Much of the financial advice industry’s organised pro bono efforts in Australia can be traced back to a cold afternoon in Katoomba in 2012, when Steve Helmich, then director of financial planning at AMP, showed a video at the Professional Planner Dealer Group Summit (now called the Licensee Summit).

At that time, pro bono work in advice was largely ad hoc, and associations weren’t typically partnered with charity groups for ongoing support. But under Helmich, AMP had initiated a relationship with the NSW Cancer Council for exactly that.

The video showed how AMP advisers were helping people with cancer organise superannuation releases and insurance claims, easing their financial burden so they could focus on fighting the disease. “Even one of the ladies from the oncology ward spoke,” Helmich recalls. It was emotive, and impactful.

Tim Meggitt, a senior partner at PSK Financial Services and one of the founders of the Pro Bono Financial Advice Network (PFAN) committee, said Helmich’s video was where it started.

“We were all talking about it,” Meggitt says.

So much has transpired since this collective was born, particularly at AMP, following the revelations at the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry about fees for no advice. Helmich, who is now chair of Affinia Financial Advisers, will be the first to admit that initiatives such as the pro bono movement might be the industry’s best shot at convincing the public there are good people in the industry, too, who can help them.

Shortly after the Cancer Council partnership, PFAN, in affiliation with the Association of Financial Advisers (AFA), came into existence and started helping people with multiple sclerosis and other neurological disorders manage their finances. Helmich, himself, attended “half a dozen or so” of the early meetings to give direction.

Meggitt says the video sparked something and helped mobilise the willing.

“This whole idea started in Katoomba,” he says. “That was effectively the genesis of us creating the pro bono network. I know it sounds like a big statement but I was there.”

Dianne Charman, managing director of Jade Financial Group in Ipswich, has provided pro bono advice under both the AMP banner and with PFAN. Like Meggitt, she identifies Katoomba as the catalyst for the current movement.

“That was the incubator of it all,” Charman says.

The Financial Planning Association formed its own partnership with the Cancer Council in early 2017. Cancer Council national pro bono manager Michelle Smerdon says the FPA and AMP have combined to assist more than 10,000 pro bono clients to date.

Far and wide

Pro bono advice is prevalent outside of the associations. Across the country, an army of individual advisers and small firms are quietly helping struggling families for no recompense.

Greg Payne is one of them. Much of the pro bono work he does is incidental, he explains.

“Sometimes you start asking questions and you find out that they haven’t got two bob to rub together,” Payne says. “But you have a chat and you steer them in the right direction and you move on.”

Payne is no chest-beater but, when pressed, he gives the example of a client with a new business and no money. He helped her navigate a tax debt, divorce, a “horrendous car accident” and ultimately the fallout from a family suicide – all without payment. “I didn’t charge her because she was a struggling person,” he says.

Eventually, the pro bono client received a payout from the accident and became a paying client, but that was after more than a year.

“I was just happy to help her out, she was in desperate straits,” Payne says. “I reckon I saw her probably 15 times and didn’t charge a cent until I gave her the SoA for the investment.”

It’s not easy work

Jade Financial’s Charman devotes much of her time to helping people with cancer access their superannuation and claim on their insurance.

When she talks about her pro bono work, she makes it clear that no matter how difficult, being in a position to help is a privilege.

“It’s not easy work, that’s for sure,” Charman says. “But when you’re sitting across the table from someone who is terminally ill, it really is a privilege to take some of the time they have left in this world,” she said.

Charman seems genuinely grateful for the opportunity to help.

“You’re not dealing with people on their best day, but this is the reward we get as advisers – to help them out,” she says.

Charman keeps an even keel, but every so often her emotions get the better of her. One occasion, in particular, stands out.

“Boy-oh-boy, last year we had a client pass away and it really hit us,” she says. “Young mum, 36, with three kids.”

Yet even in this, Charman sees a remarkable positive.

“That’s where the beauty of pro bono work lies,” she says. “It reminds us of so many important things and keeps us grounded.”

Like Payne and Helmich, Charman does her best to deflect praise for her efforts. She prefers to extoll the virtues of her colleague, Laura Marschke, who “has been able to negotiate with the banks to have debts forgiven”, and often engages in “a bit of argy-bargy with providers” on behalf of pro bono clients.

One of those clients, Marie Morine, can attest to the work Helmich and Charman do. As Marie’s husband, Andre, fought cancer, Charman and Marschke arranged, pro bono, for the release of his retirement funds.

“They helped in every way possible,” Marie Morine recalls. “They helped him with his super, and everything else that we hadn’t thought of. We certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it by ourselves, and we are so grateful to everyone that worked in the office.”

Andre Morine died in early 2017. For Marie, the help from Charman and Marschke gave her one less thing to worry about.

“The financial situation is much better,” she says. “They managed to do everything that my husband had wished for.”

Getting the word out

Charman says none of the pro bono work at Jade Financial is out of the ordinary.

“There is an unofficial pro bono network out there,” she says. “Every adviser I speak to does something for their community.”

Most of this work, however, goes undocumented. Unless it is through an association, it’s not funnelled into a consolidated database and is rarely spoken of publicly. Charman says she is trying to change this via her role as the financial literacy chair with the AFA, and she has asked members to start recording the pro bono work they do.

She says it’s the right time for advisers to start getting the word out.

“We need to gather this information,” she says. “We need to start reminding people about the really positive stuff we do.”

A full picture

Advisers should harness the goodwill they deserve. The Hayne royal commission has revealed a dark side to the industry – and that’s fine, because the royal commission isn’t a forum designed to extoll the virtues of advice – but advisers should have the right to paint a fuller picture of who they are.

Financial planners also need to paint a picture of what they do and how they can help. To that end, pro bono work is an effective way to educate the public, at a grassroots level, about advice. The 80 per cent of the public not under advice often have little idea of how much a financial planner can help them.

Marie Morine certainly does.

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Tahn Sharpe is a Sydney-based financial services journalist with a background in financial planning. He writes on advice, superannuation, investment, banking and insurance issues, is a certified SMSF Adviser and holds an Advanced Diploma of Financial Planning.