Nelnet Offers a Safety Net to Associates in Personal Need

Nelnet’s mission to serve others begins at home, with serving customers, associates, and the communities where they live and work. While it makes obvious business sense to provide associates with what they need to succeed on the job, Nelnet is very much focused on providing compassionate support to associates in need, as well. Offering a safety net for associates who find themselves in personal need creates a sense of belonging.

As much as we all plan for emergencies, life can throw an unexpected curveball, whether it’s a health crisis, an unexpected death in the family, a natural disaster, or a fire or other catastrophe. In the worst of times, we may be hit with several challenges at once, leaving us in a situation of overwhelming financial hardship.

Benefits of Creating a Program

It’s always been a concern for Nelnet to care for associates in need.

One indicator of financial hardship among associates has been requests to withdraw money from their 401(k) funds to help cover unforeseen events. Nelnet data from 2020 through third quarter of 2022 helped solidify the need for this program when the Nelnet Foundation proposed it in late 2022.

401k Hardship Requests1

Year # Requests Total Dollar Amount
2020 243 $2,000,000
2021 21 $595,000
2022 (Q1-Q3) 146 $799,000

(1) For medical, principal residence, secondary education, foreclosure, funeral/burial expenses
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As Nelnet Foundation President Ben Kiser noted, “Nelnet had struggled with a few aspects of providing financial assistance to associates in situations that arose. It was difficult to navigate how to assist without paying taxable income, and it was challenging to determine how to help associates in a fair and even-handed way. The organization also wanted to allow associates privacy in dealing with sensitive situations.”

In 2023, Nelnet unveiled the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund to provide short-term, emergency financial support to associates facing financial hardship due to unforeseen and unpreventable circumstances.

Setting up this program created several benefits, including:

  • Donations are tax-deductible and grants are tax-free to associates.
  • Nelnet established clear program rules to create consistency.
  • Applicants’ personal information is protected.
  • Assistance provided to associates is unbiased.
  • Minimal staff time is devoted to the program.
  • Connection of associates with other Nelnet resources like the EAP.
  • Increased productivity, due to reducing associates’ stress.

The Nelnet Foundation gave $100,000 to the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund in 2023, and another $100,000 in 2024 through March. While this program is funded by the Nelnet Foundation, it’s administered by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, a leader with assistance funds that was recommended by Lincoln Community Foundation.

Associates can help each other, too, by making donations to the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund through payroll deduction or directing one-time or recurring donations via the Community Foundation website. Donations are given to the general fund rather than directed toward helping a specific individual, and gifts are tax-deductible. In 2023, associates donated $1,576 to the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund.

How the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund Works

Associates working at least 20 hours per week are eligible to apply for funds through the program. There’s no length of service requirement, but associates must have been employed at the time of the qualifying incident and they must apply for assistance within 90 days of the incident.

Qualifying events or situations include:

  • Natural disasters, including damage to a residence.
  • Life-threatening or serious illness or injury to the associate, their spouse, or dependents.
  • Death of a household member.
  • Violence or domestic abuse or being the victim of a crime.
  • Other catastrophic or extreme circumstances.

Grants are made after the associate completes the application on the administrator’s website and submits supporting documentation. The administrator has sole discretion to determine a grant based on the criteria established with Nelnet. The administrator confirms employment status with People Services, informs each applicant whether a grant will be awarded, and makes grant checks available to the vendor on the associate’s behalf.

Expenses are paid to vendors rather than directly to associates. A maximum grant amount of up to $2,500 may be used to cover expenses related to unexpected financial stress, including:

  • Rent or mortgage payments.
  • Utility payments.
  • Home repairs.
  • Medical expenses.
  • Childcare.

What’s Been the Impact of the Program?

Since the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund began in April 2023, it has provided support to 41 Nelnet associates and their families.

Requests for assistance fall into one of four categories:

  • Natural disaster.
  • Life-threatening or serious injury or illness.
  • Death incident.
  • Catastrophic or extreme circumstances.

Alleviating financial stress for associates by helping to pay down some of their expenses is the goal of the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund. The most common cause of the unforeseen hardship of these applicants was severe injury and illness, and funds have most commonly been used for housing assistance.

Even where there’s an awesome work environment like the one Nelnet cultivates, it’s understandable that associates may not want to share with others their personal financial struggles. One of the best parts of the Nelnet Associate Caring Fund is that associates who need it most can quietly receive financial help from Nelnet without having to share their situation with coworkers, leadership, or People Services. The Nelnet Associate Caring Fund reinforces for these associates that their employer and coworkers are there for them not just during the good times, but also as a shelter in the storm.


Susie McCormick

Senior Corporate Communications Writer