When a crisis strikes and people are in need, it’s only natural to want to help.
Empathy is a common reaction to trauma, and we’re experiencing such a moment now with COVID-19, a mass-level public health crisis paired with an economic emergency. And a growing number of financial advisors are offering pro bono financial guidance to people who need it right now.
Two organizations have posted lists of advisors who are available to help— the XY Planning Network and the Financial Planning Association. And the Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP), which makes grants that fund pro bono advice programs at nonprofit and community organizations, recently launched a CFP Volunteer Match platform, which aims to bring CFP volunteers and nonprofits together, and 120 CFPs signed up just within a few days.
“Everyone's scrambling to figure out how they can respond and help,” says Jon Dauphiné, CEO of FFP.
Most often, pro bono planning help is being provided to lower-income households that don’t have investments. So, the advice focuses on emergency needs like household budgeting, credit and debt management, and employer benefit problems. For older clients, advice about Social Security also comes into the picture.
“You’re dealing with things that you don’t normally deal with in your practice,” says Suzette Rothberg, a CFP with Northwest Asset Management in Delano, Minn., who volunteers through the FPA and Family Reach, a nonprofit organization that provides direct financial assistance to cancer patients and their families. “It’s things like cash flow, debt management, how to pay bills and just get through to the next month. It’s insurance problems and looking to see if you can get waivers on disability policies.”
Rothberg’s volunteer work started in 2018, and she was motivated to get involved for personal reasons—cancer diagnoses that were received by her husband and mother in a very short time period. “Going through this as a CFP, I realized there was so much to it from a financial standpoint, and I wanted to find a way to give back.”
She started providing pro bono help after taking an FPA training program. “What I’ve found is people come in believing they are destitute, and often we can help by helping them to create a plan to prioritize their bills—who to pay now, and informing them that others may be willing to provide some relief,” she says. “Just that knowledge can be a game-changer.”
Rothberg always has at least one pro bono case in her portfolio. “That’s always my goal, and when I close one case, I move on to the next.”
The XY Planning Network pro bono initiative is a grass-roots effort started recently by one of its members, Kevin Mahoney, a CFP and founder of Illumint in Washington, D.C. Mahoney got interested in providing pro bono advice during the federal government shutdown in 2018. “Since I’m in D.C., I was seeing the shutdown impact a number of my own friends who were furloughed,” he recalls. “Many of them had the same questions, so I decided to just put out the word that I was available to help.”
“The situation now is very different, but it was a similar thought—it was just so clear early on what the financial and economic implications of this crisis would be—if you’ve lost your job or a significant part of your income, let’s talk about your budget. How will you make your way through it?”
The FPA’s pro bono model takes clients through a “mini-planning” process. This follows the basic financial planning process with the exceptions of implementation and monitoring, a spokesperson says. The basic steps involve gathering data and setting goals; data review and clarification; and plan presentation and discussion.
“We stop short of implementation—that’s for the client to carry out,” says Kristin Pugh, a CFP with TrueWealth in Atlanta, who chairs the FPA’s pro bono advisory committee. “But we help them get to that point by focusing on goals and helping to get organized into steps to reach them.”
Aside from tangible advice, many planners say the pro bono engagements can accomplish something else that’s very important—a friendly, expert ear to listen to what’s on the client's mind.
“In most of the conversations I have, I'm not sure how much tangible financial advice I've been able to give,” says Brett Koeppel of Eudaimonia Wealth in Buffalo, N.Y., who has offered pro bono services through the XY Planning Network. “It's mostly been about just being there to listen—people are stressed out and uncertain about the future, and they haven’t had someone available to vent to about it.”
Working through community groups
FFP—which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year—makes grants to nonprofit and community organizations, which in turn, partner with planners to provide financial advice, typically reaching about 23,000 people annually, according to Dauphiné.
“The programs we fund typically involve one on one interactions between the advisor and the pro bono client,” he says. “That could be over the course of a year, like a mentoring program, or it could be an hour-long financial clinic, where underserved members of the community can come in, meet with someone and get their questions answered.”
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the group has been reaching out to its grantees with the aim of making emergency grants. It also has been curating online resources for planners doing pro bono work.
Nearly everyone involved in pro bono work agrees that two ingredients are needed to make the scope of this work bigger and more effective. One is promotion to let people know that help is there—and the other is more advisors volunteering their time.
Here are some useful resources to help with the latter.
The Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP) has launched a CFP Volunteer Match platform, which aims to bring CFP volunteers and nonprofits together. The FFP also has a Coronavirus and Pro Bono Planning Resource Center, which provides consumers and financial planners with tools, tips and resources to help deal with personal financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
The group also has a Pro Bono Financial Planning Volunteer Training page that helps planners understand the basics of how to provide pro bono service to underserved members of the community. The training is approved for one hour of continuing education credit by the CFP Board.
FFP also offers a Sample Client/Planner Letter of Engagement that planners can use with pro bono clients, among other resources.