Helping people take control of their finances

Joanna Elson CBE (MSc Politics and Social Policy 1992), Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust, Director of Fair4All Finance, and the Vice Chair of the Friends Provident Foundation, has long been passionate about helping those in financial difficulty. 

Joanna Elson

It was as a primary school teacher in Tower Hamlets that she first witnessed families who had very little, and how community organisations could have a real impact in changing people’s lives.  Her experiences teaching made her realised she wanted to make a bigger difference and decided to change her career in order to help people in financial difficulty and to create social impact to best serve the wider community. 

Joanna, moved into the political arena, becoming a researcher and speechwriter in the House of Commons. She spent much time listening to people’s concerns and hearing directly from constituents, and began to really understand see how policies  shape people’s lives.  She wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the history and potential of social change and  decided to study a Politics and Social Policy masters at Birkbeck, which required her to balance her political work with evening classes.  

Speaking about her time at Birkbeck, she said “it was an incredibly nurturing environment”. She explained that Birkbeck is uniquely positioned to help students who are working, saying that “although it was hard going, you couldn’t keep studying if you didn’t have the sense that you were supported, help was always there if you needed it, and if it took you longer to do an assignment, that staff would always have been understanding.” 

After graduating from her degree in 1992, Joanna worked for a financial services trade association. By working directly with the banks, she was able to expand their services, ensuring increased access to basic bank accounts for all that needed one, and actively fighting against the ‘poverty premium’.  

In 2006, Joanna joined the Money Advice Trust, whose vision is to help people across the UK tackle their debts. As CEO of the independent charity, this role has allowed Joanna to increase her influence by helping consumers directly. Joanna said “I’m passionate about what we do because there are so many people in this country who are really struggling. The pandemic has brought this to life and exacerbated the problem. But even before that, there are many families out there who struggle to make ends meet.” 

Joanna recognises that the effects of financial obstacles can be far reaching. “It isn’t only about the financial challenges individuals face but also about the mental and emotional challenges” she said, “if we can help to get people back into a place where they feel that they are in control, then it is a big boost to their mental health.” In 2020, Joanna was honoured with a CBE for her work with the Money Advice Trust and for services to people in debt. 

To find out more about the work the Money Advice Trust is doing and how to get involved in some of their activities, visit their website