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Financial Buddy System

People who are homeless are matched together with volunteers to gain financial empowerment and possibly more

Photo of Will Fung

Written by

This idea emerged from:

  • An individual

I recently read a short story (see below for link) by Andy Andrews, who was once homeless at the age of 23 and lived underneath a pier on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

In the story, Andy shares some lessons that helped him get out of homelessness. Those lessons were instilled in Andy by a man who simply just goes by Jones. Jones tells Andy: 

“Remember, young man, experience is not the best teacher. Other people’s experience is the best teacher. By reading about the lives of great people, you can unlock the secrets to what made them great.” 

This really resonated with me, as I find learning from others and their experiences to be very valuable. From reading the OpenIDEO ideas by Delilah and Trevor (see the very bottom for inspiration links), I really started to think about Jones’ quote and how it can have incremental but impactful benefits to those who are homeless. There are plenty of community programs that match professional mentors with youths in impoverished areas, so what about a program that matches mentors with people who are homeless?

On a more general note, I also posted a short video clip of Andy Andrews on Good Morning America that gives some “perspective” and potential insights on design thinking.

Who does this idea benefit, who are the main players and what's in it for them?

In Trevor’s post, he brings up two groups: Those who cannot work, and those who can work. The Financial Buddy System would be best suited for the group who can work, as the mentor can share financially empowering tips, such as budgeting and job opportunities, and other practical life experiences. The mentor program could be opened up to anyone to volunteer, but it could be more impactful for the homeless if the mentor is someone who was previously homeless. In this scenario, the relationship between the mentor and mentee would be much stronger. The mentor would have empathy to his or her mentee, and the mentee would be able to relate more to his or her mentor. In an ideal world, mentors would participate in this program due to intrinsic factors (ie. The mentor simply feels great about helping others), and mentees would participate due to the inherent value of learning from someone who was in their position and was able to become financially stable; however, not everyone is intrinsically motivated. For those who are extrinsically motivated, perhaps mentors could benefit from some sort of tax credit/deduction, and mentees from extra meals at soup kitchens or additional food stamps.

How is your idea specifically using the power of communities to improve financial opportunities and resources?

Without easy access to the internet, prospective mentees would register and build a profile for the buddy program at their local homeless shelters, soup kitchens, or associated churches. Similarly, prospective mentors could register in the same community establishments mentioned above, but would also be able to browse prospective mentee profiles online through the web or an app. The mentor would also be able to select a prospective mentees through the online portal (basically online dating these days, but applied towards a buddy system).

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

The first assumption is if the people in need and volunteers would want to participate in such a program. For people who are homeless, a quick survey at local shelters and soup kitchens would provide an idea whether there is sufficient interest. A similar approach (surveys) can be taken with the general public is determine the amount of interest, but to take it one step further, it would great to be able to survey people who were previously homeless or other specific volunteer groups. Another important assumption that needs to be tested is whether such a program is effective. Again, surveys filled out by people who have participated on either side of a similar buddy system will provide the easiest lightweight experiment. From a quick Google search, I was only able to find one article, from 1995, about a program in the Los Angeles area ( Alternatively, interviewing people from other mentorship programs, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, could provide some helpful information.

What skills, input or guidance might you be seeking from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

The mentorship program will need to be carefully designed. People who have experience from either side of with a mentorship program or people with experience working or volunteering at homeless shelters, soup kitchens, etc, will be very helpful. Since we will be teaching people practical knowledge, any educators that can provide additional insights will be beneficial. People with knowledge about government benefits can help solidify extrinsic motivators for both mentors and mentees.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Joe Silva

Hey Will - I'd love to collaborate or join your team (whatever you see fit) during the refinement phase. I've been working with different homeless populations since 2011, and I've paid attention to how these communities function and what makes people tick. My idea was similar to yours as OpenIDEO mentioned below... Here are some thoughts.

Re: Those who can work vs. those who can't work.

=( It's not true!

