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Stephen Womack: The dangers of forcing firms to give pro-bono advice

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Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the latest Personal Finance Society graduation ceremony. Held in the splendour of the City of London’s Insurance Hall, I joined more than 100 other chartered financial planners and fellows of the society to formally graduate.

A word of advice for anyone invited to graduate: go. It was a memorable afternoon, very well organised and the celebratory fizz was in free flow afterwards.

The ceremony is an excuse to slap yourself on the back and get some public recognition for years of hard study. But it is also a time to come together with your peers to reflect on what it means to be a financial planner and what your next steps might be.

On this occasion, current Chartered Financial Planner of the Year Simon Glazier gave a personal and inspirational speech about his advice ethos.

Glazier is a great ambassador for the profession: passionate about looking after his clients but not to the exclusion of all else, including choosing to work part-time to safeguard his family life.

He is also not afraid to champion new ideas. At the graduation he suggested that, as well as mandatory continuous professional development hours, the PFS should consider introducing a set number of hours of pro-bono work for members each year to ensure the profession is giving back to wider society.

At first thought, there is an appeal to this. The PFS is already working in partnership with Citizens Advice on the Money Plan initiative and is keen to expand participation. Many of us already help out clients on a no-charge basis.

Putting a formal structure around this could encourage some advisers to do a little more and would publicly demonstrate that we work in a caring profession.

Saying that, I have been reflecting on the idea in the weeks since the ceremony and the more I think about it the more I see dangers in some form of compulsory pro-bono work.

The biggest risk is that doing mandated charitable advice work will simply crowd out other voluntary activities individual advisers and their firms are already doing.

Take my workplace. One of my fellow directors is the trustee of a charitable foundation. Another is a leading Rotarian.

Both roles take significant time and mental energy, as well as company resources, funding and administrative support – which are all willingly given. I have recently been approached to join the steering group of a local not-for-profit body and attended my first event last week.

While none of these roles are direct financial advice, we can bring valuable skills such as cashflow planning and budget management to the party.

Similarly, as a business we want to be able to offer work experience placements for students to give them a taste of the profession. I co-ordinate that programme and ensuring it is a meaningful experience for each student takes around 15 hours of my time per placement.

If we are told there has to be a minimum annual quota of pro-bono hours as well, we are inevitably going to find it harder to say yes to as many of the other requests for help that come our way. And that would force some very difficult choices between equally worthy causes.

Stephen Womack is a chartered financial planner and director of David Williams IFA

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Comments

There are 8 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. make sure your Professional Indemnity insurers are aware of any pro-bono activities undertaken as more often than not such work isn’t covered – O3 insurance solutions include pro- bono work specifically in their Comprehensive policy wording

  2. What world do these people inhabit? Chartered financial planner of the year works part time? I was also passionate about serving my clients and after the first 60 hours each week, the rest was downhill. If I thought for one moment that I could provide adequate service by working part time I wouldn’t have retired. Being an IFA is a full on job – no room for slackers I would have thought. Doing a good job and working paltry hours are just not compatible.

    As for pro bono – if that’s what the PFS thinks then join CISI – where you can also be chartered under the IFP route. We are not social workers. If we want to give the occasional free advice (which I confess I did do) then it is up to us, not some functionary at the professional body. We are supposed to be running businesses and there is already far too much red tape and regulation taking our minds off the day job. If certain people want to sprout wings and a halo, that’s up to them, but please don’t imagine we all want to follow suit. Proselytising is unbecoming.

    • Sofia de Sousa e Silva 24th May 2016 at 3:40 pm

      Your comment made me laugh but I am forced to agree with you. Too many things already for advisers to worry about, adding mandatory pro-bono (even with the best intentions in the world) is just not realistic.
      If advisers want, they can join a charity that does offer that facility but having that as mandatory is ridiculous.

  3. Advisers to recommend U2 albums?

  4. Given the trouble we went to when we set up the CAB pro bono project to ensure it didn’t touch the advisers PII this proposal is unresearched and impractical. Making pro bono compulsory is going against the ethos of its very nature. Best this proposal is simply ignored.

  5. Simon Glazier 25th May 2016 at 9:25 am

    Thanks for your thoughts Stephen, and also the following comments.
    The idea of a Pro Bono requirement for financial planners is absolutely un-researched and I can quite see it being impractical, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be aspirational.
    I was hugely encouraged that I can make the life choice to only work part time, spending more time with my family, and still be awarded the title of Chartered Financial Planner of the Year. My intention was not to criticise those who have different priorities, but to encourage those who choose to put other things before work, and are facing the constant pressure to work longer hours, that this doesn’t make them second class professionals.

  6. This is all very well but where are PFS and CISI when it comes to Clients being imprisoned by Life Companies with massive MVRs (34%+), no ability to transfer and protect their TFC and the ubiquitous age 75 pension penalties. They are not visible in lobbying for change. These are the things that Clients need industry help with, not new ideas about pro bono work. Liked the U2 comment!

  7. Philip Castle 3rd June 2016 at 7:57 pm

    I volunteered to defend my country (paid) for 16years, dont try and conscript me to work for nothing, even those doing national service as conscripts in banana republics get paid, plus there is such a thing as a minimum wage you know.
    I will volunteer to help those I CHOOSE to, not those I am forced to whether that be FS or the consumer interest company I have just established to run electric car sharing locally at MY expense of time and money.

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