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Pro bono initiatives take root after 9/11

We all remember where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. As for myself, I was away from home, having flown into San Diego from New York the night before. As a director on the FPA’s national board, I was gearing up for our board meeting and annual conference. I received a call from my wife after the first plane hit the north tower.

The board and staff of FPA gathered in the hotel lobby and watched in disbelief and dismay. Shocked and horrified, we all shared the desire to be able to do something — anything — to help.

Without knowing what was to come, the board canceled the annual conference and began discussing how the FPA could assist the people most affected. How could our profession step up to lend our skills and compassion to victims, their families and first responders?

Stranded in San Diego in the ensuing days, the board held conference calls with chapter leaders to discuss what we as an organization could do. From this, FPA’s deep commitment to providing pro bono services took root and began to grow.

As I sat in San Diego, not knowing when I could go back to New York and my family, my thoughts turned to those who had lost loved ones — to the certain pain and turmoil they would face, but also to ways that I might be able to use my professional knowledge to help them.

Many would be facing financial uncertainty, loss of income, insurance and settlement issues, disability claims and a host of other challenges. I resolved that I’d use my skills as a CFP to assist these families pro bono and that I’d do what I could to rally others to this cause.

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I was finally able to fly back home the Friday after 9/11. Taking the red-eye back to Newark, I landed early Saturday morning. As we circled preparing to land, you could see the smoke rising from where the World Trade Center towers once stood. At the airport, you could see the planes parked chaotically anywhere there was an open spot.

The heart-wrenching site of lower Manhattan underscored the enormity of this tragedy and the fact that so many people would need help in the months and years to come.

How could an organization like FPA even begin to address this? One of our first steps was to hire a pro bono staff director to lead the 9/11 efforts. A great many members, myself included, volunteered to help. We also created a toll-free hotline to make it easy for people to access services.

As the 9/11 Settlement Funds were created, volunteer planners helped ensure that free, quality advice could guide families through the myriad decisions that they were forced to make and to help enhance the financial security of families that had already been through so much. Working with these families — some of whom I’m still in touch with — has been a highlight of my 35-year career.

I’ve become something of a pro bono evangelist. In the past years I became involved with the Foundation for Financial Planning, the nation’s only nonprofit solely devoted to powering pro bono financial planning, first as a contributor and more recently as a board member. In 2016, I joined FFP’s board and will serve as its chairman in 2019-20.

Personally, providing pro bono services has brought a richness and fulfillment; but I’m also committed to enshrining pro bono at a more systemic level, by advancing it across the planning profession.

We can look to law or medicine to help guide the way. In those professions, pro bono service for underserved people is a deep commitment, with the American Bar Association even recommending a minimum amount of pro bono service for every attorney each year.

Imagine the good that we could achieve if each CFP practitioner committed just a modest amount of time each year to help vulnerable families.

Imagine the good that we could achieve if each CFP practitioner committed just a modest amount of time each year to help vulnerable families in crisis or need. We’d be a great force driving better financial capability and helping to create more promising futures.

The companies that serve our profession, many who already support pro bono efforts, should ensure that service to others is a core value and that they play their role in helping unleash the talents of their CFP employees and clients in pro bono service to others. It’s good business — and it’s the right thing to do.

Finally, although there are many great pro bono programs at nonprofits who need volunteers, there are less formalized ways that professionals can lend a hand. Have you ever met with someone who you quickly realized was not going to become a client? They had no assets, a mountain of debt and other problems holding them back.

You had the choice to turn them away, or give them a few hours of your time and maybe some follow up. Giving them a bit of your time and advice can have a big, positive impact on their lives. You will both reap the rewards.

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