For years, planners who tried to volunteer to help soldiers and veterans in financial straits have been turned away by military policies.
A new collaboration between the Foundation for Financial Planning and a service members' aid nonprofit called Give an Hour could change that.
The two organizations are in early-stage talks about how Give an Hour -- which to date has worked only with mental health counselors but has delivered more than 100,000 hours of free counseling -- could tap some 3,000 planners on the foundation's volunteer list to help service members and veterans.
Spurred by the goal of reducing military suicides, the foundation's CEO, Jim Peniston, says he contacted the nonprofit about a month month ago to propose working together. (The foundation is a co-sponsor of Financial Planning's annual pro bono awards, which last year recognized Janice Chapman for her work with active-duty service members facing financial hardship.)
"The opportunity exists to create a collaborative effort," says Barbara Van Dahlen, Give an Hour's founder, whom Time magazine named one of the 100 most influential people in world in 2012. "This is the beginning of the conversation."
As talks between the nonprofits continue, Give an Hour plans to send out an article about the foundation's work to the 10,000 subscribers of its newsletter, she says.
Financial stressors are among the top precipitating factors for many military suicides and suicide attempts. Three soldiers kill themselves every four days, while 22 veterans kill themselves daily and many more make the attempt, according to Defense Department and Veterans Administration data.
Give an Hour's counselors find veterans and soldiers experience the greatest distress over three main issues: mental health, finances and employment, Van Dahlen says.
Peniston says another Give an Hour executive told him that the nonprofit's counselors frequently encounter financial problems they don't know how to address.
The impetus for the two organizations' joint effort was an investigation published in May in Financial Planning, Peniston says. That story examined the military policies that prevent many financial planners working under military contract from delivering adequate help to soldiers facing financial troubles.
Most military planners often are not able to work with soldiers on complex issues on an ongoing basis. Of particular significance, the military doesn't allow any of its own planners to engage in actual financial planning, for liability reasons, limiting them only to providing a more general form of a "financial education."
A private sector network could step in to fill this void, Peniston says.
Unlike the military, Give an Hour encourages its counselors to work with veterans for soldiers for as long as is necessary.
"Give an Hour is referring to how we are asking mental health professionals to give one hour a week. But there is not a limit," Van Dahlen's assistant, Kristin Lee, wrote in an email. "Its definitely not implying that clients only need one hour on their end. Im not sure what could be accomplished in that short amount of time. Its more of a call to action for [mental health professionals] to donate one hour a week."
Give an Hour maintains alliances with a number of like-minded organizations.
"We get asked daily to partner with everybody but whenever we recognize the value it goes to the next level," Van Dahlen says.
"It's very complex the role that the financial strain plays for these often young men and women," she adds. "It is in some ways a manifestation of all kinds of stress and strain and it then poses a risk and a threat because if service members get into financial trouble, there are serious consequences for that."
Indebtedness is the leading cause of loss of security clearance for soldiers, and losing a security clearance can threaten a service member's career. Members of the military face other unique financial strains, from the costs of frequent moves to victimization by financial predators -- including payday lenders, debt collectors and unscrupulous car and insurance salespeople.
The Pentagon and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau recently announced a proposal to cap interest rates that can be charged to service members at 36%, a step many hope could lead to meaningful reform.
Because financial issues often become compounded by other stressors, Van Dahlen says, improving Give an Hour's ability to work on financial issues may improve its overall effectiveness.
"It's an easier issue, frankly, to deliver that information and those tools than it often is to have very frank and open conversations about the mental health issues that wrap around all of that stuff," Van Dahlen says.
She says her organization has the right structure and relationships with the military already in place to deliver help. "Adding that [financial] key is a very important tool. It makes sense to look at how to knit all of that together."
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