Why a Foundation Focused on Financial Inclusion Launched a Short Story Contest

Principal foundation and its partners plan to distribute winning stories with “short story dispensers” located in bookstores and public gathering places.

We often think of the arts and finance as sitting on opposite ends of the spectrum. (Certainly, when I took out a hefty student loan for a master’s degree in fine arts, there was no financial advisor whispering “good decision!” in my ear). Principal Foundation, however, sees little contradiction between the two and is currently funding a short story contest and story distribution project designed to motivate young adults and older teens to talk about money. In doing so, the foundation hopes to help writers and readers examine and overturn counterproductive money mindsets and habits learned from their families. 

Called Money Chronicles: A Story Initiative, the contest welcomed anyone 18 or older to submit a work of fiction or nonfiction of 7,500 words or less addressing a theme related to money and/or personal finance. The submission period for the contest took place this past month. In September, judges will choose 30 finalists, who will be announced on the contest website October 17. 

Principal Foundation, the nonprofit philanthropic arm of the 150-year-old global investment management company Principal Group, put up $150,000 for the contest, which it created in partnership with Short Édition, a French publisher of short-form literature, and the Brooklyn-based literary nonprofit The Center for Fiction. It’s not so unusual for a financial services firm to support financial literacy through its philanthropy; we’ve covered examples such as Voya Financial’s Voya Foundation and BOK Financial’s Bank of Oklahoma Foundation. But Principal Foundation has a uniquely arts-forward approach to financial literacy that serves to distinguish it – even as, like much of corporate philanthropy, its main focus areas connect to the parent company’s field of business.

“We’re always looking for ways to inject arts and culture into the work we do,” said Jo Christine Miles, the director of Principal Foundation and the head of community relations for Principal Group. “The social science research shows that no matter what you’re monitoring — aging, management of chronic disease, education persistence — when your subjects have access to arts and culture, they tend to do better.”

With an endowment of $250 million, Principal Foundation currently funds 145 mostly place-based charitable organizations in the U.S. and other countries where employees work and live. Grantees tend to be groups focused on financial empowerment and basic needs — as well as the arts. Current and past arts-focused grantees include Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Ford’s Theatre Society and Ballet Des Moines. Grants average about $105,000 and typically cover general operating expenses over one year. The foundation has also given a few $1 million program-specific grants to groups including Cities for Financial Empowerment, World Central Kitchen and 1863 Ventures. 

Miles described the short story contest as a “passion project” of hers. I found the story behind the contest as interesting as the project itself. 

Rewriting personal narratives about money

Miles came to Principal Foundation three years ago after a career as a corporate attorney in New York City. She said that in her previous role, she and other high-earning colleagues realized that beliefs they carried from childhood often inhibited them from making the most of their salaries. She mentioned a successful doctor friend whose immigrant parents had run a thriving restaurant, but always insisted they lacked money. “When his mother passed, he and his siblings were cleaning out the apartment and found $1 million in cash stashed around the house. The family didn’t get to enjoy things they wanted, and they didn’t invest it either. They didn’t maximize it.” These conversations led Miles to contemplate how old ideas about money can inform the way adults invest — or fail to do so. 

At Principal Foundation, grantee partners shared similar stories about the huge role that beliefs about money play, even when it came to implementing financial literacy programs. “They’d say they’d really see breakthroughs when clients talked about what they learned about money or what they saw from their parents, more even than the tools,” Miles said. 

These experiences sparked the idea for the writing contest. Rewriting your personal narrative to liberate you from a “storyline” that keeps you stuck is part of a lot of contemporary therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy and narrative therapy. In this case, Miles wanted young adults to examine and question their money story. But to “gut-check” her suspicion that many were not maximizing their earnings due to a narrative logjam, Principal Foundation commissioned YouGov to survey 3,000 millennial and Gen Z Americans about their thoughts and beliefs around money. 

Survey results supported Miles’ hunch. More than half of the respondents agreed that the financial situation in which they grew up led to worries about having enough money — even among those who were financially stable. Forty percent feared being judged for their habits or earning level. Many were underusing financial products. 

“We see a high usage of saving and checking accounts, but a low usage of other tools, like investment accounts,” Miles said. “There is a plethora of tools one can use to weave together a financial plan, but people aren’t talking about it. They stick with what they learned.” 

“At bottom, we still love stories”

How do you get more working adults to invest? By writing and reading about money. “Storytelling is a universal art form,” Miles said. “It could be healing. It could be reparative. If it’s written by someone who has done the work, they could be providing rather inspirational materials for others who haven’t.”

As of this Monday, 130 people had sent in stories for the contest, and thousands more had visited the site, which Miles said was a good turnout for the first year. The judges who will choose the 30 finalists are a diverse group of award-winning writers including Mahogany L. Browne, Ava Chin, Novella Ford, Sidik Fofana, Xochitl Gonzalez, Alvin Hall, Erika L. Sánchez and Ashley Woodfolk, as well as the Brooklyn Public Library’s director of youth and family services, Judy Zuckerman.

Contest winners will each get $250 and their stories will be distributed in cute story dispensers that print on demand, offered by Short Édition. Dispensers will be placed in popular public gathering spots in five cities, chosen in part because they have a “bountiful population of folks who could benefit from the stories,” Miles said. Locations include the New York Public Library, Sip & Sonder in Los Angeles, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, the independent bookstore Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, and Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa.  Short Édition may also distribute stories through its network of 300 dispensers worldwide.

Reading the stories is as much a part of the contest as writing, if not more. “Storytelling is a nice way to get people to reflect without having to dig into their own past right away,” Miles said. “They can read the story and see similarities or a character that’s familiar to them. They can say, ‘Oh, what could that person have done differently?’”

She is optimistic about the potential of this approach. “At bottom, we still love stories. They are tools to help bridge us from where we are to where we want to go. They also help us understand how we got to where we are.”