Start a Grassroots Effort at Your Fund

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  • On: 09/20/2017 17:17:49
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America's northern neighbor, Canada, has turned out to be a proving ground for public pension systems that are actively preparing plan participants to spread the importance of defined benefits. The systems can teach Texas funds a thing or two about grassroots advocacy building.

By Allen Jones
TEXPERS Communications Manager
Credit: iStock
Ontario-based public pension plans are turning to their participants to convince the country's corporate employers to keep DB plans, according to an article recently published in Pensions & Investments magazine. Systems are building grassroots networks by educating their plan participants about the value of their retirement plans and counting on the messages spreading to their friends and family and eventually to private companies.
The P&I article highlighted three public pension systems that have developed grassroots efforts. They include:
  •       The Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan recruits plan participants who are educated in the DB model to serve as ambassadors. The participants are then able to correct misleading views of DB retirement plans among their friends, relatives and colleagues in the private sector.
  •       The Ontario Public Service Employees Union Pension Plan established a “People for Pensions” program. The program explains the difference between DB benefits and other retirement plan models to the system's plan participants so they will have the knowledge they need to discuss DB with people they know.
  •       The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Pension Plan established a program called “Building Plan Champions.” P&I describes it as a “participant- and employer-education program.” Again, the goal is that those educated in the value of DB plans will have the knowledge to speak to others.
The Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology Pension Plan, or CAAT, conducts annual surveys of its members. Those surveys show that plan participants want long-term retirement protection and are willing to pay up to 10 percent to get there, with a 10 percent match from their employer, says Derek Dobson, the system's CEO and plan manager, in the P&I report.

“That would be enough to guarantee retirement security for them,” he told the magazine. “The Canadian culture is such that Canadians want DB plans. The question is, how to get them access.”

CAAT provides seminars, offers webinars, and has produced online videos to help educate its members about defined benefits. The goal isn't to ensure plan participants understand their benefits and have the knowledge to talk about the value of their retirement plans when conversations arise. CAAT's program goal is to educate 5,000 members and is 91 percent there, according to information CAAT provided TEXPERS.
CAAT members and employers are surveyed on their knowledge of DB plans, and those with a high level of knowledge are designated as “champions.”

“Early on, about 8 percent or 9 percent (of those surveyed) were designated as ‘champions,' but after the seminars, we identified 35 percent as ‘champions,'” Dobson told P&I magazine. “Clearly, there's a direct link that the more you understand a pension, the more value you place in it, and they can go out and defend their defined benefit plans.”
Offering the various learning opportunities are attracting plan participants. According to information from CAAT and shared with TEXPERS, the 90-minute seminars are often held on Saturdays and have attracted as many as 270 people. Plan members are spending lunch hours and breaks attending CAAT's webinars, which run for 1 hour and 45 minutes. The pension system also produced nine videos that discuss some of the most common questions regarding defined benefits.
Grassroots efforts such as CAAT's are bottom-up approaches to facilitating change, says Aabha Brown, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of Houston. She spoke to TEXPERS about the Canadian pension systems and how Texas funds can also engage their members to contextualize the value of defined benefits.
Effective grassroots programs, Brown says, have three key components: education, a story to tell, and a clear message.

“It is often hard to make a change if advocates don't understand why resources are important in the first place,” she says.

Brown says the “grasstops,” or executives, often speak a different language than their “grassroots” plan members. Topics must be explained in a manner they understand and can articulate to their peers or other intended audience.
The education could come in the form of seminars, speaker luncheons, webinars, online videos, discussion groups, newsletters or emails to plan members. Once plan members are educated, there must be a story to tell. People connect with stories, Brown says.

“People often don't connect to statistics,” she says. “Even though data may connect with an issue, people do not connect to the data. In the case of defined benefits, people enjoy retirement due to having a secure plan or those who do not have one don't enjoy retirement.”

Those stories don't always have to be about a threat to pensions. Although bad news does spread, so does good news.

“Consider how benefits are positively helping people,” Brown says.

Any story, though, must have a clear message.

“If a pension system wants to equip their people, they need to very clear in what they are wanting people to act on,” Brown says. “Often, organizations talk about how good a benefit is but they are not clear on what action they are seeking through their stories.”

Brown suggests that pension systems provide multiple ways for their plan participants to get involved. It may be encouraging people to talk to their friends and family about the value of defined benefits. It could be recruiting retirees to write letters to legislators. Maybe, it is to go door-to-door to hand out informational pamphlets. Others may be better at using the phone to advocate for defined benefits. Or, possibly solicit ambassadors to speak one-on-one to lawmakers or testify during legislative hearings.

“Having diversity of actions people can take is important,” Brown says. “Not everybody is wired to go speak to legislators or write a letter.”
She also suggests finding ways to acknowledge the efforts of advocates who are getting the word out and celebrate milestones achieved.

“If 100 members sign a petition or make a phone call, show appreciation and get the message out to other advocates,” she says. “It may motivate those on the sidelines to get involved.”
The big takeaway from CAAT and other Canadian pension plans: Texas public pension systems looking to start a grassroots movement must begin by properly cultivating their greatest assets – the members.
In Texas, The El Paso Firemen & Policemen's Pension Fund is equipping its members to better understand DB plans by teaching them how to use their deferred compensation accounts to learn about investing. By showing them that deferred benefits are easier due to pooled risk and professional investment management, the members find out how relevant DB plans are, says Tyler Grossman, the fund's executive director.

“They can see how long it takes to save and how much if they tried to do it on their own,” he says.
The program is part of a series of informational summits the system established this year to help educate its members on the value of DB plans. So far, the El Paso system has held two summits. It is hosting its third Nov. 28. Each summit has a five-member panel, including Grossman who talks about the plan's Forward Deferred Retirement Option Plans, how members can create health funds with it and cost of living adjustments.

“Each panel member speaks on a subject,” he says. “The other topics are insurance, deferred compensation, taxes, and an attorney for estate planning. Each one expresses how important it is to preserve their DB and the importance of protecting it at all costs.”

Grossman hopes not only will his fund's member become more knowledgeable of their retirement plans; they will talk up the plan among their friends and family, kick-starting a grassroots effort in the El Paso community.
Allen Jones
About the Author:
Allen Jones is the communications manager for the Texas Association of Public Employee Retirement Systems. Email him at or call 713-622-8018.


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