Thrivent Financial CEO Brad Hewitt has long suspected that helping clients be financially secure isn’t enough.
Secure means just having enough money. Can’t they help clients to reach the point where they realize they have more than enough, what he called “being in surplus”?
After all, getting to surplus probably won’t take any more money.
His evolving strategy for Thrivent, a Fortune 500 financial services company based in Minneapolis, is grounded in data. Through third-party work and its own research, Thrivent has become convinced that people who believe they are in surplus are more likely to volunteer time or give away money. Ultimately, these people also achieve greater financial security.
This may not seem like much of a departure for a fraternal benefit company like Thrivent, but Hewitt said he’s come to realize that his company was “unconsciously competent” by championing things like company-sponsored volunteer programs. He’s making it an explicit part of strategy.
“This research has helped us,” Hewitt said. “It helped take what we all probably believed to be a truth, and put some evidence around that truth.”
To illustrate his point, Hewitt slid a chart across the table that showed the percentage of income given to charities across a wide income range, increasing from between 3 and 4 percent for people with household incomes below $50,000 per year to more than 5 percent at about $100,000 per year in household income.
At that level of income the trend line begins to turn down, then sharply down. Households with $200,000 of income gave less as a percentage of income than those with less than $50,000.
Next to it was a similar graph that illustrated the number of volunteer hours by level of household income. The trend line was virtually the same, with hours dropping above about $100,000 in household income.
He also showed what happens with donations and volunteer time data if it’s arranged by how people characterized their financial situation, from subsistence at one end to surplus at the other.
This time there is no dip. People who consider their financial situation as one of surplus give about 7 percent of income to charity and volunteer an average of at least 20 hours a year.
And they are not necessarily affluent. Thrivent found that two-thirds of clients with household income under $60,000 rated themselves as secure or surplus.
It’s interesting to think of the implications here. People with no more than middle-class income consider themselves in surplus. It means they have already progressed through “secure.” Their needs are being met. They have savings. They are not fretting about retirement.
They have money to give away.
Hewitt thinks one reason generosity tails off at $100,000 of income is that people who become that affluent start to have country club memberships, lake cabins, fishing boats and snowmobiles. It doesn’t just take money to enjoy these things, it also takes time.
Hewitt said he likes some of those things, too, acknowledging how hard it can be to remain in surplus.
Some of his biggest challenges come on vacation, at a timeshare townhouse in Telluride, Colo. He bought it about 10 years ago, so his family now vies with other owners well in advance to schedule the best weeks of the season.
It’s been a great experience for his family, he said, but Telluride also has its multimillion-dollar estates. Oprah Winfrey just bought a 60-acre property.
“The surest place to move me from surplus is there,” he said. “I look around and say, ‘I’m CEO of a Fortune 300 company, and so why do I get only two weeks a year? Why don’t I own one of these beautiful vacation homes?’ ”
Thrivent isn’t trying to argue that income has nothing to do with what Hewitt called the “journey to surplus.”
The median household income of people on the lowest rungs of Thrivent’s ladder of financial well-being, what it calls subsistence, struggling and stable, was about $56,000. For those who were classified as secure or in surplus, the median household income was $75,000.
But what people do with the money they have has more to do with how confident they feel about their financial situation.
In one particularly telling example, the company found that 28 percent of people who rate themselves as subsistence or struggling have a home worth at least five times their annual household income. Only 3 percent of people who rate themselves as surplus do.
Much of this research and thinking about how to get clients to move into surplus has been integrated into the company’s work in the Rocky Mountain region and will be rolled out to advisers in the rest of the company over the next two or three years.
The basics of doing financial planning and selling insurance packages and plans to accumulate savings haven’t changed. What changes is the goal.
“All have heard it,” Hewitt said, of the company’s advisers. “Most believe it.”
Hewitt thinks one key for a client to make the surplus goal is getting a good coach or adviser, although Hewitt said it doesn’t necessarily have to be one of his. Such advisers coach people to the best opportunities to volunteer or donate some money, along with helping to execute a financial plan.
Hewitt has an adviser, although he doesn’t appear to need anyone to teach him the value of volunteering.
One place he helps out is at work sites run by Urban Homeworks, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that renovates houses, teaches skills in construction and runs programs to help people make connections with each other in a neighborhood.
When Hewitt shows up, he’s immediately classified as unskilled. Not long ago, a site manager gave the unskilled guys the task of emptying the construction dumpster of garbage tossed in overnight by the neighbors, including some soiled and wet mattresses.
Hewitt said it’s never occurred to him, when driving away from a volunteer job like fishing mattresses out of a dumpster, that what he really needed to do was go buy a new boat.
“One of my pet peeves is that people say I need to go to north Minneapolis because those people need my help,” he said. “It’s just the opposite. I need to go work in north Minneapolis in order for me to get help. It actually changes me. It changes my attitude.”
“I all of a sudden have the chance to be in surplus.”