Phoenix

One response to the increasing fragmentation of the financial services community in recent years has been partnering among its various players. The benefits of such collaboration were thus much in evidence at this year’s annual meeting of the Society of Financial Services Professionals, held here earlier this month.

“The financial services community is still far from having a perfect understanding of all the competencies needed to deliver proper and sophisticated financial planning services,” said SFSP President Anthony Domino in an exclusive interview with National Underwriter. “Everyone knows what an attorney does. But many advisors don’t know there is a subset of attorneys who specialize in elder law-a huge and growing area that is completely misunderstood.

“Our intent,” he added, “is thus to raise awareness of our respective competencies and create a coalition to foster a better understanding among our members of the existence of these other professionals and their affiliated organizations.”

Also reflecting the collaborative spirit of this year’s forum was the second of two general sessions, a case study featuring a financial planner, an employee benefits specialist, attorneys possessing expertise in ERISA and estate planning law, plus an insurance professional, and an accountant. The various professionals explored issues relating to a hypothetical family business in transition.

The SFSP’s focus on multidisciplinary planning, Domino said, was much on display, as well, during an Aug. 5 meeting in Chicago, Synergy Summit, which brought together the society and other professional organizations. Among them: the American Bar Association’s Real Property, Probate and Trust Section; the ABA’s Tax Section; the American College of Trusts and Estate Councils; the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants; the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys; the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils; plus the society.

Domino said the various groups plan to establish an umbrella Web site, sponsors for which remain to be named, that will collectively represent more than 500,000 financial services professionals. The portal will promote each of the organizations and, where appropriate, provide a vehicle for airing jointly held policy positions.

“With respect to estate tax reform, for example, it would be pretty cool if there were not only a press release from each of the [organizations], but also a coordinated statement reflecting our collective thinking,” Domino said.

Near-term, such coordination will proceed without the participation of a key player: the Denver, Colo.-based Financial Planning Association, with its large contingent of CFP certificants. Asha Williams, the society’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the summit’s organizers wanted to keep the Chicago gathering narrowly focused on estate law and estate planning.

Williams added: “I don’t think it even came up whether or not to invite [the FPA]. But I can’t emphasize enough that we have a really good collaborative relationship with the organization.”

Also partnering with third parties is the society’s philanthropic arm, the Foundation for Financial Services Professionals. Earlier this year, the foundation’s board of trustees approved an allocation of $67,000-augmented at the conference by a $10,000 gift from the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America-to help fund Financial Education Partners, a community outreach initiative.

FEP provides pro bono financial guidance to individuals in need. Volunteer FEP members provide one-on-one counseling to individuals referred by certain charitable organizations. Financial issues addressed range from budgeting and health insurance to credit awareness and management.

Led by Foundation President and SFSP Immediate Past President Richard Bell, the charitable arm is now “in the process of formalizing arrangements” with the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity and the Multiple Sclerosis Society, according to Williams. The purpose: to establish an FEP program in every U.S. city where the three organizations require assistance.

Additional objectives include recruiting 2,000 FSP members into FEP and securing financial independence for 6,000 individuals nationwide.

“To achieve the FEP program objectives, we certainly need financial support,” said Domino. “We also need to determine who among our 20,000 members–and we think it will be a fair number–are interested in providing pro bono support for those who are less fortunate and in need of financial advice.”

Added Bell: “So far, with very little promotion, 15% of our [members] have inquired into the initiative. We think we can marshal quite an army in this area.”

Catering to financial services professionals across multiple disciplines, this year’s forum offered participants up to 12 continuing education credits for financial services professionals holding the CFP, CLE, CTFA, CPE, CTFA, CRSP, CFSSP, PACE or EA marks. The society recognizes 13 designations in all among its 20,000 members–a number the organization is endeavoring to grow.

The SFSP’s goal in 2006 is to recruit 200 members per month nationally, or about one new member per chapter per month. Much of that effort is focused on the organization’s 10 largest chapters, which collectively account for 20% of the society’s membership.