The pro bono advisor

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When Karen Roberts began volunteering through the nonprofit Jewish Adoption and Family Care Options, she didn’t know she would ultimately offer pro bono financial planning services through the organization.

"My husband and I had two biological children and wanted to adopt a third one," says Roberts, owner of Emerald Financial Group in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "We found JAFCO in South Florida and did foster care with the hope of one day adopting."

Their hopes were realized, and after adopting twin sons in 2006, Roberts began teaching JAFC's licensing class for foster and adoptive parents. She soon realized, however, that the course could benefit from a larger financial component. "We needed people to understand the financial part of what it means to have another child in the house," she says.

Working with JAFCO, Roberts built a financial literacy presentation to benefit the women JAFCO serves—an undertaking that has earned her Financial Planning's annual Pro Bono Award.

The award is a collaboration between Financial Planning and the Foundation for Financial Planning, a non-profit devoted to connecting the financial planning community with people in need. Each year, the foundation and the editors of Financial Planning recognize those advisors who have gone over and above in providing financial planning services to people who might otherwise never even sit in the same room as a financial planner.

Now in its fifth year, the Pro Bono Awards spotlight the efforts of advisors like Roberts and the people whose lives they have changed for the better. Winners receive a $5,000 grant from the foundation. The grants are earmarked for the community service organization or religious institution that the advisor works with most closely.

In Roberts' case, once she recognized that most of the women working with JAFCO could benefit from financial education, she helped the group apply for a $20,000 grant from the Jewish Women's Foundation of Broward County, Fla., which targets the needs of women in the community.

The grant covered the administrative and classroom costs of presenting basic financial literacy classes to about 150 women  including foster and adoptive mothers, young women aging out of the foster care system, women raising children with special needs, recent widows and divorcees, and single mothers. The grant also paid for babysitting and meals for the course participants and their children, who often attended the classes with their mothers during a mealtime. Because Roberts donated class materials as well as her time, JAFCO could afford to sponsor three times as many classes.

"Karen is very helpful and easy to follow," says Rebecca Salus, a JAFCO operations specialist who works with Roberts. “Her message is about empowerment and doing what works for each individual, so you can feel that you are in control of your finances." Roberts also offered to meet with women individually at no cost. "She really went above and beyond," Salus says. "We were amazed by what she was able to do."

Jackie Altfield is just one of the women that Roberts has helped through private counseling sessions. The mother of three adult children, Altfield fled her marriage nearly 18 months ago, and Roberts has helped her sort through her finances, making calls to help consolidate her retirement savings and advising her on starting a sewing business. "The first day she told me what papers I could throw away, which was very helpful in and of itself!" Altfield says.

The grant has run its course now, but Roberts is still offering JAFCO workshops and individual meetings. "I'll pay for the dinner and babysitting if necessary," she says.

In the meantime, the advisor has condensed her presentation to an hour and customized it for individual audiences. The core of the talk, however, remains the same. "My message involves making conscious choices about how you spend your money. We talk about creating a spending plan — we don't use the word 'budget' — monitoring how you’re spending your money and saving," Roberts says.

"Then everyone tells me that they can't afford to save, so we go back to the spending plan and talk about what they need and what they don't. Some of them have places where they can save; others, not so much. So we find little ways to save some money and talk about credit scores and using credit cards wisely," Roberts explains.                                                             

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Interested in Pro Bono work? We tell you how to get started.

Feeling inspired by our pro bono award winner? You too can provide financial education and services to people who might not otherwise have access to them. Here are some tips on how to get underway.

  • Look for organizations that already work on behalf of underserved populations. Senior centers, shelters for victims of domestic violence, halfway houses and many nonprofits all serve people who often struggle to manage their finances.
  • Be professional. Treat your pro bono clients with the same respect you offer all your clients. Keep their information confidential; don’t gossip about them.
  • Don’t look for ways to get paid. Keep your services free of charge and don’t refer these clients to any organization that pays you a finder’s fee.
  • Educate clients about credit, debt, and budgeting. Like you would for any other client, help them set and reach realistic financial goals. "Financial planning for an underserved population is different," says Jim Peniston, executive director of the Foundation for Financial Planning. "People may have limited or no assets. Goals may be simple and on a smaller scale."
  • In addition to offering funding, the Foundation for Financial Planning can connect planners with existing pro bono projects in their areas and offers a best-practices template for planners interested in setting up their own pro bono programs. 
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