Cancer - the diagnosis can be terrifying. And the emotional and financial toll can't be underestimated. In addition to worrying about the pain, the suffering and the disease's effect on their loved ones, the afflicted often take extended medical leave, resulting in a financial hit from lost pay. And medical bills for treatments, some not covered by insurance, can quickly wipe out an emergency fund. It's not uncommon for the sick to exhaust their savings and retirement accounts.

"I've seen it all," says Rick Fingerman, founder and president of Financial Planning Solutions, a small shop managing roughly $50 million in Newton, Mass. "Job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, credit card debt, you name it."

Cancer patients are often in desperate need of a finance expert to help them sort through their options. Yet the cost of hiring an advisor may seem like an unnecessary - if not outright unaffordable - expense. In 2007, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and the Financial Planning Association launched a pro bono program to pair financial planners with cancer patients and families.

Fingerman signed up immediately and, since 2008, has been counseling patients, coaching other planners to work with the cancer stricken, and overseeing the daily operations of the program. To date, he has matched more than 200 patients with planners - engagements that have helped families tackle credit card debt, insurance bills and other budgetary concerns.

For his extraordinary work, the Foundation for Financial Planning and Financial Planning magazine named Fingerman the winner of the inaugural Pro Bono Planners of the Year Awards.

"Rick brings an outstanding level of commitment and compassion to his work, while also lending his considerable expertise and experience" to the program, says Nancy Borstelmann, director of the patient/family support and education program at Dana-Farber, who nominated Fingerman for the award.

Saundra Davis, who runs Sage Financial, a nonprofit that provides financial coaching to low- and moderate-income families in San Francisco, was named Pro Bono Planner of the Year runner-up.

In addition to the individual awards, two groups of planners were recognized for their outstanding pro bono efforts: the Financial Planning Association's New York chapter won the Pro Bono Team of the Year Award for advising 9/11 families, and SpendSmart, an Oceanside, Calif., nonprofit providing financial education, was named Pro Bono Team of the Year runner-up for helping at-risk kids, single moms, military families and others develop financial planning skills.

ALL ABOUT GIVING

The Foundation for Financial Planning is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide financial planning services to lower-income families; individuals in crisis situations, such as domestic violence or medical emergencies; and military personnel. The foundation provides grant money to groups such as the United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, and the Center for Women and Families to organize and promote events where those facing financial challenges can meet with advisors at no charge.

Since 1998, the foundation has awarded 75 grants totaling more than $4 million. This year, it's received 69 applications and will likely award 15 grants totaling about $500,000. Money for the grants comes from investment advisors and corporations serving the financial community. TD Ameritrade Institutional, for instance, is matching every dollar individual financial planners and investment advisors contribute up to $1 million. Amerprise, Charles Schwab, Fidelity, LPL Financial and Cetera Financial are among the other firms that have contributed.

This year, the foundation, working with Financial Planning, established the Pro Bono Awards to recognize the charitable contributions of financial planning professionals. Awards were open to financial planners, registered representatives or registered investment advisors working with nonprofits to provide free financial advice, education and life skills.

Foundation chair Barry Freedman and executive director Jim Peniston assembled a panel of judges that included Freedman, who also heads Freedman Financial Associates in Peabody, Mass; Karin Maloney Stifler, a CFP at True Wealth Advisors in Hudson, Ohio; Josh Dunning, partnership development advisor at AARP in Washington; and Lee Baker, a CFP and founder of Apex Financial Services in Tucker, Ga.

HELPING THE CANCER STRICKEN

The judges were looking to recognize planners, such as Fingerman, who made a significant difference in people's lives. At the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Fingerman recruits planners and estate attorneys, oversees a training program he created to teach financial coaches how to work with cancer patients, and assigns each pairing of planner and patient. He also built an online group so that coaches can discuss their work and share best practices.

In his training classes, Fingerman introduces volunteer coaches to programs and information sources that help patients with issues such as credit counseling, heating oil assistance, prescription drugs costs and other services. About three dozen coaches provide one-on-one advice and counseling.

Coaching commitments run anywhere from 30-minute conversations that may result in an attorney referral to a yearlong engagement with a patient facing multiple financial issues. Coaches also provide estate planning advice. "Some patients may pass away and we help out their spouses," Fingerman says.

Those who work with him are impressed not only by his knowledge but also his manner. "It is amazing and gratifying to us to witness the impact of a calm and competent financial professional during a time of medical crisis," Borstelmann wrote.

ONE-ON-ONE

Like Fingerman, runner-up Saundra Davis manages a small shop, running Sage Financial with just a virtual assistant. But she does a lot with a little.

