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


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