A few months ago I wrote an article discussing the lack of financial literacy in society today. Our public education system does not adequately prepare youth for key financial skills, like budgeting and taking out a loan or mortgage.
As a firm believer in the importance of financial literacy, I was excited to learn about PennyDrops from a friend. PennyDrops is an organization that sends university students to high schools to teach basic financial skills. Upon consulting the PennyDrops website in advance of my mentoring sessions I was intrigued by the facts on the homepage.
Looking to learn more about the organization, I reached out to Sophie Beaton, McGill Chapter Co-President, for an interview. Happy to help spread the word about PennyDrops, she agreed and invited Executive Director and co-founder Brenden Mckinney to join us.
In advance of the meeting, I did some research. In 2014, a group of McGill students decided to improve financial literacy among youth through a mentorship program. Their idea became a reality in February 2015 when they founded PennyDrops. It’s similar to the American organization Moneythink, which was founded just after the 2007-08 financial crisis1. Like Moneythink, PennyDrops planned to train university students as mentors and send them to high schools to give students basic financial and economic knowledge. The BMO Corporate Responsibility team recognized the program’s potential and offered sponsorship2. After molding the Moneythink curriculum to something that would work in Canada, PennyDrops reached out to high schools and found success.
McKinney is an Executive Director, so he handles big picture issues, like their national expansion. Also a co-founder, alongside Meagan Prins, he and got the idea for PennyDrops when he and a friend were unable to really understand her first credit card statement. Coming into university without a proper financial education is what drove him to do something about financial illiteracy.
Beaton is a Chapter c0-President alongside Madeline Boyd, and they each deal with McGill’s high schools, scheduling, and mentor selection and training. She was driven to join PennyDrops as a mentor because it reminded her of when university mentors worked with her grade 8 class to teach leadership. Having enjoyed that experience, she was motivated to provide other youth with a similar program. Recognizing her skills and passion as a mentor, PennyDrops made her McGill Chapter President the following year.
What do you like most about PennyDrops?
Brenden: “Really being able to see tangible results. We do a pre-program and a post-program survey, so we can really see how much students were actually able to learn. In the short 8 months we’ve been off the ground we’ve already worked with 10 different high schools in both French and English. Knowing we’ve helped hundreds and hundreds of students and seeing a tangible impact really gets you going and makes you think ‘wow, we can do this on a national level’.”
Sophie: “For me it’s the mentors. It’s so great to have them come back and say ‘I really connected with the students, I want to mentor again, it’s really helping me too.’ When I was mentoring what really hit home for me was hearing students say they felt that math wasn’t their strong subject when in fact they actually had an incredible business acumen. Helping them develop that through PennyDrops and seeing them start to consider going into business was really fulfilling. It was really changing the way they thought about their future and their potential.”
How do you feel about PennyDrops’ progress so far?
B: “Really good. Every high school we’ve approached so far has been interested right off the bat. Whether we’re actually able to take that interest and turn it into a reality isn’t certain – sometimes there are issues, but the interest is definitely there.”
S: “Something that was really exciting for us recently was that a teacher approached us because he had heard really positive things and was wondering if he could bring the program to his school. Knowing that positive word-of-mouth was going around and galvanizing people to implement PennyDrops in their schools was really good to know. Knowing that our mentors are doing that great of a job was really good, I was very proud of them.”
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
B: “Yea, we have the issue of scheduling everywhere. It messes with our ability to have consistent mentors. One of the solutions that we’re aiming to roll out next year is another curriculum that can be taught by a teacher. While our program will primarily be mentor-based teaching, which we feel is more effective, we recognize that we can’t accommodate every single school. Offering a teacher-taught program is still going to reach our goal of getting this information out there.”
What’s next for PennyDrops? How do you plan to expand?
B: “We’re currently at McGill and HEC. We have a founding Chapter team at the University of Toronto and they’ll be up and running come September. We’re also looking into a Queen’s Chapter, a Western Chapter, and potentially a Chapter in Ottawa. We’re starting with Ontario and then next year we’ll go out west and maybe even out east.”
S: “We’ve been able to tap into our personal networks to reach out to other schools. I’m from Toronto, so I say to my friends there, ‘I’m part of this really great program – do you think it could work at your school?’ and 9/10 times they’re very interested. Also, we’re hoping to get more mentors for the McGill Chapter next year. We had plenty of interest this year, but it’s hard with the scheduling. We expect even more interest next year, just through word-of-mouth.”
B: “Also, the majority of our mentors come from management. We’re really trying to branch out from that. I don’t think we’ve tapped nearly enough into other faculties.”
Do you teach the same curriculum at all high schools?
B: “No. We try to customize it to each school. Teachers can choose which lessons they think are the most applicable to their students.”
S: “Also, you can see what the students are most interested in and tailor the curriculum to that. The discussion-based nature of the program allows for customization. Plus, the demographic varies from school to school. For example, when I taught at an alternative school many of the students were on their own and had to have jobs. The curriculum contained life skills that they needed. We were truly helping them become the people they needed to be.”
How do you prepare the mentors?
S: “We host a bunch of information sessions before recruiting. Then we have a training session for the mentors and by the end of that most people feel fully prepared. Ultimately, we’re trying to send the message that, for a university student, the curriculum is totally do-able.”
What would you tell students thinking about applying to be mentors?
S: “No previous financial knowledge is required at all. It’s more about building a dialogue, teaching them about business, and developing critical thinking skills. You don’t need to be a finance major to have those things.”
B: “Yea, this is not even the same material you would learn in a finance major. It’s more applied concepts, like different kinds of taxes and loans. That’s the cool part – the mentors learn just as much as the students.”
S: “It’s true, you learn a lot. Plus, it’s so fulfilling forming relationships with the students and helping them develop skills that they really need. Once you try it you’ll want to mentor again.”
With that, we wrapped up the interview.
I left with the feeling that I’d gained real insight into the motivation and goals behind PennyDrops. A few days later I went to Trafalgar School for Girls and mentored five students about resume and cover letter writing. The girls were clearly very interested and seemed to get a lot out of the session. I understood what Sophie and Brenden meant about the mentors’ ability to follow the curriculum while making it their own. I was able to incorporate personal anecdotes into the lesson and the students volunteered their experiences as well. I’ll be volunteering as a mentor again this school year. I encourage anyone looking to get involved, help others, and learn valuable life skills along the way to apply. Applications are open until Oct 2nd, so you can visit the PennyDrops McGill Facebook page to see how you can get involved!
 “Our Program.” Moneythink. Moneythink, 2016. Web. 22 March 2016. <http://moneythink.org/our-program/>
 “Our Two Cents.” PennyDrops. PennyDrops, 2016. Web. 22 March 2016. <http://www.pennydrops.org/>