Davis provides financial coaching (but no asset management) to low- and moderate-income clients in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to providing pro bono advice to hundreds of people, Davis is active on the pro bono committee of the Financial Planning Association's San Francisco chapter.

She also works with a San Francisco nonprofit called EARN that helps low-income families build savings for college, mortgages and business startups.

Davis was nominated for co-founding EARN's Innovative Wealthcare financial coaching program, which offers families one-on-one sessions with financial planners who provide money management advice. Wealthcare has assisted more then 70 low-income families since it was launched in 2008. Davis has also developed a training program that can be used by other nonprofits that want to provide financial advice to the people they serve. So far, more than 50 organizations in the region have taken part.

"Overall, Saundra's leadership has been instrumental in designing, implementing and evaluating the first-of-its-kind Wealthcare initiative, which set a national gold standard for providing financial coaching to low-income clients," says Ben Mangan, EARN's CEO, in nominating Davis.

Davis says her biggest challenge is helping people change their financial behavior. "The numbers are the easy part," she says. The hard part is convincing clients to make more, spend less, or a combination of the two, in addition to protecting what they save. This protection includes making sure her clients have properly prepared wills, advance directives and suitable insurance.

SUPPORTING 9/11 FAMILIES

In addition to individual planners, the Pro Bono Awards highlight the work done by financial planning groups and organizations.

The Financial Planning Association's New York chapter, which has been working with families of victims, survivors and rescue workers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is the winner of the Pro Bono Team of the Year Award.

For 10 years, the chapter's pro bono committee has helped invest insurance settlements and government payouts. The committee also has provided numerous free financial seminars and one-on-one advice. It's also tried to help those it's assisted steer clear of investment scams.

"There was all this money being dumped on these people and the sharks were circling to take it away," says David Mendels, a director of planning at advisory firm Creative Financial Concepts and president of the Financial Planning Association's New York chapter. "Our committee had its work cut out for it."

The pro bono committee, led by its director, Anja Luesink of Luesink Financial Planning, has recruited 70 volunteers.

Its mantra: "Give one hour of your time per week and have an impact on someone's life."

Mendels says much of the credit given to the chapter's pro bono committee should go to Luesink. "Being the director of that committee is almost a second full-time job," he says.

In addition to helping 9/11 victims, the pro bono committee works with partner organizations to provide financial advice to low-income clients in the New York area. Among the services it provides:

* Workshops on taxes, credit repair, budgeting, retirement planning and estate planning.

* One-on-one planning with low-income clients.

* Classes for high school students about all aspects of financial planning.

* Income tax preparation for low-wage earners.

"They work with homeless veterans, battered women, prostitutes ... whoever needs their help," Mendels says. "I remain enormously proud of this group."

FINANCIAL LIFE LESSONS

SpendSmart co-founders Jeff Morris (the firm's president) and Gregory Spencer (its CEO) started their non-profit financial education organization - runner-up for Pro Bono Team of the Year Award - after experiencing their own financial pains. Morris, a certified money coach, has a background in the real estate and mortgage businesses. Spencer, a financial literacy specialist, is a former teacher and principal who worked in the insurance industry. Both endured numerous problems, ranging from bankruptcy to foreclosure, and have dealt with the consequences of poor financial decisions.

As they worked through their own financial heartaches, family and friends started coming to them for advice. Their experience convinced them to focus on financial sanity and health, rather than financial literacy.

"We ask people why they make the financial decisions they make rather than focusing on how to create a budget or how to balance a checkbook. They need to understand 'Why do' before we can teach them 'How to.' Financial sanity is not about information; it's about transformation," according to Morris and Spencer. The duo began by uncovering their clients' dysfunctional money attitudes - what they call "MoneTudes." They have clients share money stories from their families, and discovered diverse money stories among clients of different backgrounds.

For example, Spencer notes the tendency among Latino immigrants to "mattress their money" because they were often taught to distrust their native country's government. "We slowly introduce them to people and banks they can trust," he says.

Athletes have their own cultural peculiarities, like the propensity of retired football players to get divorced or file for bankruptcy. "They definitely have money issues," Morris says.

In addition to their financial planning work, Morris and Spencer have written more than 50 customized curricula and collaborated on three books, all based on their own personal experiences.

The Foundation for Financial Planning believes the work of the Pro Bono Award winners and runners-up underscores its belief that the investment advisor community can change the financial outlook of society by teaching basic planning, budgeting and investment techniques. "The most important skill for both high- and low-income clients alike may be the ability to distinguish between wants and needs," Peniston says.

Jim Grote, a CFP in Louisville, Ky., writes regularly for Financial Planning.