Adam Fair, Q&A
March 2, 2020 | Blog
Adam Fair is Vice President of Strategy and Impact at Prosper Canada, a national charity dedicated to expanding economic opportunity for Canadians living in poverty through program and policy innovations. Adam began his career in social development at the charity in 2007 and for the last two years, has been responsible for its strategic and operational planning, along with partnership development. Over his career, Adam has worked with governments, businesses and community groups to develop and promote financial policies, programs and resources that foster the prosperity of all Canadians. Adam studied politics and economics at the University of Toronto, and has also completed a Graduate Diploma in Social Innovation at the University of Waterloo and a Performance Measurement for Effective Management of Nonprofit Organizations course at Harvard University.
The DUCA Impact Lab (DIL) spoke with Adam to hear more about his career at Prosper, the changing landscape of economic opportunity in Canada, and what excites him about the future in this field of work.
1. To start, could you provide a brief summary of how your career has developed and what attracted you to the VP of Strategy and Impact role at Prosper Canada?
What attracted me to the organization in 2007 was its bold vision to improve economic opportunities for low-income Canadians, and the entrepreneurial approach it takes to do so. This isn’t about just one program, but coordinating different players and working across sectors to identify solutions. Although the frontline work is critical, we also recognize the importance of involving the private sector and government, and bringing these groups together to explore opportunities that will improve the lives of Canadians.
I think I’ve occupied almost every role at the organization. I started as a Coordinator running projects and training frontline organizations across the country in some of our programs, including financial literacy. I’ve managed large scale projects, been a director of national programs more broadly and now, I’m focused on the overall organizational strategic and operational planning – bringing in resources, supporting the development of our operational structure and annual plan, as well as staying overseeing the execution of our work on the ground.
2. Prosper Canada has programs on the ground that help lift low-income Canadians out of poverty, you help build the capacity and financial knowledge of community organizations and advocate for policy change at the federal level. Why is it important to take this 360 approach?
We recognize that in order to achieve our vision, it’ll take more than a single project or program. It will require collaboration among all sectors to actively pursue change. We work really closely with community-based organizations across the country because they’re closest to the individuals. They understand the challenges Canadians are facing and are the most skilled at identifying the programmatic needs of those individuals. Our job is to ensure that they have the resources they need to do their work, while exploring ways to sustainably scale these programs.
We also work with different levels of government to see how these services, which we call financial empowerment, can be incorporated into their existing service offerings. We believe providing financial empowerment support to people within existing government programs – like employment, housing and social assistance – will help governments achieve the overall outcomes they’re seeking. If people don’t have enough money to get by or are dealing with financial hardship, it’s hard for them to make progress on longer-term goals. There’s a real connection between what the government is trying to achieve and what community organizations on the ground are trying to achieve. We aim to find opportunities to connect the dots.
We also recognize the important role government plays in setting policies and rules that have a really big impact on the lives of Canadians. Prosper looks to provide input on things like banking regulations to ensure all Canadians are getting the products, services and advice they need.We are also working to ensure Canadians are accessing their government benefits more easily. These things make a really big difference in people's lives and complement the work that’s happening on the ground.
Prosper really tries to build connections and collaborations between these sectors – creating a joint understanding of the challenges and opportunities, then collectively figuring out how we can make some real headway on these issues.
3. What are some of the tangible impacts your policy achievements have had on low-income Canadians to date?
It’s often hard to make a direct connection between our efforts and policy change but it’s fair to say we’ve helped influence changes in a number of policies. Prosper Canada and some leading community partners were the first to bring the concept of matched savings for low-income people to Canada, sometimes referred to as Asset Building Programs. This framework inspired the design of the Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP) and the Canada Learning Bond (CLB) and then later, the Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP).
Our founding CEO, Peter Nares, encouraged the government to take financial literacy more seriously, which led to the establishment of the National Strategy for Financial Literacy and a Financial Literacy Leader. Prosper also played a role ensuring financial literacy was more actively integrated within the mandate of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC) and other federal departments.
More recently, several of our recommendations made it into new legislation involving the Bank Act, which regulates banks across Canada. These included ensuring financial products, services and advice are appropriate for Canadians and that organizations find tangible ways to make sure that everybody is included in financial services. The legislation hasn’t been fully implemented so we’re interested to make sure it leads to tangible improvements and financial inclusion for lower income Canadians.
4. As the person who leads strategic and operational planning for Prosper Canada, what do you think is most urgently needed in Canada from a policy or programmatic perspective to expand economic opportunity for Canadians living in poverty? What partnerships would this require?
I think there’s a real opportunity for financial institutions (FIs) to step up and make it a top priority to improve the financial health of customers. It's a movement that’s happening in the U.S., and some other places around the world, but there hasn’t really been much attention on the issue in Canada, with the exception of some institutions like DUCA.
In terms of government, we’re seeing some positive steps but we’re hoping that improving Canadians’ financial security becomes a critical public policy objective. A lot of the leadership and innovation has been coming from the community, so we’re looking to establish more formalized and stronger government partnerships so this work can be expanded to more Canadians.
Community organizations delivering Financial Empowerment services need stable, long term funding to support this critical work. We are seeking greater investment from all sectors to help sustainably scale these efforts right across Canada. We believe that every Canadian should have access to the financial products, service and help they need to thrive.
5. What are you most excited by when thinking about the coming years in this field of work?
Over the last five years there’s been a lot of growth of Financial Empowerment, especially in the community. Again, we’re excited to explore what a more sustained partnership and investment from the government could look like. We’re also really interested in engaging the financial services sector more broadly to see how it could play an active role in building the financial health of customers and support efforts in communities. It aligns well with their business, and if you asked any financial services executive whether they’re interested in building the financial health of Canadians, they would be quick to say yes. But I think we’ve lost sight of what those needs are and whether financial institutions are hitting the mark in terms of meeting those needs.
There’s also a need to create space where these sectors could align around common vision, develop common plans and figure out how to acquire the resources needed to move solutions forward. In many ways, I think we’re closer than we think to having that alignment. We just need to figure out how to keep the momentum going and create the spaces to work together.
Our role in bringing a cross-sectional group together can be the most challenging work to finance. Prosper Canada, like most charities, gets a significant amount of its funding through specific projects and initiatives, so this is one that we are continuously trying to figure out. One model we’ve been looking at comes from the financial security program at the Aspen Institute in the U.S. They do deep dives on particular dimensions of financial health. First they looked at income volatility, then debt, and now they’re looking at housing costs. They use these focal points to figure out what’s going on, ways to improve the situation, the roles for different players, and how they can jointly develop a ‘solutions framework.’ It’s a really interesting approach that we’re starting to do more of.
6. How do you hope your partnership with the DUCA Impact Lab evolves in the future?
What I like about DUCA is that they’re leading by example. They’re demonstrating what it looks like for an institution to commit to financial health, make it a priority and pursue it through different channels – through the Lab but also through the main business. We’d love to keep thinking about how we can collaborate and share DUCA’s work as a model, perhaps getting more FIs interested in this work and hopefully inspiring more people to get actively involved. With DUCA, there’s also an opportunity to dig into some of the issues that Canadians are struggling with, looking at the quantitative and qualitative research – what’s really going on in the homes of individuals as it relates to their finances, what’s holding them back, what are their challenges, and what could a scalable solution look like? I see opportunities to work with DUCA along that whole spectrum – from supporting thought leadership to identifying the changes we need to make and how we can make them together.