Empowering Change: Relationship-based Financial Tools to Alleviate Poverty and Foster Systemic Change

The Community Empowerment Fund combines relationship-based support with practical financial tools to alleviate homelessness and poverty.

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  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Choose not to respond

Where are you making a difference?

North Carolina: Chapel Hill North Carolina: Durham

Focus Areas (required)

  • Civic Engagement
  • Development & Prosperity

Date Started

October / 28 / 2010

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Scaling (expanding impact to many new places or in many new ways)


  • $500k - $1m

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)

https://communityempowermentfund.org/ https://www.instagram.com/communityef/

Twitter URL


Facebook URL


LinkedIn URL


1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

In July of 2009, halfway through CEF’s pilot year, Thomas, one of our first borrowers, relapsed. He met CEF’s Co-Founders the next morning and brought with him a letter—a two-part proposal for the rest of his recovery. Step one, he shared, was to “not give up.” Step two was to “find a person I can really trust and let them be my accountability partner with this money matter. Just to let someone know what day I’ll be paid and find some way to get this money off my hands.” We launched CEF’s very first Safe Savings Account with Thomas, and in a few months he saved several thousand dollars—enough to move off the streets into a place of his own, and do more than make ends meet. As Thomas saw, relationships are at the center of our work.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The US economic system is arranged to produce massive wealth and power disparities. Advantaged groups inherit a centuries-long legacy and present-day system of benefits that provide opportunity while excluding marginalized groups. Services available for people experiencing poverty and homelessness have a limited scope that often fails to recognize the context of this broken system, instead offering disconnected, non-person-centered solutions.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

Through our holistic model, Members work alongside volunteer Advocates in long-term relationships to pursue goals of housing, employment, and financial wellbeing. We’ve invested deeply in Connect, a custom-developed Salesforce platform that equips Members and Advocates during weekly meetings. The Connect platform also delivers CEF’s Safe Savings Accounts and other financial service products, where Members work with their Advocates towards savings goals that receive a match. Connect also hosts 65+ financial coaching modules and 650+ community resources. Financial capability-building is woven into a wide swath of goals (banking, housing, job readiness, health etc.), allowing CEF to support Members more broadly—as a whole person. Over the past 3 years, Connect has enabled CEF to scale from working with 500 Members per year to 1,000+. Since many CEF Members have experienced trauma and the effects of systemic racism, we weave a trauma-informed, racial equity lens throughout our programs. Once trust is established and immediate crises are resolved, we offer opportunities for Members to share their experiences and wisdom through local advocacy that builds toward systemic change.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

Earl came to CEF over two years ago while he was pursuing a 12-step recovery program. Growing up in a big family with “a lot of love,” Earl’s family did not have a bank account. Communities of color have been historically denied investment and services by banks, resulting in mistrust and disengagement. Though skeptical when he first came to CEF, he liked the relationship-based and holistic structure. Working with his Advocate, Steven, Earl secured a full-time job and feels prepared for future job searches. Earl says “I don’t want a handout… Just give me that, ‘you can do it.’ That is the hand I need.” Earl also took advantage of CEF’s financial tools, disputing debts and creating payment and budget plans—saving nearly $4,000! Since then, he’s opened a checking account at a nearby bank, where he has become such good friends with his banker that she offered to be a reference for him.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

CEF’s programs are available for people in Orange and Durham Counties, NC, who are experiencing homelessness or financial insecurity. All our Members belong to this underserved population, and many face additional barriers to gaining greater income and stability. 54% Members identify as having a conviction history, and 49% as having a disability. CEF opens access to often inaccessible tools that are needed to build assets and financial well-being, including bank accounts and financial coaching.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • ability
  • work status
  • socio-economic class
  • other (please specify on question 5a)

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

CEF merges relationship-based support with financial tools for people experiencing financial and housing insecurity, while providing pathways for those directly impacted to engage in community advocacy. There are no other organizations in CEF’s region providing a similar service, and other practitioners in the asset-building field have not found ways to successfully serve people experiencing homelessness. By combining financial tools with person-centered and trauma-informed support, CEF creates trust and community, enabling individuals to achieve their goals while working for systemic change.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

Since CEF began our relationship-based financial coaching, we have provided support to 2,335 Members and engaged 1,013 volunteer Advocates. Nearly half of all Members have participated in our financial coaching program. With those tools, 1,036 Members have opened Safe Savings Accounts at CEF, and a third of them have made significant progress towards their goals -- saving at least 25%. Together, our Members have saved $960,447! Here’s what Members have to say: “[CEF] don’t do the talk, they do the walk...[They] ask you, ‘What do you want?’ and take everything you say to the heart. “When you go to other services you feel like you’re given a band-aid. But the difference is with CEF it’s more of a healing process.” “I was able to pay off over $5,000 in credit card debt, raised my credit score almost 80 points, maintain a safety net savings account and purchase my first home!”

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

CEF has a strong model of relationship-based support combined with financial tools, delivered with the support of our technological platform, Connect. We seek to scale our impact and deepen opportunities available to Members by continuing to develop Connect. We also encourage Members who are directly affected by systemic inequities (housing, justice-involvement etc.) to engage in local advocacy for systemic change. This project will build on the relationships and financial stability our program creates to increase Member-led initiatives that foster community and organize for system change.

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizational Growth
  • Large Scale Partnerships
  • Organizing Conferences
  • Trainings, Consultation
  • Open Sourcing
  • Campaigns

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

CEF’s goal of scaling impact and increasing Member-led advocacy will require additional resources, especially in increased staff time to coordinate campaigns. CEF will sustain the project by relying on the funding sources that currently support our work, including grants, individual donors, contract fees, and local government. By increasing local advocacy, we will also be expanding CEF’s visibility in the community, which we will leverage to increase donations and sustainably fund the project.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

CEF’s team includes 13 staff members, including 7 full-time and 3 part-time positions, along with 3 full-time fellowship/Americorps positions. Of this team, 3 have received services as Members and 5 identify as people of color. We are led collaboratively by 3 Co-Directors, 2 of whom have played founding roles. We also have 13 very engaged board members, including 2 who have received CEF services as Members. Staff turnover is low. We expect to add 2 new positions over the next three years.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French)
  • Asian (for example: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • Communities of color

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Ashoka page or contact

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 33.3%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 66.7%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 0%

Yes/maybe - 0%

Maybe - 100%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 33.3%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 33.3%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 33.3%

Impact measurement - 33.3%

Impact Potential - 100%

Financial Sustainability - 0%

Team - 33.3%

Partnerships - 0%

Potential to scale - 33.3%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 50%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 50%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 0%

Impact measurement - 50%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 100%

Team - 0%

Partnerships - 100%

Potential to scale - 100%

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Attachments (4)

Mike and Julius Alston _ CEF_ Community Empowerment Fund.pdf

Julius and Mike Alston are CEf Members and brothers who for the first time in their lives have their very own home.

CEF Member_ Cameron _ CEF_ Community Empowerment Fund.pdf

CEF Member Cameron has a home of his own for the first time in years. Read about his experience and why housing matters.


Learn about CEF's history with our documentary and tool kit. This kit includes a timeline of our founding story, an outline of our partnerships, and a guide to viewing and discussing the film! Use it along with the documentary film shared above or at this link: https://communityempowermentfund.org/doc/


Read about CEF's most recent accomplishments in our 2016 Annual Report.


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