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How Shine Foundation is Fighting for the Financial Health of Domestic Abuse Survivors

A close up of a piggy bank.

Jennifer Tan saw a recurring theme in the needs of domestic abuse survivors: a need for the survivors improve themselves, financially. Common questions included, How do I get the money to move out of the shelter? How do I buy my kids’ supplies? How do I pay for all these legal fees? Though these questions all involve money, they speak to larger concerns of independence, job search woes, financial health, and taking back control of their lives.

"Financial health refers to a survivor’s financial well-being. What that means is unique to each person. We (Shine) come in and try to help survivors get to a place where they feel financially healthy." (Pictured: budgeting exercise with a client)

This led her to found Shine Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping domestic abuse survivors improve their financial health in New York City, NY and Baltimore, MD. They want survivors to know that there are resources available to help them become better equipped for these next stages in life, and that there are empathetic, knowledgeable, and skilled people out there who are interested in tackling these tough financial questions with them.   

Those who experience severe IPV lose almost 8 million days of paid work each year, which is more than 32,000 full-time jobs. With rates of intimate partner violence (IPV) as high as 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men in the United States, it’s possible that you or someone you may know is dealing with finding a job or managing a budget while coping with an experience of IPV. Shine Foundation is one example of an important, free resource for support, education, and motivation.

What inspired you to found Shine?

I’ve had extensive exposure to abuse survivors, whether personally or through volunteer initiatives, and a recurring theme I saw, especially for those in domestic violence shelters, was a need for the survivors to improve financially. Every conversation I had with survivors included some financial element: How do I get the money to do this? How do I get the money to move out of the shelter? How do I buy my kids’ supplies?How do I pay all these legal fees? 

I adamantly believe in the power of finances to help survivors get back on their feet.

Five to ten years ago, I didn’t see as much focus as I do today on financial services for survivors in shelters. The greater focus I’ve seen today is very encouraging. However, the amount of investment you see in financial services for survivors still pales in comparison to that in other services, despite the great need for such services. Given this gap, I wanted to help survivors and do something positive with my business background.

While growing up in my household, financial planning skills were ingrained in us since we were young children and I’ve seen the benefit of doing that, especially as a child of immigrants in this country. These ideas were also something that I wanted to share with the survivors in the shelters. 

How were you learning about financial planning and budgeting during your childhood?

I started working at 16. Even before then, we were always told by our parents that you should strive to be financially independent- that financial security was our key to freedom. As such, financial planning, budgeting and saving money were concepts and skills we grew up with. When at the grocery store, for example, we were encouraged as kids to think along the lines of “How much is this versus how much is that? What is the opportunity cost of buying this?”. Because I started thinking this way as a young child, it naturally became a habit, one that I continue to practice and improve on now.

How are those who experience domestic abuse (now or in the past) unique in their financial situation?

Sometimes abusers will not let the victim manage money so the idea of managing money triggers an anxious response. There needs to be more support and Shine is just one part of the solution.

Domestic abuse survivors are unique in certain ways. For survivors who are already in domestic violence shelters, they need to deal with the consequences of their homelessness and with recovering from the abuse that they’ve suffered. They have to face the pressures of trying to find affordable housing outside of the shelter, on top of legal disputes and custody battles they may have to go through with their abuser. They may also face depression and physical health issues. Then, add on the complexity and negative consequences of financial abuse! I’ve heard so many stories of individuals whose credit had been damaged because their abusers would steal their credit card or use the victims’ names for different accounts, and rack up debt under the victims’ names. Unfortunately, all of these things coming together places domestic abuse survivors in a vulnerable state.

Your areas of service are NYC and Baltimore - why these two locations?

We have been around for two years and we have two chapters already. Prior to founding Shine, I volunteered at shelters in NYC. NYC is home to me and I definitely want to contribute to improving my home. Also, there is such a high need here. I remember reading a statistic that every night in NYC, there are about 60,000 homeless people. With domestic violence being a leading cause of homelessness, especially among women….just the sheer magnitude of domestic abuse and its impact is enough to warrant us wanting to have a chapter here.

Shine Foundation team in progress designing booths for the financial fair at House of Ruth Maryland in Baltimore.

I lived in Baltimore for a year and at that time, I didn’t think about having a chapter there. I was only going to be there for a short time. I was also wary about expanding too quickly in such a short period of time. While I was there, interestingly and sadly enough, every individual I spoke with about what we were doing at Shine had a personal story. I remember going to the bank and talking about Shine and the bank teller had a story. I went to the mall and a salesperson found out about what I was doing with Shine and she had a story. Even my exercise instructor had a story! It was everywhere. I don’t know if it was by chance and I happened to be running into these individuals, but the prevalence of domestic abuse in Baltimore is quite high and there is definitely a need. I often describe Baltimore as a city with a lot of hope but also a lot of sadness. You see it all around you - the boarded up buildings, the poverty, and also in terms of domestic abuse. That’s why I ultimately decided to start a chapter while I was there. There was a need.

