Kyle Eaton, CFP®, CDFA®
For the past year and a half, I have been in a unique position of sorts. The organization that I have served with—Grace Like Rain—helps individuals at or near homelessness. Our staff and volunteers were on the front line, battling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We helped families in our community with housing assistance, food, childcare, life skills, and personal finance courses. We went from serving 65 families to assisting over 600 families throughout our combined programs in a few short months.
Over the last several weeks, I have had more time to contemplate all the events that transpired over the previous year—COVID-19, racial injustice, and the ever-expanding political divide. During that time, I served as a financial planner, treasurer, board member, volunteer, and donor. The lessons I learned have forever changed my view on the role of pro bono work.
The number one lesson that I learned is that financial poverty is only one type of poverty that pro bono work addresses. For us as financial planners, it is probably the most natural, and it is for that very reason that we need to proceed with caution. Many of us are impoverished in other areas of our lives. The impact of the pro bono work we do is powerful because it can provide the means to address our own areas of poverty.
What’s in It for Me?
Most financial planners work with individuals who have money, or who can pay for our services. As I finished up my grad school work, I desired to work in financial counseling. I quickly learned that it is tough to make a living if your clients can’t pay you. Even so, the yearning to help others with limited means never left me.
I think this is a passion that many other financial planners share. We have the education. We have professional experience. And for many individuals or families, quality financial advice may be just out of their reach. That is our time to shine. We have an opportunity to make a real difference in people’s lives. I know this was precisely my thinking when first setting out to develop a personal finance curriculum for the families at Grace Like Rain. However, as I learned more about working with low-income families, I realized that this might be one of the most harmful attitudes to have. Not only could I be doing them a disservice, but I could also be shortchanging myself.
Here’s why. When we provide our financial expertise, we establish ourselves in a position of authority. Many times, this will result in an imbalance of power in the relationship. In our professional careers, this imbalance is somewhat offset by our compensation. But when it comes to our pro bono work, that is not the case, and we must be mindful of this inequity. Looking back on last year’s events, it is evident that some people in our country have not had positive experiences with people in roles of authority. Rethink how you approach the relationship. If you are only presenting yourself as someone who can fix their problems, I believe you are myopic in your approach to pro bono work. We need more people asking the question, “What’s in it for me?”
Some people may say it is wrong to ask this question. I don’t see it this way. Let me explain. I believe the issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and political division are symptomatic of much more profound deficiencies. Yes, financial poverty and inequality is a real issue, but it is only one of many. I believe our relational, mental, emotional, or spiritual poverty is just as critical. As financial planners, our skill set provides us opportunities to become rich in these other areas of our lives.
Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket (Relational)
Over the last year, one of my most heartbreaking experiences was witnessing my 95-year-old grandmother sitting in isolation in a nursing home. Talking to the nurses who cared for her, I learned many of the residents suffered severe cognitive decline because they didn’t have in-person interaction. As humans, we need community.
Most people would agree with me on the need for relationships in our lives. But what do those relationships look like? What would happen if a client walked into our offices with only one stock in their portfolio? What would our advice be to them? Be diversified, don’t take that much company-specific risk: we need to follow that same approach with our relationships.
All my life, I heard others say that people are poor because they make bad decisions. I will never forget the paradigm shift that occurred after I started working with Grace Like Rain. I learned that some individuals don’t purposely make bad decisions regarding money. It only appears that way because we don’t fully understand the dilemmas they face. What happens when you must choose the best decision from two bad options? When you only have enough money to make your car or your house payment but not both, which do you choose?
Our pro bono work can provide us the means to enrich this area of our lives. More importantly, it can offer us the opportunity to work with individuals who are different from us. It can give us a chance to better understand the opinions, concerns, and maybe even the struggles of individuals with whom we don’t usually interact.
It’s All in Your Head (Mental & Emotional)
We may be willing to admit that our social lives have suffered as a result of the pandemic. Whose hasn’t? There is not much shame in that. But are we willing to admit what is going on in our own heads? Given everything that has occurred over the past year, is it shocking that more people say they are dealing with increased anxiety, depression, stress, and addiction? Even before last year, many of us were suffering from mental and emotional poverty.
Pro bono work helps me regain perspective, allowing me to refocus my thoughts and emotions. It helps remind me that there are simply things out of my control and that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone else for help. It also serves as a check and balance. No matter how bad my situation may be, others face similar or worse situations, bringing me back to a place of gratitude.
At times, life is overwhelming. We get out of balance and look for a way to escape the discomfort. I believe our pro bono work can provide a means for a healthy escape. Let me be clear—I am not saying that pro bono work will cure our mental and emotional struggles. However, I think it can allow us time to leave our problems behind, if only for a moment, while we focus on someone else’s troubles.
It Starts with Why (Spiritual)
Each person has to determine their own “why” or purpose for life. For me, pro bono work provides an avenue to address my own spiritual poverty. My parents divorced when I was 2 years old. I grew up in a single-parent home with my mom—a teacher working for the state minimum. I still remember how tight money was at times. I also remember one individual in particular. He was the man we rented a home from when I was 9 years old until I was a sophomore in college. From the very start, I think the rent was probably well below the going rate. And then, for the next 10 years, the rent never changed. It gave my mom the ability to save more of her income, which allowed her to buy her first home at 50. That one action has left an indelible mark on my life. It has caused me to look for ways to reciprocate that same generosity to others in similar situations.
We all have had different experiences in life. For this reason, everybody’s “why” will vary. But that is also why I think pro bono work can be so powerful. It provides us an outlet to give back to causes that are closely aligned to our deepest passions.
When we view pro bono work as something we should simply do to help others, we ignore our own needs. And that short-sightedness could cause us to lose out on experiencing increased richness in the important areas of our lives where we are lacking.