Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Ideas at Work // 3IAW2

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Extension Makes the News


Barbara O'Neill, CFP
Extension Home Economist and Associate Professor
Cook College
Rutgers University
Newton, New Jersey

Do most of your financial management classes contain 25 or fewer people? Have you ever dreamed of teaching 20,000? It's possible if your "visual aid" is the county newspaper. The visibility and results you'll achieve are well worth the effort. Early in 1986, I set out to increase the visibility of Extension as a source of financial management information and reach a larger number of people with this information. Almost 20,000 households now receive Extension advice monthly.

The first step was to form a financial planning advisory council composed of bankers, stock brokers, insurance agents, fee-only financial planners, and media representatives. Nineteen people responded with interest, and we met three times from 3:30-5:00 p.m., a convenient time for busy professionals.

Before the council's first meeting, I met with the editor of the local newspaper and discussed the concept of a monthly "case study" article about a county family, with generic financial advice given by myself and council members. Showing him "One Family's Finances" in Money magazine as a model, I offered to write the feature myself. The idea was received enthusiastically.

The next step was the development of a five-page questionnaire to gather financial data from participants. The advisory council reviewed it and made suggestions for improvement. The questionnaire and a disclaimer statement were also reviewed by my state leader to make sure they conformed to Extension policy.

The advisory council wrestled with the concept of confidentiality and, unlike Money, decided to exclude the participant's name and address. The advantages we saw were confidentiality and our not having to give everyone a personal response. Each case was therefore given a pseudonym.

The project took five months from idea to the publication of the first article. The newspaper editor wanted four feature articles written before the series began, so we found volunteers to be the initial case studies. These studies focused on different life cycle stages: a single woman in her early 20s, a dual career couple in their 30s, a 46-year old, single parent, and a couple in their late 50s planning an early retirement.

Rotating groups of three advisory council members reviewed two cases at a time, using a form developed for them to list the financial strengths and weaknesses of participants, recommended changes, and suggested investment products. Advice was generic, for example "term insurance" or "mutual funds." It didn't name a specific product or company. The article was then written and a draft sent to the reviewers for their comments before publication. The entire cycle took three to four weeks, so the feature was printed monthly. Each article also offered a different Extension bulletin on topics such as net worth and budgeting.

While the project took a lot of time, the potential audience of 19,300 (the newspaper's circulation) made it worthwhile. Within one week of the publication of the first article, 20 bulletin requests and seven requests for the questionnaire were received. It's our plan to collect an expanding file of case studies from which to draw.

Busy potential Extension clientele are often unable to attend meetings or are unaware of home study opportunities. Reaching them through a publication many of them are likely to read - the local newspaper - should be considered.