The Role of Pro Bono Services in Financial Advisers’ Practices

Pro bono advisory work is helping to serve those who have been traditionally under and poorly served by the financial advisory industry—while giving some advisers a renewed sense of purpose and a broader set of planning skills.
By DJ Shaw

Millions of Americans are financially struggling, and inflation, supply chain and other economic challenges stemming from pandemic have only made the problem worse. Recognizing a clear and growing need, financial advisers who do pro bono volunteer work are seeking to help bridge the wealth gap for those who earn low to moderate incomes.

There is a big appetite among financial advisers to be able to give back and help, says Matt Iverson-Comelo, executive director of an organization called Advisers Give Back. When people in the advisory industry think of volunteering, they often think of working at food pantries or building houses. However, financial planners and advisers have a unique skill set that is being underutilized in that space and can help people get on a better financial path.

Iverson-Comelo explains that Advisers Give Back is a fintech platform dedicated to making pro bono financial planning easier and more impactful for both financial advisers and pro bono clients. In October, the organization announced partnerships with two established fintech companies, Steady and EarnUp, which collectively serve more than 3 million low- and moderate-income individuals. These fintech partnerships will provide a steady stream of pro bono clients as Advisers Give Back begins to scale up, Iverson-Comelo says.

Iverson-Comelo says he wants to build out a platform to help people act and follow through with plans to do better with their money. He says pro bono advisory work is helping to support those who have been traditionally under and poorly served by the industry.

“More and more firms are waking up to the reality that we should be doing more to help people in our community who are underserved, who have structural barriers to building wealth, building assets,” Iverson-Comelo says. “Being able to provide pro bono financial planning is one way to help with that, by giving people access to somebody who is skilled in translating their challenges into a clear plan of action and who can then help coach them to success.”

Giving and Getting

Those seeking help are not the only ones who benefit from pro bono advisory work. It has also helped advisers build empathy and understanding of a wider range of issues faced by those dealing with unique challenges, Iverson-Comelo says.

There can be a sense of immediacy when helping families that have very little margin for error with their finances, adds Jon Dauphiné, CEO of the Foundation for Financial Planning. In contrast to high-net-worth clients, the stakes for those who benefit the most from pro bono work are much higher, such as for a family facing evection.

Volunteers often advise on topics such as building an emergency fund, household budgets or how to prioritize credit card debt, which are things they normally would not deal with, Dauphiné says. It can be very meaningful for advisers to see the impact they have on those clients who often do not have access to trusted objective advice.

One challenge in this space of volunteer work has been reaching those in need of assistance, Dauphiné notes. Advisers associated with his organization have held an average of 20,000 pro bono sessions a year, but there are millions of people who need help. To help fill appointments, he says partnering with fintech firms and working with retirement plan advisers to build a better infrastructure has been vital.

To this end, Iverson-Comelo again emphasizes the importance of collaboration.

“Our new fintech partnerships represent the missing piece of the puzzle. We know that there is a strong demand from financial advisers to give back, and up until now the main issue has been providing advisers with a consistent stream of pro bono clients,” he says. “Mature fintech companies, such as Steady and EarnUp, can reliably deliver over 500 pro bono clients each month, and we’re excited to build more partnerships like these. By this time next year, we anticipate having over 1,000 financial advisers volunteering through the platform, as we scale to prove that financial planning isn’t just for wealthy individuals.”