David Blaydes never wanted to work with cancer patients. "I was scared of it," he says of the time he was asked to volunteer his planning expertise to patients with cancer and their families at Wellness House in Hinsdale, Ill.
"I got sucked in because these people are wonderful," says Blaydes, who's been volunteering at the nonprofit for 10 years. In that time, he has attended funerals often and sometimes become a surrogate family member for ailing patients and their loved ones. He has helped thousands of people.
For the third year in a row, Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning are jointly presenting 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.
Blaydes, of Naperville, Ill., is one of this year's individual winners. Another is New York-based Stacy Francis, founder of Savvy Ladies, a nonprofit dedicated to women's financial empowerment. And our runner-up is planner Janice Chapman of Annapolis, Md., who works with members of the U.S. military.
In the team category, our Planners of the Year award this year goes to the volunteers of the Financial Planning Association of Massachusetts' military support program. They staff a series of meetings, one-on-one planning sessions and events for military servicemembers, before and after tours of duty. Our runner-up team recipients in this category are the volunteers from the FPA's Central Ohio chapter, who help women coping with financial crises at New Directions Career Center in Columbus, Ohio.
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 four honorable mentions.
Almost all of the nominees 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. We hope this year's winners will inspire other planners to find their own unique ways of making a difference.
Pro Bono Award - Winner (Tie)
Volunteer work with cancer patients and their families
David 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.
"What do you do exactly?" he asked, feeling a strong reluctance to get involved.
"After a diagnosis, when patients ask, 'What now?'" she said, "we are the what."
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.
The work continues - all without charge - after a funeral, as he and colleagues at his firm help family members complete paperwork to transfer an estate. He estimates he spends about 10 hours a week with families, while continuing to run his for-profit firm.
"I just can't see how this man can do everything he's doing and not charge a dime," says Bob Fogarty, of Medinah, Ill., whose wife Barbara died in September after a 14-year battle with breast cancer. "I often tell people I lost an angel when my wife passed, but we gained a new one in David. I can't tell you what he's done for our family."
Pro Bono Award - Winner (Tie)
Founder of Savvy Ladies
As a kid, Stacy Francis spent harrowing weekends at her grandparents' home, a reluctant witness to her alcoholic grandfather's verbal abuse of her grandmother. Not until she started college did she feel able to ask her grandmother why she didn't just leave.
Her grandmother confessed that, despite her work as a bookkeeper, she was afraid of becoming "a bag lady" if she did. In exchange for financial security, she had put up with a lifetime of abuse.
"I was studying French literature and headed to a career as an academic," Francis recalls. But the conversation led to an epiphany: "I knew I had to study finances, hard core."
After a stint with MetLife after graduation, Francis opened her own firm, Francis Financial, in 2002 in New York. Soon after, following her grandmother's death, she started a nonprofit, Savvy Ladies, to educate and empower women to develop enough confidence and skills to take charge of their finances in a way her grandmother could not.
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, did Francis start drawing a competitive salary from her firm, she says.)
Denise Grant, who works in bank marketing and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she began attending the group's sessions and web seminars after an ex-husband left her with about $35,000 in debt. After years of Savvy Ladies support, she says, she is now debt-free and plans to buy an apartment. "They provide me with a safe place to learn and to try things out," Grant says. "I keep coming because they keep me on track.
Team Pro Bono Award - Winner
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 service members. In Massachusetts, for the past decade, these service members have been met by local FPA volunteers, who make themselves available to answer any financial questions they can on the spot; service members 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.
"We essentially do what we would do for any client; we just don't get paid for it," says planner and veteran Dick Power. That, he says, means comprehensive financial planning.
"We help them build budgets," he explains. "We help them figure out a debt resolution plan. We work with American Consumer Credit Counseling. We work with pro bono attorneys who might write estate planning documents and things of those sort. We help them find good insurance programs, things like life insurance, property and casualty insurance. We try to make sure they get the minimum coverage they need to protect themselves."
Power founded the program to help servicemembers 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.
One of those recipients, Matt Gately, a sergeant with the National Guard, worked directly with Estabrook. He and his wife paid down debts and saved enough to get out of a cramped apartment and buy a small home for themselves and their two children on an acre in Rochester, Mass.
Were it not for Estabrook's help, Gately says, "I would be miserable. It's tough to have your own thoughts when you have people right on top of you. Now, I feel like I have accomplished my goal of having a family and being able to have a home. I stand outside on my porch and feel fresh air and I feel so content."
Pro Bono Award - Runner-Up
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.
After overhearing another planner tell Stevens he needed to get himself out of about $100,000 in debt, she watched Stevens walk out the door. Instinctively, Chapman hurried after him, catching him in the parking lot. That sprint would prove fateful. Stevens and his wife had racked up their debt after their son was diagnosed with a rare, terminal form of epilepsy; their older daughter also has epilepsy, and the work entailed in their care compelled Stevens' wife to quit her job. Stevens' salary of about $36,000 didn't begin to cover their expenses.
But there was one out, he thought: If he killed himself and concealed his suicide, he knew the army would pay his family a life insurance payout of about $400,000. It was the only thing he could think of to help. "It's tough to talk about," he says now. "I was planning to drive into the Potomac."
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.
After Stevens studied the steps Chapman took to pull him out of the hole, he went on to help nearly 20 fellow military men and women resolve debts and save their security clearances, he says. For more than a year before he retired, he also served as his unit's suicide prevention coordinator.
"Much of who I am today is because of Jan," Stevens says. "When she was able to bring me out of despair, it gave me newfound energy."
Team Pro Bono Award - Runner-Up
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 of them 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. Just 26 years old, Moosmiller, a CFP with PDS Planning in Columbus, is also the incoming president of her FPA chapter.
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.
"Being in a for-profit business, I'm working with people who have money," Moosmiller says of her day job. "It's very rewarding, but I think it's very important, particularly in this country, to help bring up the people who haven't had the same advantages."
Ann Marsh is a senior editor and the West Coast bureau chief of Financial Planning.
Brian Byars, Advanced Retirement Planning, Covington, Ga., and Gainesville, Ga.Pro Bono help: 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, President, Southwestern Investment Group (Raymond James), Franklin, Tenn.
Pro Bono help: 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.
Joseph Goetz, Elwood & Goetz Wealth Advisory Group, Athens, Ga.
Pro Bono help: 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."
Erik Skar, Mass Mutual Financial Group, Holyoke, Mass.
Pro Bono help: 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. - Paul McCaffrey