There are a number of work possibilities/opportunities for people without a home who are using substances or those who are living with a mental health condition. I'd imagine those are the symptoms of homelessness that shelter workers think of when they say people can or can not work. Of course, these conditions are very common for people who live on the street or a place not meant for human habitation. It's cold at night, and they don't want to freeze, so they use substances to stay awake- and then they go to sleep during the day in the warmer sun. For the vast majority of people who live in shelter programs- they are mandated to remain sober, or they are asked to leave (for liability issues). Trevor spoke with someone who works in a shelter, and I am afraid their perspective is limited to the immediate metric they work around everyday (filling beds and moving people in and out of the door). All I am saying is I don't think this idea should be limited to "those who can work" bc a lot of the people who society sees as the ones who "can't work", probably need financial empowerment the most and the buddy system would be a great way to get them thinking differently about their situation.

This is a good segue into how to access and gain trust within these communities.

Homeless people are tired of the way the system dictates how they live. Even if this idea gets funded, and our approach comes from the most wonderfully human-centered place, the homeless people we work with will not trust us until we prove that we value their current approach to helping themselves. In their minds, the only people they trust are themselves and (sometimes) the people they survive with on the street day in and day out. This only includes social workers and community members who do not pressure them to move faster then they are capable of.

I sat with this guy for 6 months, worked with 3 other housing organizations, a bunch of store clerks and the police before he trusted me to "come inside" - and I don't run a shelter. I have a brand new apartments for veterans to live in. To address this issue there is currently a big push for human service organizations to hire "peer navigators", or people who share a similar experience and have made it through to self sufficiency.

What we need is a van.

A mobile unit that meets the homeless where they are at, gives them rides to appointments and just supports their current routine. Hire support staff who are formerly homeless persons, but contact housing programs, not shelters, for peer navigators. People who make it from "emergency housing" to "permanent housing", know what it's like to be on the street, go into a shelter, (get really lucky) and find permanent housing. They speak the language and will know how to navigate public assistance and other intricacies of the most basic benefits people are entitled to when they live on the street.

We will only be able to start to teach them about better financial habits once we gain their trust. And trust me they need transportation more than we need Uber. They would love us for that.

Excited to hear your thoughts.

Photo of Will Fung

Hi Joe,

Great to hear from you! Unfortunately, I won't be able to continue building on the Financial Buddy System. It was brought to my attention that your SHARE-fi idea has similar attributes and could benefit from integrating ideas and concepts from the Financial Buddy System. So as to provide you with "ownership" with the concepts here, I added you to the Financial Buddy System team. Feel free to use the material from here in SHARE-fi. Best of luck with the rest of the challenge, and I hope to see SHARE-fi as one of the top ideas!

Photo of Joe Silva


Sorry to hear you won't be able to continue... Thank you for adding me to the team, and allowing me to work with your idea. I will do my best to synthesize your concepts with mine, and build something we can both be proud of.

Take care man!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congratulations on making it to the Financial Empowerment Challenge Refinement phase, Will! We love that your idea was inspired by a first-person perspective on homelessness – and drew on the ideas of other OpenIDEO community members, too – and it’s great that you’re continuing to learn more from successful mentoring models by speaking with organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

To get the most out of the Refinement phase, it would be great to map out some scenarios for the Financial Buddy System user journey. What would the experience look like from the perspective of both mentors and mentees (and, perhaps, any other stakeholders you envision in the program)? The sooner you create a user experience map, the sooner you’ll be able to bring the experience to life and get valuable feedback on what might be improved! Have you thought about what an early experiment would look like, and who you could work with to set it up? Are there particular people or skills you’d want on your team? You might start by forming an online team with some other OpenIDEO community members who have already provided feedback and shown interest in collaborating. We also encourage you to work more closely with Joe Silva to explore how you might learn from or incorporate elements of his idea, SHARE-fi, since your ideas have a lot in common. We’re excited to see how you develop this exciting idea in the Refinement phase! Don’t forget to check out our Resources page ( and these tips for Refinement (, too.

Photo of Joe Silva

Thanks for mentioning me here. These ideas have a similar approach. I'd love to collaborate around building a more specific framework for the user journey.

Photo of Anu

Hi Will!

Great concept and idea, well done! As mentioned below, the first issue than comes to mind is probably internet access. But generally these people are in contact with some kind of support services e.g. temporary housing/food services etc.