So what do your volunteers do for your organization, especially since there is only one of you and your organization works in two different states?

Our organization is a volunteer-run organization. We have no staff, so everything is run by volunteers and the chapters in each city are run by executive teams. They do everything from marketing, recruitment, vetting and training new volunteers, and setting up partnerships with local shelters. They create, update, and design materials for our clients to use and evaluate our sessions. For coordination, both chapters know each other virtually and will often talk to each other about what they’re doing. We keep a running sheet of key metrics such as the number of clients we are working with, what projects are happening, and goals for each chapter. Both chapters have access to that and can see what everyone is doing.

Who are your volunteers?

Editor's Note: Volunteering your skills towards a cause you are passionate about can help you transition sectors. You may be surprised how your skills are useful in different roles!

You would think that they are from financial careers, but that’s not the case. We may have one or two, but the majority of volunteers in Shine come from all different disciplines! Their backgrounds are in PR, sales, nonprofit, film, art historian, scientists, research, grants manager, public health professional, artist…we’ve had so many! I enjoy that we have such a diverse set of people. It brings so much more to the table than just having financial analysts. You can have all the financial knowledge, but if you can’t communicate it in a way that makes the information, and you, relatable to the clients, then you will likely be unsuccessful in sharing that information. Our diversity has helped a lot.

What are your outreach and recruitment strategies for volunteers? What do you look for?

When I first started Shine, as is probably the case with most nonprofits, I pulled within my circle of friends and people around me. Our first project was at the New York Asian Women’s Center and I was just working with my friends who I knew had this passion and the skill set I was looking for. In Baltimore, I just happened to meet people who showed interest in Shine. I’d talk about Shine’s work and, around me, there would be those who would share their personal stories and/or those who would just jump at the opportunity to do something. At the beginning it was pretty ad hoc, based on who I had access to and what we needed. As we’ve grown, our process has since become much more formalized.

We’ve recruited on Idealist and now we have a more formal, multi-phased approach. Someone applies through our advertisement, fills out an online application and states the position they are applying to, and if we like what we see, we then invite selected candidates to an in-person interview. That interview is more of a behavioral competency-based interview. We already know about your passion and now we want to know how you react and how you think in different situations! Based on the culmination of both of those phases, we then review and invite selected individuals to join us.

"We are like weight watchers for finances! We are a financial support group that helps clients go through this behavioral change of budgeting and tries to make it as less stressful as possible."

(Photo: each sticky note listed the clients' accomplishments in each of the 8 sessions)

What is the curriculum you created with Barrier Free Living? How did this partnership come about?

Typically, we will go into the shelter and speak with staff members who have direct client interaction to find out what the priorities and financial needs of their clients are through their experiences. Then we would set up a session with the clients themselves and ask the same questions in a different way. We engage the clients to help them create their own financial learning experience. After that data collection period, we synthesize the information to develop a program.

The program for Barrier Free Living (Freedom House) was around saving for housing. The common concern and goal for the Freedom House residents we had interviewed, regardless of educational background, income status, and other factors, was affordable housing. They all wanted to move out of the shelter but didn’t have the money to do so, had credit issues, or were experiencing other barriers. We focused on helping them develop the habit of becoming more aware of their own money through basic goal setting and saving money. 

What other organizations have you worked with and how are these connections being made? Are they all pretty similar in that their primary concern is housing?

Barrier Free Living is the first that we’ve worked with that serves those with disabilities, so that has been a learning experience for us. We’ve had to be very mindful of different communication methods during sessions. In terms of housing, that has been a common theme among all the different shelters. It’s a motivating factor for most people.

The New York Asian Women’s Center (another organization we work with) largely serves Asian women and have opened their doors to other populations. For that group, we found that there were a lot of legal barriers. Many individuals were undocumented, brought here illegally, or were trafficked into this country. So that legal issue was a constant obstacle to consider. For that, we emphasized that though you cannot legally work just yet, there are ways you can build your skills and self-confidence in the meantime, in addition to building financial skills.

In Baltimore, we’ve worked with their largest domestic violence agency, House of Ruth Maryland (HRM), Tahirih Justice Center (TJC), and Family Crisis Center (FCC). HRM and FCC have similar populations - many of the women were documented citizens who may have had limited education. TJC works specifically with an immigrant population, so the barriers are similar to what we saw with New York Asian Women’s Center.

What’s the next goal for Shine Foundation?

Growth. That’s a big one.

We’d also like to develop one program that fits the various needs of our population and create opportunities to work with our clients over a sustained period of time. Because we are working with individuals in shelters who have a short length of stay, there has been variability in the groups we’ve worked with. We have also historically focused on creating customized, as opposed to standardized, programs to meet the diverse needs of our clients. 


Barrier Free Living clients shared their dreams with the Shine Foundation team on what they'd dare to do if they had no barriers. The programming helped show them how they can take steps towards those dreams!

By Jhia Jackson

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