned by First Nations Development Institute and Oweesta Corporation, the workshops are a high-wattage forum for participants to network, learn, and grow, while the participant workbook, currently in its 5th edition, is popular for its culturally relevant shtick, engaging lessons, and hands-on activities.

Every year, the workshops and workbook are introduced to countless tribal housing programs, CDFIs, tribal colleges, wellness centers, and other groups that all share a common need to provide quality financial education to Native American families. As an outcomes-driven financial education trainer, I delivered my first BNC training in the summer 2008. Since then, I’ve probably delivered close to 30 BNC workshops over the past 12 years, sometimes being supported by a co-trainer, and sometimes braving it alone. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed the ride as the curriculum continues to evolve, expand, and improve.

The workshops are typically a lengthy three-day affair with intensive prep and planning, but I’ve gotten the process nailed down pretty tight. That all changed in 2020.

Enter a new virtual world

When I realized I had to take BNC virtual, I was more than a little worried that the workshops would lose the high-touch, interactive elements that make BNC a hit. How would I create and maintain energy while keeping participants engaged on a webcam? Is it possible to facilitate cool ice breaker activities via Zoom? What exactly is it about face-to-face interaction that makes in-person training so valuable? And more importantly, how can the same valuable experience be created in a virtual format?

Fortunately, I have great partnerships with First Nations, the FINRA Investor Education Foundation, and Oklahoma Native Assets Coalition, Inc. (ONAC). Working with ONAC’s Executive Director, Christy Finsel, and supported by these organizations and the Wells Fargo Foundation, we designed and delivered two virtual BNC workshops in December 2020 and January 2021 targeted to ONAC partners.

We learned a ton, and I was pleasantly surprised at the adaptability of BNC materials. Concerned about Zoom burnout for people subjected to ad nauseam video conferences during the pandemic, we shortened the training to two days. Sessions were streamlined and made more content-focused. In an effort to better manage class participation, we also hosted smaller trainings for 20 to 25 participants, as opposed to 40-plus for in-person workshops. Virtual breakout rooms allowed me to separate participants into smaller discussion groups for classic BNC activities like Evaluating a Loan Application, in which students underwrite borrower case studies.

Benefits of going virtual

While there definitely were challenges in transitioning training designed for in-person delivery to a virtual or remote setting, there were several upsides I discovered:

  • My favorite ice breakers and energizers, Budgeting Mad Libs and 25 Questions, inspire the same positive feedback remotely as in person.
  • Zoom polls are a great way to periodically gauge knowledge retention, and my trusty BNC Jeopardy game does not disappoint as a shared screen exam review.
  • The ability to collect comments virtually encourages participants to share insights, ask questions, and even crack jokes in a non-invasive thread that runs parallel to the main class narrative. This adds a whole new level of depth and nuance that is not possible with in-person training.
  • With a discreet mouse click, I can admit late-arriving participants into class without any disruptions. This is a common distraction with in-person meetings.
  • Different types of visual aids are helpful too. I was able to replace a flip chart with a white board for the Circle of Life resource management lesson and still use the old-school flip chart for a different activity by positioning my easel within camera view.
  • I also can record entire trainings and download participant comments for evaluation purposes. This is a luxury that would be extremely difficult and labor-intensive to replicate for in-person training.
  • Another plus is that the virtual option makes the training financially accessible to all. This addresses a longstanding training accessibility concern for ONAC in reaching for tribes and Native-led nonprofits that may have small travel budgets and related difficulties in sending staff to in-person trainings.


Well, for starters there are no complimentary continental breakfasts, catered lunches, or yummy afternoon snack platters! But seriously, the lack of direct face-to-face interaction presents challenges, especially missing out on those informal, yet priceless, little side convos that pop up organically among participants during breaks and other casual encounters.

As a virtual trainer locked in two dimensions, I also question whether I am effectively engaging all types of learners – visual, auditory, and especially tactile. Also, tech glitches can and do occur, like when my slides froze for five minutes, making it impossible for me to share my screen – oops! Furthermore, going virtual requires that both trainers and participants have ready access to strong reliable internet with up-to-date devices and hardware. This infrastructure is not always available in rural Native communities.

Positive takeaways

That said, after considering all the pros and cons, I feel our virtual BNC workshops have been an overwhelming success. More importantly, post-training participant evaluations echo this sentiment.

Here’s another interesting takeaway: While virtual training is not perfect, the technology along with the trainers will only approve. This means there’s no limit to what we can accomplish with the medium in the future.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the pandemic collapsed into three months a process of adopting e-commerce that otherwise would have taken 10 years. Lockdowns and social distancing forced millions of people in Indian Country and beyond to try online shopping, curbside pick-up, telehealth appointments, and exercise classes. Many of these changes will prove to be permanent, so just maybe virtual BNC is here to stay too. Showing up for work in a sweater and track pants is an added bonus!

For more information about virtual BNC and other virtual financial education opportunities, please contact First Nations Development Institute Programs Consultant, Shawn Spruce, at