Pro bono is a novel concept for many in an evolving profession – working for free for the public good. But pro bono pays in the long run in a number of ways for a professional. It may sound counter-intuitive but giving away your knowledge, skill and time for free is a great thing for you and your business, apart from it being a great thing for the members of the public that you help.
The first priority of a professional is to serve their clients. Deliver the best advice and service you can to those who pay you and have placed their trust in you already first and foremost.
But then, should financial advisers care about the public at large? The people who are NOT our clients? Those who don’t pay us anything?
When one considers “professionalism”, and the attributes that define a professional, you quickly come to the conclusion that a unique characteristic of the genuine professional is a commitment to the public interest.
I would contend that if you are a financial adviser who is committed to being a professional then you have a social responsibility that extends beyond just those clients who can afford your services currently. In plain terms, you have a responsibility to make available your professional expertise to members of the public who have genuine need of your knowledge, but who cannot afford to access it, in order to improve the standing of the profession itself whilst rendering service to society.
It is a core principle of professionalism….it is one of the hallmarks that define “a professional”. It is referred to as pro bono, or more correctly:
“Pro bono publico (English: for the public good; usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service.
It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms. Pro bono service, unlike traditional volunteerism, uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.”
(source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pro_bono )
One would like to think that all good citizens care about the public interest, and will do something to benefit wider society generally with the donation of their own time and expertise. A huge part of our society does exactly that – contributing their time and effort to coach sports teams, raise funds for disadvantaged members of the community, work together to build facilities for the common good and so on. Undoubtedly our society would be a far more difficult environment, and less pleasant to live in, if it wasn’t for the good citizens who donate their time and effort to making their part of society a better place by looking beyond their own immediate needs and pleasures and contributing what they know and can do for the benefit of others.
Many financial advisers have contributed to their society in the same way over many years of course – they too coach the kids, fund raise, provide foster homes, mentor troubled youth and everything else that solid members of society do. They are good citizens with a strong sense of social responsibility in the main.
That does not normally extend to giving their time as financial professionals though. And it should…because it pays off professionally as well as socially.
As financial advisers we have the ability to provide practical help however that not all other caring members of society can. Never has this been more apparent than it is right now. By sharing our knowledge and skills with those who might never be able to access good financial advice, or who maybe have just hit a wall and cannot afford it now, we can help households and businesses work through cashflow crises, manage debt in ways that serve their interests rather than the lenders, make smarter decisions about how to use their balance sheets and net worth, and so on.
Some of those businesses and consumers will return the favour one day in the future and return as clients. They will value the advice component of our expertise above all else. That is potentially great for our business in the long run, but it is not the real pay-off in providing pro bono services.
The real pay-off is the ability to elevate our professional standing perpetually. By providing genuine assistance to those in need and without a commercial agenda we can shift the public perception dramatically, and if enough of the industry does it, we can shift perception rapidly as well.
Pro bono advice delivered en masse to those who desperately need financial guidance to navigate severe economic disruption and distress right now is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to correctly transition an entire industry.
Looking beyond the professional and potential commercial benefits to the industry, there is the longer term social benefit which will benefit our children and beyond. Good planning and good estate conservation put in place now creates positive inter-generational change. If we help small business owners and consumers survive these times and prosper, then their families survive and prosper too…and that is the world our own families operate in.
We must think beyond merely helping the middle class who have suddenly found themselves in need. There are too many in society who had an even stronger need before the current crisis. This is where we have the opportunity to make the greatest impact long term. Helping a family with poor financial literacy to learn how to create assets and self-sufficiency, or escape crippling high cost debt, or understand how to create a dignified retirement for themselves….these are things which break poverty cycles and help create opportunity for bright kids who might otherwise not have had the chance to become the next Steve Jobs..
Sharing our skill and knowledge in this manner is very rarely done by the financial advisory industry – and for many good reasons. It does cost the adviser personally to provide such service – even if that is only in an “opportunity” cost. There is the potential for public cynicism and cheap accusations of the adviser engaging in such programmes as a “marketing exercise”. The adviser also potentially incurs some regulatory risk despite the absolute not-for-profit nature of the work being provided. So, it comes at a cost to us, and not without some risks.
However, the potential benefits to financial advisers collectively of creating – or enhancing – public confidence through providing pro bono assistance to those in need are worth it in my view. The elevation of the professional standing of those who commit to the public good over and above their own commercial objectives is satisfying to our own ego’s at the very least. It is an opportunity for us to feel good about what we do, and to feel worthy of the “professional” title. The professional respect we often crave as an industry is there for the taking. The difference that financial advisers can make in people’s lives right now – and ultimately in the lives of their dependents – is incalculable.
Demonstrating your professional expertise and professional conduct while working in the public interest is what actually defines the Professional in the eyes of the public.
Financial advisers, their affiliated dealer groups or institutions, professional bodies and industry collectives should be working together right now to grasp such opportunities to work together on pro-bono projects.
This could be (or is that should be?) the dawning of an actual profession. Even if that doesn’t quite eventuate for the advice industry collectively, it should be the dawning of your practices shift to being seen as a truly professional firm.
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