2013 Pro Bono Awards: Who Won?
By: Ann Marsh
For the third year in a row, Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning jointly present the Pro Bono Awards to recognize both individual advisors and teams of planners who provide exceptional free planning help to those who could not afford it.
As awareness of our annual Pro Bono Awards has spread, the number and quality of nominations has increased. Our team of judges felt awed and inspired this year by the many examples of exceptional pro bono work among the nominees. As a result, for the first time, we are also including honorable mentions.
These advisors have made remarkable differences through their generosity of time and spirit. We recognize striking contributions and celebrate the hard work that goes unremunerated in an industry where success is often defined by financial measures alone.
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David Blaydes -- volunteer work with cancer patients and their families
Blaydes met his two best friends in kindergarten. He was in both of their weddings, and the three stayed best friends through adulthood, bound by their small-town upbringing. At ages 46 and 49, both died of cancer. Blaydes recalls the time he accompanied one of them to the doctor's office. "The doctor said, 'You have a 15% chance of making five years. I'm sorry.'" he says. "Stan looked at me and said, 'Now what?' I've never felt so helpless because I didn't have an answer." Just a few days later, Blaydes, the president of Retirement Planners International in Naperville, Ill., received a phone call at work. The caller asked if he would be willing to volunteer time at Wellness House.
Blaydes agreed to help. He now teaches planning classes to shell-shocked family members who come seeking assistance with the crush of financial decisions that come with a cancer diagnosis. His contact information has gone out to more than 25,000 people in the past decade and he estimates he's spent thousands of hours on the phone and in person with many of them. The planning he does can be comprehensive. He helps families put their assets into trusts. He advises on investments. He reviews their insurance policies, and makes changes when necessary. Often, he just spends time with them.
Stacy Francis -- founder of Savvy Ladies
Francis opened her own firm, Francis Financial, in 2002 in New York. Soon after, she started a nonprofit, Savvy Ladies, to educate and empower women to develop enough confidence and skills to take charge of their finances. A decade later, Savvy Ladies says it has reached more than 10,000 women through its information sessions in the New York area as well as its web seminars. Once a month, the group staffs a hotline for free financial planning. It has begun running retreats for women for a nominal fee that marginally defrays expenses. Savvy Ladies is beginning to work with Girl Scout troops and is in the beginning stages of planning an online course intended to help women master their finances.
And Francis is behind all of it. For the first two years after founding her for-profit planning firm, Francis took no salary, instead funneling money into the nonprofit while her husband supported the family. For four years after that, Francis kept her salary low while using firm profits to pay for Savvy Ladies' rent, computers, programming and new hires. (Two years ago, Francis did start drawing a competitive salary from her firm, she says.)
FPA of Massachusetts' military support program
Before and after a deployment, U.S. National Guard members and other military reservists attend "yellow ribbon" events hosted by the Defense Department aimed at supporting the servicemembers. In Massachusetts, for the past decade, these servicemembers have been met by local FPA volunteers, who make themselves available to answer any financial questions they can on the spot; servicemembers can also sign up for free one-on-one planning sessions later. In the past 15 months, FPA volunteers have donated about 1,390 hours, saved servicemembers $337,000 in tax-prep fees and generated more than $2.5 million in refunds. Power founded the program to help service members after 9/11; it picked up speed about four years later, when the FPA of Massachusetts partnered with the Pentagon. The program is now run by another military veteran, Hal Estabrook, who retired from for-profit planning. The FPA of Massachusetts team has served an estimated 1,900 servicemembers since its inception, according to the U.S. Army.
Janice Chapman -- volunteer work with active-duty military
After a fallout with a former business partner many years ago, planner Janice Chapman fell on hard times. A $3,000 debt that went to collections caused her broker-dealer of many years to drop her, she says. That experience helped her to understand the dilemma many military men and women face when they're told their severe debts could mean losing their military security clearances. "If they can't pay those debts, they lose their livelihoods," because the military fears the debts make servicemembers vulnerable to extortion, Chapman explains. While rebuilding her own life, Chapman began doing paid work as a contractor with the U.S. Army, providing limited financial planning advice to active-duty soldiers. She says she recognized the traumatized look in Sgt. Angelo Stevens' eyes immediately when he came to the office where she worked. The guidelines of Chapman's contract work forbade her from providing any help beyond some general pointers - so Chapman told Stevens she would help him for free. She negotiated Stevens' debt down to about $48,000 and worked out a payment plan on the rest. She also negotiated with the Army, which let him keep his security clearance. She has since helped another 20 military members on a pro bono basis to reduce their debts, thereby helping them retain their security clearances and their jobs. Each case takes her between 40 and 60 hours, she says.
FPA of Central Ohio -- volunteers with New Directions Career Center
Impoverished and often single women in the Columbus, Ohio, area often turn to New Directions Career Center for help through financial and personal crises. For the past two and a half years, many have also attended free one-on-one counseling, financial boot camps and classes run by volunteers with the FPA's Central Ohio chapter. "Every boot camp runs the gamut, from women who are getting ready to retire to a woman last month who had an 18-month-old and a husband who was killed in Afghanistan," says Erin Gaeta, the former director of the FPA of Central Ohio's Pro Bono Committee. Gaeta started her chapter's volunteer work with New Directions in 2011; the work is now overseen by Gaeta's successor, Kristen Moosmiller. Since they began working with New Directions, FPA volunteers have helped about 100 women, Moosmiller says. And plans are under way to expand the collaboration.
Brian Byars -- volunteer with Whitesburg, Ga., Police Department
A certified police instructor as well as an advisor, Byars volunteers his time conducting training programs and financial planning seminars for public safety departments throughout Georgia. As an advisor, Byars has pledged that his firm will never turn a veteran away, and delivers about 75% of his services free of charge for veterans.
Jeffrey Dobyns -- volunteer with Men of Valor
A volunteer mentor/advisor and board member for Men of Valor, a faith-based organization that assists men transitioning after their release from prison, Dobyns "has helped us immeasurably in not just mentoring, but getting other folks involved in our ministry," said Carl Carlson, Men of Valor's founder and director. Dobyns provides one-on-one advice to the group's clients, guiding one particular Men of Valor participant since 2006, Carlson noted.
(Image: Raymond James)
Joseph Goetz -- volunteer with Aspire Clinic, University of Georgia
When not serving as a professor of financial planning or as a partner in Elwood & Goetz Wealth Advisory Group, Goetz can be found at the Aspire Clinic, a multi-disciplinary counseling service affiliated with the University of Georgia, where he supervises financial planning students, serves on the organization's advisory committee and provides pro bono financial training and advice to the university and the surrounding community of Athens, Ga. Goetz has been "a huge contributor to the success of the Aspire Clinic," said Megan Ford, the clinic's coordinator. "He's a very dedicated individual. He always goes above and beyond."
(Image: Aspire Clinic)
Erik Skar -- volunteer with Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts
Skar has been integral to the recent success of his region's Junior Achievement. In addition to serving on the organization's board and spearheading fundraising initiatives, he has provided financial literacy instruction to thousands of urban kids.
(Image: MassMutual Financial Group)