As an advisor, have you ever wanted to get involved with pro bono work but didn’t quite know how to go about it? You’re not alone, according to Nan Mead, director of communications for the National Endowment for Financial Education (www.nefe.org). Based in Greenwood Village, Colorado, NEFE is a non-profit foundation whose self-described goal is to help Americans acquire the information and gain the skills necessary to take control of their personal finances. With this in mind, NEFE is creating a stand-alone Web site that will enable consumers who cannot afford the services of a financial planner to find a planner online who stands ready to help them free of charge. The Web site will also contain a special section for financial planners, with resources to facilitate the advisor/pro bono-client relationship. While the site awaits a domain name, and is being finalized, Mead is hopeful for a September launch date.

According to Mead, the Web effort had its origins several years back, when the financial planning industry was close to celebrating its 30th anniversary (using as a start date the birth of the College for Financial Planning and the IAFP in 1972). “We were thinking that 2002 was a benchmark year, and that it would be nice for the profession to start giving something back to the communities that had supported and sustained the profession for all those years,” explains Mead. She and NEFE leaders approached financial industry organizations about joining forces for an online pro bono resource initiative. “They were all very supportive of the idea,” she says. The founding group includes the Financial Planning Association, the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, the Society of Financial Service Professionals, the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. If at a later date other qualified organizations wish to become involved, “we’re certainly not going to discourage them,” Mead adds.

In defining the scope of the project, NEFE determined that persons receiving assistance through the Web site would not have to pay for the assistance. Those likely to be eligible include lower-income persons; those coping with a financial crisis brought on by something such as a long-term disease; and persons who have experienced a personal setback or a widespread disaster, such as that which might be caused by a flood or earthquake. Also eligible would be elderly persons who, having suffered a medical incident such as a stroke and with no family members living nearby, need a financial planner to handle immediate needs. The “crisis” group would also cover the needs of enlisted military personnel. They struggle from paycheck to paycheck and when deployed, usually leave behind, as Mead says, a “financial mess.” Also qualifying would be those in serious debt or who have declared bankruptcy.

Qualification for free financial advice will be determined by the organization–at present, those listed above–contacted by the person in need. The person may also pre-qualify due to his or her relationship with a number of non-profit organizations with which NEFE is associated. These include the American Cancer Society, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the American Heart Association. The organizations will refer the needy person to the pro bono Web site.

Here’s how the site would work. The opening page will welcome the consumer, providing information for a cursory determination regarding qualification for pro bono assistance. Even if a person doesn’t initially qualify, the site will contain plenty of self-help information. On the site the consumer will find a list of the sponsoring financial organizations with an explanation of who they are and what they do, and which has available volunteer planners. The next step is for the visitor to contact one of these organizations via a toll-free telephone number. “We are assuming that the consumer may have heard of one [of the groups], or they may at random select one,” explains Mead. Consumers referred by one of NEFE’s partnership organizations will be directed to different sponsors, on a rotating basis.

The section of the Web site designed for financial advisors is intended to serve as a large resource center. It will include examples of pro bono work performed by other advisors and information that addresses the particular concerns of low-income persons and members of other special-needs demographic groups. There will be worksheets, checklists, and other forms for advisors to use in meeting with clients, as well as tips for planners on how to talk to these clients.

NEFE’s contribution to the Web initiative is site development and maintenance, as well as contacting and maintaining relationships with a growing list of community-based organizations. The sponsoring groups will be busy with outreach programs designed to entice members to participate on an ongoing basis. To spread the word to consumers, NEFE will be doing “as much promotion as we can,” says Mead.