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The Community Benefits and Impact of Pro Bono Financial Planning Services

CFP® professionals are extremely qualified to help people who are struggling financially, and can provide an important contribution to underserved communities and those in need.

October 19, 2022

CFP® professionals who engage in pro bono work provide an important contribution in the U.S. by expanding access to competent and ethical financial planning services to underserved communities and those in need or crisis. By offering free financial planning services, those who otherwise may be unable to afford financial planning assistance can receive it, often at a time when they need it the most.

Sign up for CFP Board’s quarterly Pro Bono Newsletter to get the latest updates, information and opportunities from CFP Board related to pro bono volunteering.

The public clearly benefits from pro bono financial planning provided by CFP® professionals. And that has prompted CFP Board to make increasing the number of CFP® professionals providing pro bono an organizational priority for CFP Board.

“Expanding access to competent and ethical financial planners is a top strategic priority for CFP Board [and we] firmly believe in the importance of CFP® professionals offering pro bono services as a way to expand access,” writes Kevin R. Keller, CAE, CFP Board’s CEO, in a recent LinkedIn article.

But many CFP® professionals express hesitation about helping lower- and moderate- income families, according to Jon Dauphiné, CEO of the Foundation for Financial Planning. He points out that CFP® professionals are eminently qualified to solve the top goals of pro bono clients: budgeting and cashflow management, creating an emergency fund, and paying down credit card debt. And training is available on how to work with pro bono clients.

Pro Bono Financial Planning as an Organizational Priority

According to CFP Board’s 2021 Survey of CFP® Professionals, 76% of certificants believe it is important that CFP® professionals provide pro bono services to people in need — a seven percentage point increase since the 2019 survey (69%).

The challenge has been converting that interest into action, which is where CFP Board comes in.

CFP Board is focused on the supply side of this issue: increasing the number of CFP® professionals who raise their hands and say they are willing to commit time and expertise to helping traditionally underserved communities.

Through its partnership with the Foundation for Financial Planning, a non-profit organization that links volunteer financial planners to people in crisis or need, CFP Board provides the Foundation with CFP® professionals who it can match with pro bono financial planning opportunities.

CFP Board hopes to increase the number of CFP® professionals who provide pro bono services by 10 percent this year. Over the last two years, it certainly appears that the organization has seen sufficient interest from CFP® professionals to reach that goal.

“One of the bigger challenges we’ve seen in talking with CFP® professionals about pro bono is that so much pro bono financial planning work goes unreported, which makes it challenging to measure impact,” says Moley Evans, CFP Board’s Pro Bono Manager.

While many CFP® professionals participate in organized pro bono activities such as those opportunities identified by the Foundation for Financial Planning, others volunteer their time in more ad hoc settings: helping a neighbor assess their mortgage, assisting a member of their local faith community with budgeting questions or advising a friend’s elderly parent living on a fixed income. Evans encourages all CFP® professionals engaging in these kinds of activities to report their hours through their CFP Board accounts.

Evans is optimistic about CFP Board’s pro bono goals because financial planning is such an inherently service-oriented profession and many CFP® professionals are passionate about making financial advice more accessible.

Closing the Gap in Access to Trustworthy Financial Advice

Hussain Zaidi, CFP®, founder of Budge, acknowledges that a lack of business models in the financial advice industry accessible to lower income clients plays a role in perpetuating the misconception that financial planning is only for the wealthy.

“My [pro bono] clients are dignified, hardworking and organized people who are stretching a relatively small amount of income far by being responsible,” Zaidi says. “There are misconceptions that this group doesn’t need financial planning or financial advice — that is so far from the truth.”

“My [pro bono] clients are dignified, hardworking and organized people who are stretching a relatively small amount of income far by being responsible,” Zaidi says.

Dauphiné agrees that it can sometimes be challenging for middle-and low-income clients to find a financial planner because of the costs for service, which may be beyond what those consumers are able to pay at that moment in time.

He notes that low-income individuals also may not know where to go to access services. Instead, they often turn to family and friends for financial advice.

However, Dauphiné argues that it is irreplaceably valuable for folks to speak with an expert in financial planning who has made a commitment to work in the client’s best interest, making it critical to overcome barriers to financial advice, such as an inability to pay typical financial planning fees, to ensure all communities have access to trustworthy services.

Zaidi began providing pro bono services after selling his former business and having more time to give back. He found opportunities organized by the Foundation for Financial Planning.

He is energized by contributing the “core expertise” of CFP® professionals to communities where they are usually not applied. Through Zoom sessions with pro bono clients, Zaidi first initiates a “goals-based discussion” to determine what financial priorities are top of mind — from saving for retirement to building an emergency fund to managing debt. Once goals are established and key information on available income and assets and existing debt is organized, Zaidi supports his pro bono clients by creating a financial plan accompanied by an outline of specific actions.

As a result, Zaidi’s pro bono clients receive the experience of a traditional planning process as well as a sustainable, actionable plan when they otherwise might not have been able to find and afford it.

Kamila Elliott, CFP®, CFP Board’s 2022 Board Chair and an outspoken advocate for pro bono financial planning, frames these stories around pro bono within the organization’s broader mission to serve the public: “Establishing a pro bono tradition for the financial planning profession is an important part of elevating and enriching the profession while at the same time extending critical services to at-risk Americans in need of quality, objective financial guidance.”

Adding Personal and Professional Value to a Financial Planning Career

Clients aren’t the only ones who feel the positive impact of pro bono services. Volunteer financial planners feel good about leveraging their core skills to help lift others up. In some cases, financial planners even take the opportunity to increase their own knowledge and training, and to build upon their core skills in ways suited to the specific needs of their pro bono clients. The Foundation for Financial Planning offers a “Pro Bono 101” training course that can help get them started.

Dauphiné frequently hears the volunteer financial planners with whom his organization engages describing their pro bono work as “why they got into the business in the first place.”

Dauphiné frequently hears the volunteer financial planners with whom his organization engages describing their pro bono work as “why they got into the business in the first place.”

Leisa K. Olson, CFP®, an advisor with Legacy Private Wealth Group, shared that her experience working with clients who are cancer patients through the Angel Foundation has “made me a better financial planner” and better able to fully recognize the value that financial planners can provide.

Having known many people affected by cancer, Olson says supporting patients through the financial planning process feels like a way of “doing something when I otherwise feel helpless.”

Olson supported Serenity, a Gastroesophageal Junction cancer patient who had been furloughed from her job in the beginning of the pandemic, in navigating insurance benefits and difficult financial decisions — such as evaluating whether to take funds out of her 401(k) account — as well as newly available resources such as the CARES Act and other relief legislation. Olson and Serenity’s full story can be read here on the Foundation for Financial Planning’s website.

The impact of the work contributed by Olson and her fellow financial planners is measurable. A recent study presented at the American Society of Hematology explored the severe financial hardship many blood cancer patients face, which causes stress that can further impact the patients’ physical health. The study found that patients who receive comprehensive financial intervention, including pro bono financial planning services, had a higher survival rate than those who did not.

Olson admits that she had hesitations before beginning her pro bono engagement, specifically questioning how she could provide value to a patient going through so much. Olson encourages other financial planners who are considering pursuing pro bono opportunities but may share similar hesitations to “jump in with two feet and trust that they have the education, knowledge and ability to help.”

As Keller writes, “Providing pro bono services to those in need is a hallmark of established professions. It is also a proven method for making a positive — perhaps transformative — impact on someone’s life.”

Resources for CFP® Professionals Interested in Getting Involved
Visit CFP Board’s pro bono volunteering web page to learn more about how to get involved in pro bono financial planning and report any pro bono hours.