Officials from 43 FPA chapters met to find out how to launch successful pro bono planning programs in their states.
By Tracey Longo
Diana DeCharles and a group of Louisiana planners
helped New Orleans art gallery owners Sandra Berry and Joshua Walker,
as well as other business owners, protect their livelihoods and create
financial strategies after Hurricane Katrina hit. The group helped
forge a blueprint for community service that is being utilized today in
the Financial Planning Association's (FPA) first pro bono storefront, a
matchmaking facility for advisors and more than 500,000 New Orleans
residents who have been displaced.
Holly Gillian Kindel and Saundra Davis are coordinating a pro bono financial planning program in San Francisco that has successfully coached approximately 500 lower-income folks who are in matched saving programs designed to help them buy their first home, start a business or go back to school.
Elaine Scoggins and Andi Kang have used simple but effective workshops to help scores of women at domestic violence shelters in Florida and California begin the journey toward financial competence and empowerment.
And, in the nation's capital, Cindy Deavel is directing the efforts of FPA chapter volunteers who have started providing basic planning services to soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with serious injuries. The pro bono outreach program is part of the Wounded Warrior Project at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
These four projects provide just a glimpse of the amount of pro bono work advisors are doing in communities across the country. And if advisor participation at the FPA's first Pro Bono Director's Forum, held in Tyson's Corner, Va., in June, is any indication, there are literally hundreds of new pro bono programs in chapter pipelines throughout the nation.
"I see a whole system evolving, a championing culture that helps people grow and change their lives," says FPA Executive Director Marv Tuttle. "Our national association is speaking about this, chapters will continue to lead the charge and then individual firms will begin to do their own thing."
The FPA has come a long way since 2000, when the group "had no real commitment to pro bono work," Tuttle says. "It took a wake-up call that next year, on September 11. But we all came together pretty quickly." The FPA created the National Financial Planning Support Center in 2001 to provide planning services to families impacted by the terrorist attacks. The center, which has been instrumental in opening the FPA's first pro bono storefront in Baton Rouge to match needy families with advisors, recently received a grant of $244,865 from the Foundation for Financial Planning.
"We're really just in the embryonic stages, but I see us moving pro bono front and center, into the very lexicon of financial planning," Tuttle says. To make it easier for planners who want to volunteer in their communities, the association has developed a tool kit designed to take activists through all the steps they'll need to create an active pro bono outreach program in their city. The toolkit includes a blueprint for finding and training volunteers, a pro bono director's job description, sample vision and mission statements and a primer on finding and working with suitable partner organizations that can steer planners to individuals who need and want pro bono counseling.
While that may seem like a no-brainer, nothing is more frustrating than trying to work with a group that hasn't made financial literacy a primary goal, experienced advisors say. Diana DeCharles, a registered principal with AIG Financial Advisors and the FPA's director of pro bono planning in Shreveport, La., says her group of nine advisor-volunteers sprang to the ready when Katrina hit New Orleans. But they quickly found they couldn't make much headway with nearby military bases or the Red Cross, which were busy providing basic services.
The lesson, says DeCharles, who spoke at the FPA's June conference about the trials and successes of her pro bono program, is that planners aren't necessarily first responders in the face of disaster, nor should they be. "At first, survival is critical. But when the dust settles and people have to worry about cash flow and bills and insurance forms and payments, we can be instrumental."
To get the ball rolling, DeCharles began working with other planners to reach out, especially to business owners trying to salvage their livelihoods in New Orleans. That's how she met Berry and Walker, owners of the Neighborhood Gallery, which was still standing but had lost much of its roof in the hurricane. "Get a tarp on the roof or you'll lose your art," DeCharles told the couple, who specialize in the paintings of African-American painters.
In addition to assisting them with copious insurance forms (the payments to replace the blue tarp with real roofing have come through) and basic cash-flow planning, she went to work helping them build the kind of sound financial foundation they didn't really have before. In fact, for the first time ever, they are writing a business plan with the help of counselors who visit as part of a Louisiana State University program. "These folks are survivors. Now they need someone to show them what they do well and what they can do better," DeCharles says.
Out in San Francisco, advisors have counseled people in the city's Project Earn program, which targets the city's working poor and requires that they apply and attend ongoing financial literacy training to qualify for the two-for-one match they get in their individual development accounts (IDAs). "What is fascinating," says Holly Gillian Kindel, who has spearheaded the planning program with Saundra Davis, "is that when people graduate from the program, they receive their IDA accounts and either buy a house, start a business or go back to school. Then they have more complex financial problems we can assist them with."
To do just that, advisors with the FPA's San Francisco chapter have prepared comprehensive financial plans for 15 graduates. The number of Earn Project alums who receive plans will increase significantly this fall, when some of the city's most senior advisors begin to supervise planning students at Golden Gate University in the preparation of comprehensive plans. Such plans routinely cost $4,000 to $15,000 at the firms that will be mentoring the students.
To get these and other stories out to the media and to galvanize public support and the awareness of other planners, the FPA also did media training for pro bono directors and volunteers at their recent conference. "It's important that we put a human face on these stories," says Brad White, the FPA's director of public affairs. "I'm happy to pitch good stories to reporters, so I hope planners will feel comfortable coming to me. This is an exciting time to be part of the pro bono program, while it is in its formative stages. The lines are just being drawn."
The fact that the lines are still being drawn may be an understatement. While the FPA plans to take a high-brow approach to pro bono work (see sidebar), other groups such as the Society for Financial Awareness (sofausa.org) have registered as 501(c)3 organizations for mixed purposes. SOFA, for example, bills itself as a nonprofit educational organization while marketing itself as a purveyor of free financial seminars to industry, government and the military. The big picture is a little different, though one that is catching fire with some planners. Planners pay $200 a month to become part of a local team that includes a mortgage broker, estate planning attorney, tax specialist, real estate agent and wellness expert. The members are then taught to book seminars in organizations they choose for the purpose of soliciting prospective clients. So far, SOFA has attracted 228 members, most of them since the group decided to go national in the past two years.
"The secret of why we do well is our nonprofit status," says president and founder Jim Chilton. "We're proud to show our books to the IRS," says Chilton, who adds that he has never taken a dime in salary from SOFA and year-to-date has gifted more than $65,000, mostly to family readiness centers on military bases. Ongoing SOFA seminars have taken place across the country.
Chilton makes no bones about the fact that he and his members use the seminars to target wealthy clients. "I'd say I close about 90% of the people who come into my office from the seminars. There are different shades of pro bono just as there are different shades of blue," says Chilton, who has just negotiated a contract that will allow SOFA members to deliver their seminars on military bases across the U.S. "When you use the word "pro bono,' every one of my folks gives their time for free during the seminars," he says.