My suggestion would be that you would need to partner with such services and provided the buddy system through their programs. This will probably be able to give you better reach and also ensure that there are internet facilities at these locations.

You would also need to ensure the ''buddy" was aware of cultural contexts and diversity as well to ensure they could address needs.


Photo of Maddie Wiener

Hey Will- Really cool idea! I love how you're building on already successful programs (Big Brothers Big Sisters of America). It sounds like this could turn into a really powerful mentor program.

I'm really interested in the questions that you are going to ask community members, as to help you find out if this program is going to work. Who are you going to interview? What are you going to ask them? What are you trying to figure out from their responses? Look forward to seeing this idea develop!

Photo of Jemima

Hi Will,

In Australia we have the government benefit system but we still have a big problem with homelessness.
It would be great to partner up with an organisation or idea to tackle both issues as I do believe financial literacy & mentoring/relationship would go along way in getting someone back on track.
The Smith Family in Australia do a lot of great education/financial/ homelessness work in partnership with one of our big banks. Check out

Photo of Hoong Chun Wong

Hi will

This is an great idea.
Having taking into account where homeless have no access to the internet.

However, for starter, what kind of areaa of financial education you are suggesting?

Maybe there two areas came to my mind was that, how to maximum the money they collected from the street to increase their financial position, and maybe a paid job that.motivate them to look forward on every.morning and in exchange be paid as well.

Will will you suggest we could trigger a viral effect as this is certainly a real world.problem, where homeless are not necessarily financially inknowlegable, maybe just have no head start to begin with.

Photo of An Old Friend

I wonder if there's a way to broaden this up to general "accountability buddies". For instance, you could pair people up from around the world (perhaps with some degree of anonymity), and structure it such that people would hold each other accountable for spending/saving targets, etc.

Photo of Will Fung

Hi Ibrahim, I like the thought of being able to pair people from around the world! This would definitely expand the pool of mentors and mentees.

Also, how do you envision this working with some degree of anonymity? It'd be great if this can be expanded on a bit more.

Photo of An Old Friend

I was thinking you might be able to build on existing online platforms.

Mint, for example, lets you set and track various financial goals. What if Mint offered to partner you with someone anonymously with similar goals? You'd each be able to view non-identifying information about each other, including progress towards achieving your goals, and send each other messages.

For example:
"Hey Will, it looks like you're making great progress towards paying down that student loan. It looks like you've been consistently over-budget on food over the last few weeks though. Anything I can do to help?"

The platform could automatically "prompt" your partner to send you messages of encouragement, or check-in on you (either periodically, or upon meeting some preset thresholds).

What do you think?

Photo of Will Fung

Hmmm...I see what you're getting at. I really like your idea, but getting frequent internet access to the homeless may be challenging, or at least something I'm not so familiar with. However, I think what you have here can be a great stand alone idea!

Photo of Lily Mathews

I really like this thinking. One organization that I admire is the Capital Good Fund (based in Providence, RI) that works on financial empowerment in low-income communities. Perhaps there's some inspirational materials from their work that can fuel this idea's development.

Photo of Will Fung

Thanks, Lily! I'll definitely check out Capital Good Fund!

Photo of Shane Zhao

Thanks for sharing the Financial Buddy System Will! And it's great to see that you've built on the contributions from Delilah and Trevor. Have you mapped out how a possible scenario of this Buddy System can work in a step by step process? Perhaps you might adapt some aspects of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program or build on a like minded idea in this challenge. Your thought of reaching out to the staff of a local soup kitchen would also be a great avenue to explore. A rough mockup of how this idea will work would be helpful in gaining specific feedback from the OpenIDEO community.

Looking forward to how this idea will grow!

Photo of Will Fung

Hi Shane, unfortunately I don't have a step by step process mapped out yet. Absolutely, I plan on getting in touch with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America as a starting point.

Photo of Trevor z Hallstein

Hi Will, great insight around the need for people to be connected. Maybe the big brothers big sisters programs in the bay area would have some ideas to draw from?

Photo of Will Fung

Great suggestion, Trevor! I'll try to get in contact with the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to gain further insights.