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Pro bono awards 2014: meet the winners

When Larry Glazer, a managing partner at Mayflower Advisors in Boston, got involved with the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy back in 2008, he wasn’t volunteering with an established chapter. He was rebuilding one from scratch.

"For a while, I was an organization of one," Glazer says.

He wasn't deterred. "I was in the throes of the financial crisis at my day job, and I was seeing the devastation in the markets and also in the community, with people losing their homes or being forced to defer education," he says. "As overwhelmed as I was at work, I felt an obligation to get involved."

Everyone nominated for the annual Financial Planning Pro Bono Awards, it seems, felt a similar urgency. From helping children gain basic financial skills to finding grant and scholarship money for college-bound students and their families, our nominees have all found ways to provide free help to people who need it. Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning are recognizing their generosity, which has transformed individual lives and communities. In addition, the foundation is awarding grants to the honorees' oganizations: $5,000 to the winners and $2,500 to the runners-up.

Once again, it was difficult to choose our award winners. But it was easy to admire all the inspiring kindness and unremunerated hard work by advisors across the country.

Pro Bono Award - Winner

Larry Glazer

Like many planners, Glazer spends a lot of his time educating clients about their financial options. When the 2008 crisis hit, he realized that everyone needs financial literacy — and that he could make a significant difference by figuring out a way to deliver it.

A little research helped him find Jump$tart, a nonprofit devoted to teaching financial literacy to young people. It began in Washington, D.C., in 1995, with the goal of teaching kids how to handle money, says Dan Hebert, Jump$tart' director of professional development. It operates through volunteers who run its 49 state coalitions.

In 2008, Hebert says, "The Massachusetts coalition was going through some transitions. People were losing jobs, volunteer resources were scarce, and the group was struggling to find its feet. Larry phoned and said that he’d like to pick it up and see if he could do something significant.”

For a while, Glazer — whose twins were 1-year-old at the time — more or less was the organization’s Massachusetts chapter: "I was stuffing envelopes, trying to raise funds and get volunteers and board members." He gradually recruited more of both, and they got the Massachusetts program off the ground.

Originally, Glazer says, the Massachusetts group did a lot of after-school education, bringing financial literacy directly to children. Glazer began considering more effective ways to teach financial education with limited funding. "I have family [members] who are teachers, and they're always looking for material. I realized that teachers could be the conduit to help us get information to families," he says.

Now the Massachusetts Jump$tart chapter teaches financial literacy to educators — from classroom teachers to community college professors and people who lead after-school programs. The group's volunteers hand out materials and talk about ways to promote family conversations about money.

The program began with half- and whole-day training sessions and recently completed its first three-day event, which attracted about 70 teachers. One of the attendees was Jacqueline Prester, who teaches business and technology, including personal finance and entrepreneurship, at Mansfield High School in Mansfield, Mass.

"Having industry professionals communicate to us what they think is important was invaluable," Prester says. "We talked about alarming trends — for instance, students seeing credit cards as not real money, or not thinking about savings. We also got interactive tools, things to really engage our students."

Ultimately, Glazer would like to see financial literacy as a standard part of public-school curriculum. "Students will grow up, and every one of them will have to deal with finances," he says.

Team Pro Bono Award - Winner

Valeo Financial Advisors

Simonna Woodson bought a house last fall. Now she's saving up for her children's college education. Those might be ordinary accomplishments for most planning clients, but for Woodson, they're a very big deal.

Woodson is working with planners from Valeo Financial Advisors in Indianapolis through the Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership. The nonprofit, which has been around for 25 years, works to help low- and moderate-income people become permanent homeowners by offering classes on budgeting, credit and homeownership, as well as access to a pool of credit supplied by 16 local banks.

The partnership also wants to help its clients reach other financial goals and plan for their futures. When Valeo co-founder John Trott attended an annual breakfast that the group organizes to recognize participants and volunteers, he realized that this was a place that his firm could help.

Valeo made a three-year commitment to the partnership, promising to help interested clients reach other financial goals beyond homeownership.

Justin Padgett, a Valeo advisor, took the lead in developing the firm's relationship with INHP. "Our part is to help families save for other goals, such as college and retirement, and help them keep the discipline they need to stick to their budgets," Padgett says.  

In this, the first year of the partnership, Valeo hopes to help 25 clients. Eventually, the firm, which has 11 participating advisors, hopes to reach about 10% of partnership participants. "We're not sure yet what proportion of people will take Valeo up on their offer," says Moira Carlstedt, the group's president. "There will be an education process, to help people understand what financial planning can do for them."

The group is also training Valeo volunteers about what to expect from partnership clients. "We're bridging expectations and awareness," Carlstedt says. So far, volunteers have participated in a three-hour training and a half-day service project.

