In the aftermath of the financial crisis (2008-2011), it became increasingly clear that payment arrears, debts and poverty would not disappear from the Netherlands by itself. The support people receive with their finances in the Netherlands mostly comes from local, informal and unregulated debt relief organisations. The impact of these organisations was not very well known, the development and exchange of knowledge and expertise on effective practices amongst stakeholders was unknown and/or dispersed. We soon realised that this challenge was more complex and required everyone to cooperate: the government, commercial organisations, civil society organisations, citizens and knowledge institutions.
From the beginning, the “Debt to Opportunities” Foundation (Dutch: Stichting van Schulden naar Kansen) acted as a connecting and enabling entity between non-profit organisations, knowledge and research institutes and two associated companies (NN Group and Aegon). Knowledge and research played a key role to develop a deeper understanding of the problem, the barriers, gaps and effective interventions. To change the system of problematic debt, changes should take place at individual level (people who live in poverty through problematic debt), organizational level (e.g. companies or the government as debt claimers) and policy level (e.g. law and regulations/policies that form obstacles or facilitate debt relief). The programme started to address poverty and debt by:
- Developing in-depth knowledge, based on long-term research, on the root-causes and effects of problematic debt on poverty
- Disseminating reseach results and tools that all players within the ecosystem can use to make their interventions more effective and efficient
- Supporting non-profit organisations for direct impact on households
- Support organisations on advocacy and on stimulating government policies and practices that contribute to reducing problematic debt
- Taking a place-based approach, focusing on 4 large cities in different regions in the Netherlands (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Arnhem and Zwolle)
This year, November 25th 2021, a national conference will be hosted to share the result of the longitudinal research and insights from the programme. The programme helped to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand and due to the research we now know that there are mechanisms that can relief many households of their situation.
The strong research component of the programme resulted in better project design, capacity gaps, more effective funding strategies, learning and connection across all eco-system actors. However, the (mostly quantitative) research methodology challenged respondents from the vulnerable target group, was labour intensive and allowed for little flexibility. Furthermore, the project managers motivation turned out to be critical to the success of the intervention and large changes in the quality, way of working and/or structure of the initiative was seldom achieved. Our three pieces of advice would be:
- Identify the relevant players in the field (ranging from governments, to NGOs and companies) and include them in your approach. Use a stakeholder engagement model to identify who to involve, who to engage and who to inform. Actively bring stakeholders together, share your insights and help break the barriers between them as much as you can.
- Build a long term trust- and development-based relationship with your partners, that relies on steady funding and a learning environment on both what works and does not work to improve their practices is key.
- Include an impact research component in your approach, preferably one that is relevant to more stakeholders than one particular initiative alone by identifying mechanisms that can be applied in various contexts.
Community Investment Manager,
Miranda Visser – de Boer,
Community Investment Programme Manager, Head of From Debt to Opportunity;