A new nonprofit organization, AdvisersGiveBack.org, has launched a fundraising campaign this week to build a web-based platform that connects volunteer financial planners with individuals in need of pro bono planning.
The platform promises to make it easier for volunteer financial planners to deliver useful, personalized advice to lower-income individuals, using a digital platform that helps those individuals implement the plan through actionable steps and prompts based on research by noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
AdvisersGiveBack.org completed a pilot program with six Certified Financial Planners, including those at Mercer Advisors and Waypoint Wealth Partners, in August. Those planners were partnered with some 200 individuals who participate in SaverLife, another nonprofit that helps participants save money, said Matt Iverson-Comelo, founder of AdvisersGiveBack.org. The program targets clients with household incomes of $50,000 or less.
Iverson-Comelo hopes to raise $187,500 to further scale the platform and eventually match volunteer advisors with 1,000 or so pro bono clients per month. It plans to add new features, including a custom scheduling program and custom planner interface to manage appointments and initiate meetings. Iverson-Comelo also hopes to use the funds to build the back-end infrastructure, hire assistants to support planners and clients, and hire a part-time trainer for planners. Mercer Advisors and Wealthspire Advisors have donated to the cause.
Alise Kraus, president of the Financial Planning Association of the East Bay and an advisor at Mercer, participated in the pilot. She said her firm was looking for a way to give back to the community, but as she surveyed the pro bono opportunities she found that they usually took the form of seminars and lectures around financial literacy.
“There’s great work being done out there, but the default is sort of this one-to-many format, where there’s a lot of financial literacy or financial education seminars happening,” Kraus said. “There’s not a scalable, technology-forward way to connect individuals with individual advisors."
AdvisersGiveBack.org, however, helps bring more individualized planning to each pro bono recipient. Kraus said she was able to sit down with individuals, understand their unique financial pain points, answer questions and give tailored guidance.
“You can’t get that in a seminar or a workshop, so I think that’s a gap that AdvisersGiveBack is filling. I can reach an individual,” she said.
Jesse Pence, an advisor with Waypoint and the pro bono director of the San Francisco Financial Planning Association, also participated in the pilot, said it's taxing for advisors to stage those pro bono financial literacy seminars.
“You have to find a space, you have to send out marketing materials, you have to coordinate with non-profits, get the word out and find volunteers, do all the promotion around it—it’s a lot of work for a single day,” Pence said.
AdvisersGiveBack.org eliminates that work and allows advisors to simply focus on providing financial advice.
“All they have to do is show up. It can be done virtually, you can be wearing your sweatpants in your comfy chair at home, with a cup of tea,” she said. “You can make it part of your weekly routine, which wasn’t possible before to have an ongoing pro bono engagement.”
Pence blocks out an hour every Friday afternoon to do pro bono planning on the platform. Every advisor has a dedicated assistant who follows up with each client via text, email and in-app messaging. That way the advisor knows whether the clients have completed the actions they laid out in the first meeting.
“[Planners] want to know their volunteer time had an impact. Technology makes it a lot easier for us to be able to monitor and track how people are doing and be able to report that back.”
While the project was in the works before the pandemic hit, Iverson-Comelo said COVID-19 accelerated the need for an online pro bono platform. The Black Lives Matter movement also drew more attention to the racial wealth gap, and the opportunities that advisors have to help level the playing field.
“A lot of financial services firms are trying to figure out, from a diversity and inclusion standpoint, ‘how can we better serve these underserved communities?’ I think it’s really been a wakeup call for them,” he said.