Putting well-being at the heart of community investment

FLEUR HUDIG

Impact Week is all about accelerating transformative change and bringing diverse issues and players together. We spoke to Fleur Hudig, Head of Corporate Citizenship at NN Group, one of our Impact Week partners, about the company’s impact strategies and journey to achieve system change.

Putting well-being at the heart of community investment
FG Trade, E+, Getty Images

Sustainability and creating impact are longstanding passions for Fleur. In early childhood she became a vegetarian (age 11!) and started a lifelong journey exploring how to support people in vulnerable situations. For the last 20 years, she has worked to develop CSR strategies and since 2014 leads NN’s Corporate Citizenship team, putting into practice her expertise in how companies can drive social and environmental change. 

How does NN try to achieve a positive impact on society? 

Some years ago, we started a community investment programme to both unite our colleagues and contribute to communities by investing in positive social change. We set up the NN Future Matters programme, focusing on improving financial well-being, including several local and global partnerships. 

Building on this experience, we wanted community investment to be a more integral part of our company strategy and our purpose to help people care for what matters most to them. So, in our 2020 strategy, we set an ambitious goal: to contribute 1% of our operational results before tax by 2023. This shift meant that everybody at NN became more engaged, at different levels, to make this a success.

What are the lessons learned so far, the trends, and what’s your strategy for the coming years? 

Making community investment part of our strategic framework was a big step. Our experience made us realise we needed to scale some of our partnerships to have maximum impact on our target groups. We learned that we also need to invest in building the capacity of our partners, to make sure our partnerships address those target groups that need our help the most. For example, with Junior Achievement, we set up the ‘Economic Opportunities for All’ programme which is geared towards those who are left behind.

We also realised that we could invest in a specific target group, but we also need to tackle the root problem that causes them to need support, and to work towards system change. In that sense we were inspired by one of our foundations working on financial well-being and tackling problematic debt in households, and by the way they tackled this societal problem in cooperation with many other stakeholders. They incited us to look at how to do more advocacy around these issues, from a system change perspective. Initially we were very much focused on programmes, on getting employees involved, on having impact, but this new dimension really added value. 

Our aim for the future is to have good impact programmes that we can scale, deepen and broaden, to build capacity with our partners through a co-creation and needs-based approach, and to address system change so that people are more economically empowered. 

Can you give some concrete examples of how NN Group contributes to transformative change? 

Economic opportunities and financial empowerment are important to us as we see people struggling with this every day, including some of our customers. We have worked to look into their behaviour but also their needs. For instance, we developed a customer journey for people facing over-indebtedness, to better organise things on our end to ease their situation. We also joined the Dutch ‘Debt Relief Route’, in collaboration with many other financial institutions, to preventively support people at risk of over-indebtedness and redirect them to the right institutions for help. This connects very well with our community investment work on financial well-being.

We also recently decided to expand our community investment programme’s focus on financial well-being to mental and physical well-being, because we see such a strong interaction between the two. For instance, people who have difficulties entering the labour market because of mental or physical impairments or other issues have a hard time building economic and financial empowerment. The other way around, research shows people who live in financial distress are more likely to suffer from mental issues, like depression. Having a broader perspective on interrelated causes can help us contribute to system change.  

This year’s conference brings diverse issues and players together. When you tackle financial well-being, for instance, who are the players missing at the table to ensure transformative change?

With system change many people can feel helpless, because it takes a lot of courage and patience and many different stakeholders to fix the problem. But I don't see any obvious unwilling party. Everybody recognises that many people want to address the root causes and maximise positive impact. That's why we – in collaboration the University of Applied Sciences of Amsterdam and a fellow financial institution – initiated a five-year longitudinal research into the effectiveness of interventions in the area of problematic debt. By learning from this research, we hope that we and other stakeholders are better able to put resources where interventions are really proving to be effective. We also shared this knowledge with all kinds of stakeholders, including other financial institutions, and worked on building the capacity of our partners. Partners should learn from each other – and this may mean having to change your approach if it does not work. 

For example, we worked with JINC, an organisation helping disadvantaged children in the Netherlands, to co-create a new networking programme. You can teach skills, make people more self-confident, but to succeed in the job market, research shows that sometimes you just need this network to reach out to. We were able to co-design a different approach and improve impact because we have been in such a long-term partnership with them.

How does being part of the impact community help you achieve your ambitions in this space?  

If you're embarking on a new theme, like us with physical and mental well-being, it’s very interesting to hear what others are doing in the field, to share and learn from other approaches and environments, to join forces. We really need to look at what we can do to strengthen each other and make a change together to address these big, complex societal issues, because these are not easy issues to solve, and we can certainly not solve them alone.

I, for instance, believe in local approaches. For instance, in the Netherlands, we partner with organisations such as Debt Lab (in Dutch: SchuldenLab) to scale successful local initiatives. I know that others in the EVPA network might well be more experienced with scaling these very local, city-based interventions and I believe we can get inspiration from them. 

Is there an outside-the-box idea, or somewhere you would like to see the impact space going over the next couple of years? Something to spark discussion during the December conference? 

Building partnerships and supporting our partners in their capacity building to continue and potentially increase their impact is key. We have seen funders only want to fund a project and keen on having numbers they can report on. To ensure these numbers not only last, but that their interventions really make a change in people’s lives and that partners can address an issue in the right way, you have to invest in capacity. And talk to partners about how they can grow towards where they want to go.

Investing in research and joining forces to tackle system change is also very important. Several foundations or companies might, for instance, be doing similar research on financial empowerment and/or mental well-being, so we need to find a way to share that knowledge and make our work knowledge- and data-driven.

Some final food for thought: redistribution of wealth on a very local level is close to my heart – joining hands and building trust at an individual, non-institutional level. I personally have seen this in several cities in the Netherlands since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I believe this can be very powerful. So it would be good to discuss if and how (corporate) social investors could support these kind of bottom up initiatives.