Woodson was the beneficiary of some of that service. "The Valeo people volunteered to do interior painting at my house after I bought it," she says. "One of them even shoveled my driveway."

Since then, Woodson says, she's loved working with her Valeo advisor, Matthew Jarvis. "I am so excited about this," she says. "I'm trying to build up my savings. I want to send my children to college."

Team Pro Bono Award - Runner Up (Tie)

San Tan Financial

It was about a decade ago when the planners at San Tan Financial, with offices in Phoenix and San Diego, realized that college costs had become a big problem for their clients.

"We view college as an investment, something you need to consider before you toss money at it," says San Tan wealth advisor Jenna Biancavilla, in Phoenix. "But we saw people throwing away everything we'd been working on in their financial plans in order to get their kids through college."

San Tan planners started offering comprehensive college planning to its clients, with many of its planners becoming certified college planning specialists.

The firm, which works with independent B-D Berthel Fisher Financial Services, quickly realized that the demand for help in navigating the maze of need- and merit-based college funding went well beyond its planning clientele. In 2010, San Tan spun off its college planning into a nonprofit group, called Higher Education Financial Aid Resources, which helps college students find grants and scholarships — no matter how much money families have or whether they are San Tan clients.

Staffed by San Tan volunteers in both cities, the group has worked with about 4,000 families over the years. The group has made about 100 high-school presentations since last August, educating students, parents and high-school guidance counselors about college financial aid.

Around 20% of all aid is merit based, says Chris Ordway, the San Tan founder who also runs the nonprofit, "so we help parents do some preplanning about which schools look for which test scores. We had a kid who had a score of 19 on the ACT, and we were able to find a school where a 19 was in the top 35%, which got him merit-based aid."

Another 72% of aid is based on need, Ordway says, as determined by the results of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. "People can do a lot of planning to position themselves for need-based aid," he says. Moving assets from student ownership to parent ownership helps, for instance, as does retitling parental assets as belonging to a family business.

Rochelle Klein, a single mother in San Diego, got help from Biancavilla and Ordway when her older daughter was applying to colleges.

The volunteers "did a lot of research to help us find free money," Klein says. "They explained the difference between free money, subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans, and they also talked about different types of schools and put together a plan around what kind of school my daughter was looking for."

A volunteer even helped calm Klein's daughter before an admissions interview, and helped her select a summer job. The result? She got into the University of Southern California — "her dream school," Klein says. "And we can afford to send her."

Team Pro Bono Award - Runner Up (Tie)

Brendan Sheehan and Austin Poirier of FPA of Massachusetts

A childhood in the Boy Scouts — and a father and grandfather who had served in the military — gave Brendan Sheehan, a private wealth advisor at Waymark Wealth Management in Westborough, Mass., a strong interest in helping service members.

Austin Poirier, a senior investment advisor at Ballentine Partners in Waltham, Mass., was looking for a way to use his financial acumen to advance a worthy cause. "What better group of people than our service members?" he says. "Military members have given me the freedom to pursue the life I want. The least I can do is give them this help."

Sheehan began volunteering to help members of the armed services through the FPA of Massachusetts in 2007; Poirier joined him in 2012.

Though they're happy to help any member of the armed services, the two men have a particularly close relationship with the National Guard. They often attend yellow-ribbon events, the pre- and post-deployment seminars that help soldiers get their lives in order.

The two also volunteer to help members of the Massachusetts National Guard prepare their income-tax returns. Conversations about tax returns often turn into general financial discussions, and perhaps 20 or 30 service members ask for additional financial planning help every year, Poirier says.

The pair's planning services are free to the military families and individuals they assist.

"It's just like anyone else: Budgeting 101, putting enough away for retirement, having enough and the right kind of insurance in place," Poirier says. "Lots of the people we help are younger, so they have college planning and a desire to buy a place to live. Soldiers sometimes get in over their heads with credit cards, which is not so different than any other 20-year-old."

Financial planning can also reduce the stress that families feel during a deployment. "We just got a request to come speak with some military family members whose spouses are currently deployed overseas," Poirier says.

Sheehan recently helped Rick Begin, a Hanover, Mass., resident who had retired from the Massachusetts National Guard, and his wife, Natalie, solve a stressful financial problem.
"The school system where we lived was underperforming and, although we loved the house, we had kind of outgrown it," Natalie Begin says.

"We had two choices: put on an addition and send the kids to private school, or take a loss on the house and move to a town with better public schools."

Sheehan helped the couple see both choices as potential investments, and the Begins decided to sell their old home and move to a bigger house in a town with better public schools. "I attribute where we are right now to Brendan’s guidance and direction," Natalie Begin says. "We're so happy and grateful." 

Ingrid Case, a Financial Planning contributing writer in Minneapolis, is a former editor at Bloomberg News and author of Your Own Two Feet (and How to Stand on Them): Surviving and Thriving After Graduation.

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