Blog Post #20: A look back on the first year of the Saint John Learning Exchange's Social Innovation Fund initiatives

Setting Goals Like Never Before

Learning Exchange sees great success in program’s first year


Fueled by a powerful combination of one-on-one coaching and financial incentives, the Saint John Learning Exchange’s clients and learners are achieving goals at a tremendous rate. From October to April, 120 of them set and met some 640 goals, a fraction of the potent pilot program’s overall and ongoing impact. 


“It’s been a game-changer,” says Erin Gallagher, community soft skills developer, of the ability to incentivize with money and support with coaching. This two-pronged initiative began last year and is now part of every program the Learning Exchange offers in its mission to empower adults to reach their education and employment goals. 


“We’ve had people that have set so many goals we ran out of tabs on the spreadsheet,” Erin says.  


Goals run the gamut, from those around wellness and health to education and personal finance. There are goals relating to job skills and those around professionalism. There are goals for family life and personal development. 


“They're wanting change in their lives and they are setting and achieving goals to make that happen,” says Taylor Wells, a soft-skills coach and facilitator.  


Every goal is set by the learner. And the Learning Exchange, which provides adult education, training, and career development, holds that each is worthy of being paid for. 


“We really believe in rewarding people for all the hard work that they do,” says project coordinator Erin MacKenney. 


The initiative is supported by the Social Innovation Fund, a five-year, $10-million provincial investment in creative ways of countering generational poverty. It is managed by Living SJ. 


Alex Warren, acting project coordinator, says the financial incentives may be the first earned income of a learner’s life. 


“Some people who may never have received a paycheck are now being paid every two weeks,”  she says. Along with a sense of accomplishment and practical financial support, the incentives may provide a rare chance to treat themselves and loved ones. One woman gave her daughter a special birthday. Another bought curtains and decorated her home. 


The Learning Exchange worked with the Department of Social Development to allow learners who receive assistance not to have their support clawed back. 

“Removing that barrier has created a safety net,” Erin MacKenney says. “So people are taking risks and setting bigger goals.”  


Learning Exchange staff and clients on the roof of the Social Enterprise Hub. 

“Something has literally changed inside them. They're carrying themselves differently. ” 
- Erin Gallagher

A classroom at the Saint John Learning Exchange.

A sampling of goals set by Learning Exchange clients:  


  1. Pay off credit card

  2. Complete Money Matters course

  3. Open a bank account

  4. Get forklift license

  5. Learn to operate a cash register

  6. Organize autism supports for child

  7. Take mental health program

  8. Attend counselling

  9. Enter essay contest

  10. Learn to swim

  11. Audition for choir

  12. Apply to a post-secondary program

  13. Obtain children’s birth certificates

  14. Take a parenting program

  15. Learn to cook meals

  16. Learn Expensify (or other computer programs)

  17. Practice a job interview

  18. Organize my disability claim paperwork

  19. Apply for a student loan

  20. Work out three times a week

  21. Cook for my family every week

  22. Start a blog

  23. Complete online course 

  24. Create a Kijiji ad to offer odd jobs and repairs

  25. Pass language exams

  26. Take a soft skills class for Professionalism

  27. Obtain driver's permit

  28. Complete driver's education

Coaching is key

While the financial incentives tend to garner a lot of attention, Alex Warren says the one-on-one coaching component is key to goal achievement and impact. 


“It’s just as important as the financial incentives, actually,” Alex says. “The incentives and coaching are so complementary and really help to bring about that intrinsic behaviour change.”


Erin Gallagher says the coaches are thought partners with whom clients can “talk things out.”  She says some may never have been encouraged before or had the time to reflect on their goals. 


“It gives them the ability to speak out loud,” Erin says, “to think out loud.” 


Erin MacKenney sees the coaching building confidence and aspirations and helping clients better manage stress. Crucially, the coaching is creating longer-lasting relationships between clients and the Learning Exchange, allowing it to deliver on its goal of wraparound service that supports the whole person. 


“We are able to be more proactive now,” Erin says. “When life happens, things can fall apart. Now, with their coach, they have someone they can go to, to talk things through, to help set goals.” 


While there were some mild growing pains in the early days of integrating coaching into its programs, such as around internal communication between coaches and program staff, change is all in a day’s work at the Learning Exchange, whose programming is ever-evolving in response to client need. 


“It’s a constant learning,” Alex says. “Constantly adapting and shifting. You’ve got to try things to see if they work.” 


This iterative testing is exactly what the Social Innovation Fund is meant to encourage, along with data-driven decision-making. While the Learning Exchange collects abundant data, “one of the hardest things is trying to convey the changes that happen in people,” Erin Gallagher says. She recounts an experience from the week prior, when a learner passed her in the hall, smiled, said good morning and made eye contact, an exchange that would have been unthinkable when she first met him. 


“We have the data, but here are so many stories,” she says. “Something has literally changed inside them. They’re carrying themselves differently.” 


Taylor brings it back to the big picture.


“The reason we make change is always for greater impact,” she says. “It’s always about the impact on our learners.”

To read first-person learner stories, click here