I had two good reasons for joining the FPA’s pro bono committee in September of 2012, just one day after I learned I’d passed my CFP exam. Helping others was one of them, of course. But there was another motivation.
While I had spent my entire career in financial services, I wanted to make sure I was up for asking people direct questions about their annual income and personal money habits as I began my new calling as an adviser. Polite people don’t ask these questions. It is a culturally unnatural act — equivalent to sticking one’s hand into an open chest cavity. I needed to watch this done by experienced professionals.
I started out by observing a financial literacy workshop on budgeting at the Family Justice Center in the Bronx. The attendees were six or seven female victims of domestic violence, of varied ages and ethnicities. They were eating pizza with their kids when I showed up. What struck me most about the class, other than the pizza, was how well the speaker connected with his audience. He told stories and asked questions to engage them. The material covered wasn’t overly complex but managing money day to day was a life skill some of the women clearly lacked.
I had walked into the class unsure if I’d ever have the skills and confidence to ask possible clients about their most personal financial issues, but the presenter’s ease and manner showed me how it was possible to combine my corporate presentation skills training, CFP education and my personal commitment to helping others. I quickly learned, however, I lacked insight into credit repair and dealing with debt. I heard many heartbreakingly naive questions about the topics, and some crazy stories — especially about cases of identity theft — and started boning up.
I volunteered to present at many different agencies serving mostly lower income men, women and college-age kids all over the five boroughs of New York. It was incredibly rewarding to teach people personal financial management — budgeting, investing, retirement planning, insurance, taxes, etc. The more I did it, the more comfortable I became with the topics included in the pro bono financial literacy curriculum.
But, this still wasn’t “touching guts”; asking the detailed questions needed to do individual financial planning. For that experience, I joined the chapter’s library program to provide pro bono one-on-one financial consultations at the the New York Public Library's Science Industry and Business branch.
QuoteI see why some doctors continue to do rounds at teaching hospitals long after they have built successful practices.
For the volunteers, it can be an army field hospital-like experience with people holding statements, tax returns and various other documents waiting outside your consultation room. You learn to ask direct questions quickly since time is short and you have no advance knowledge of why they want to speak with you. It is both exhilarating and exhausting, but will help you figure out quick if you are cut out for this line of work.
Now that I am juggling the demands of my own clients, I look for opportunities to serve the most challenging populations — the formerly addicted or incarcerated, sex trafficking victims or impoverished elderly. I also prioritize volunteer opportunities where I can train new pro bono volunteers.
I see why some doctors continue to do rounds at teaching hospitals long after they have built successful practices: the work keeps your skills sharp, your knowledge current and your energy high. It’s an environment that promotes continuous process improvement.
I still work hard to hone my descriptions of complex financial concepts into easily understood language and to distill confusing processes into simple, sequential steps — while trying to remain open and nonjudgmental. My pro bono clients and my regular clients benefit and I hope that I make the learning curve less steep for fellow volunteers.