Financial advisors who choose to “pay it forward” can have a profound impact by volunteering both in their communities and in developing their profession.
That’s because there’s no shortage of opportunities for advisors to use their skills to help their broader communities or low-income Canadians boost their bottom lines or learn crucial financial literacy skills. As well, advisors’ experience and strengths are much needed to keep their profession itself on track and innovating.
Prosper Canada is a national charity that’s benefiting from the help advisors can provide. The organization works with front-line agencies across the country to improve financial empowerment for low-income individuals, offering tools, resources, programs, online training for financial coaching and education, and research.
Prosper Canada chief executive officer Elizabeth Mulholland says these agencies need help with the rules and regulations around government benefits, details about credit scores and what types of credit products are safe and affordable. Although these might not be the everyday concerns of advisors’ clients, advisors who volunteer still can provide sufficient knowledge on these issues.
In 2015 and 2016, Prosper Canada partnered with Toronto Employment & Social Services, Advocis, the then Financial Planning Standards Council (now FP Canada) and the Independent Financial Brokers of Canada to recruit volunteer advisors for a pilot program to coach low-income clients. There were two five-month coaching cycles.
The pilot, which was funded by various asset-management companies, was a success in helping individuals budget, pay down debt, access their credit scores and set up savings plans.
“The [advisors who volunteered] really did have a huge impact on people,” says Ms. Mulholland. “It only ran for five months, but a lot of people achieved financial outcomes or milestones as a result of the coaching. We did a case study on one of [these individuals] … whose life was literally transformed by it. She sent her first child off to college debt-free.”
But the pilot determined that individual coaching is difficult to scale up partly because busy professionals aren’t available during the work day.
“The conclusion we came to … was that this is probably better used as auxiliary to full-time financial coaches working in the community agencies,” she says. “The [agencies] can use volunteers who are highly skilled to provide support in special areas, as add-ons and for availability evenings and weekends.”
Income tax preparation is a crucial service that many advisors can help with.
“If you have a [low-income] family with children that hasn’t filed taxes, they’re missing out on as much as $6,000 in child benefits in annual income,” says Ms. Mulholland. “[Agencies] also need volunteers to help back-file for people who haven’t filed [their taxes in] four or five years. If they have a disability or children what we can see is a family walking away with as much $50,000 or $60,000 or $70,000.”
John Silver, executive director of Community Financial Counselling Services in Winnipeg, which does about 10,000 tax returns a year, says a good percentage of the more than 100 volunteers his agency uses in year-round low-income tax clinics are from the financial services industry.
“Just out of that 10,000 people we see basic refunds in terms of the Canada Child Benefit and tax refunds and GST refunds in the neighbourhood of $27-million,” says Mr. Silver.
Volunteers at the agency get two days of tax training and an additional training day on benefits and most deal directly with clients.
“Our volunteers tell us it’s really rewarding to help people to increase their income. It’s very real; it’s very concrete.”
The Winnipeg agency has some volunteers who have been doing taxes for 30 years, says Mr. Silver.
While working with benefits, tax returns and debt coaching speaks directly to advisors’ skill set, it’s not the only route to volunteering.
Weston Fader, principle financial consultant with Atlas Wealth Financial and a private wealth advisor with Raintree Financial Solutions Inc., has been a volunteer for several years with the Progress Club of Canada, which raises money for the Special Olympics. The Edmonton and St. Albert, Alta., Progress Clubs Mr. Fader belongs to also support projects such as Uncles & Aunts at Large, whose volunteers offer companionship, mentoring and friendly support to children from single-parent families, and AdaptAbilities, which helps individuals with special needs develop essential life skills.
“Many of these organizations want fundraising and that meshes well with most advisors. … We have a set of sales skills that can be used in the nonprofit sector, whether it’s soliciting donors, looking for auction items, selling tickets for events or helping connect with high-net-worth individuals for capital campaigns,” says Mr. Fader.
“In the nonprofit sector awareness is a major factor – it’s difficult to get the word out,” he adds. “If you’re an outgoing advisor, you should have a fairly wide network.”
Although there are obvious benefits from a professional standpoint in volunteering, he says advisors “shouldn’t be doing community work because it’s advantageous for the type of work you do. You should be involved because you want to give back to your community.”
On the professional side, organizations such as FP Canada succeed thanks largely to unpaid help from member financial planners.
Joan Yudelson, vice-president of professional practice for FP Canada, says 300 financial planners volunteered for the organization last year. They sit on the professional standards panel that sets the code of ethics and rules of conduct and on disciplinary panels. They participate in professional examination development and score exams.
In addition, those who volunteer as public policy ambassadors talk to provincial and federal legislators on the organization’s behalf. Media ambassadors and volunteers who visit colleges and universities talk about the life of certified financial planners, says Ms. Yudelson.
“[Volunteers] get to shape the profession,” she says. “They get continuing education credits for the work that they do, which is valuable to them. They get the opportunity to network and learn from each other and they benefit from the career-building opportunities.”