Our business suffers from a reputation problem — yet we know thousands of advisors who positively impact their communities every day. Why is there a disconnect between perception and reality?
In a 2016 poll by the American Institute of Individual Investors, 62% of the respondents said they mistrust financial advisors. My own observation is that while the financial services world has a few bad apples — just as any profession — advisors want to help people. So how can we display that purpose?
Individual consumers often lack the confidence and knowledge to make important financial decisions, and this makes them vulnerable to those who would prey on them for financial gain. I see an opportunity here, a chance to help people take control of their financial lives.
To address this need, BNY Mellon Pershing has undertaken an initiative to encourage advisors to deliver personal financial education to schools in their community or their alma mater. We created a test partnership with EverFi to promote this engagement. EverFi delivers a broad menu of digital educational solutions to kids, with sponsorship from many financial organizations. Topics covered in this program include savings, banking, payment types, credit scores, financing higher education, renting vs. owning, insurance, taxes, consumer protection and investing. Over the past few years, high school learners increased their knowledge of financial issues by 75%.
Prior to undertaking the EverFi partnership, I helped my former school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to implement a financial literacy class for high school seniors. This idea has been replicated by many other advisors around the country. The results and the feedback have been tremendous — in fact, we heard directly from students in the program when nine teams presented their best ideas to Gladstone School’s superintendent, the lead teacher for the financial education program and me. Remarkably, three of the teams recommended that a similar class be created for their parents. Without a doubt, this awareness of the importance of financial literacy will help these young people take control of their futures.
More financial advisors are undertaking their own initiatives to create a better understanding of financial choices. Following are just three examples out of scores of initiatives that I have heard about. These programs do help the industry’s reputation, but none of these firms is doing it for bragging rights. They are on a mission to give back to their communities and to improve the lives of others who are less fortunate:
1. Bob Swift, the founder of TCI Wealth, created a foundation three years ago to provide financial education to young adults of moderate means. Called the Third Decade Program, Bob’s foundation has been funded by his wealth management firm. The students pay no tuition. Bob believes that an introduction to financial planning benefits young people as they enter the workforce. They can start to apply the lessons to their everyday choices right away. TCI delivers 10 hours of class, after which each student receives $1,000 for a Roth IRA. In April 2019 they had their 500th graduate of the program.
Now TCI wants to show other financial advisors how to deliver a similar experience in their communities. This is a personal passion of the TCI Wealth practitioners who view it as their responsibility to help individuals prepare for the many choices they will be confronted with on their path to a better financial life.
2. BLB&B Advisors in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania is another firm that puts its money where its mouth is. The firm’s founder — the late Frank Burke — established the Cedarcrest Charitable Foundation and appointed members of the firm to its board. His successors have continued this legacy. Now known as BLBB Charitable, the firm and its sizeable foundation is dedicated to philanthropic giving for people in need. As part of their firm’s culture, they encourage everyone within BLB&B to get involved in community service activities, which they in turn support with funding for critical initiatives. They match 2:1 money raised or donated by their employees and partners up to $5,000.
One of the foundation’s directors and firm leaders, John Lawton, says that “not only are we making an impact on the communities in which we live and work, this emphasis on community involvement enriches our culture and provides a great framework for leadership development within our firm.” A new financial literacy initiative is now a priority for the firm in order to help individuals make a connection between the choices they make and their financial health.
3. Another successful Philadelphia-area financial advisor, Mike Piotrowicz of Legacy Advisors, was inspired by the work of Frank Burke and John Lawton to start a foundation when he was part of another area business, Kistler Tiffany. When Mike started his own advisory firm, he created Legacy Foundation. Mike also gives of his time having served for 30 years on the board of Williamson College of the Trades (which gives high school students free room and board while preparing them for life as an adult. This 140-year-old school serves low-income students, providing practical education in trades including masonry, carpentry and horticulture. They emphasize character, integrity, faith and academic discipline. Most of the students who graduate from Williamson receive job offers. Mike says, “It has become a safe place to get kids to learn, and a life lesson in how to earn.”
As Mike put it, “it is easy to forget how fortunate we are in this business. We can have hard times, but this gives us real perspective. Our so-called dark struggles are not struggles at all in comparison. When we see how we can impact the lives of these kids, we can also see the pride of their parents in their success.”
While the efforts of TCI, BLB&B and Legacy provide just a few examples, they demonstrate the power of including community service in the work we do. Each of these firms has found that they tend to attract clients and employees to their advisory firms who share these values. Each person I talked to about their community service said that the process has made them more empathetic and more aware that their efforts can improve the communities around them for years to come.
The firms I mentioned focus on different stages in education, from elementary students to young adults entering the workforce. Whatever the age, students discover that the choices they make around money are important.
Many advisors have dedicated programs to serve the homeless and hungry in their communities, as well as to support the arts. We have a skill and knowledge set to share as well. If you haven’t done so already, consider how your organization might make a difference in educating young people in local schools and career development programs. In reaching out, advisors also enrich the work lives of employees and bolster the reputation of the advisory business, a profession that should be known for positively impacting others.
Mark Tibergien is CEO of BNY Mellon’s Pershing Advisor Solutions. Tibergien is also the author most recently of “The Enduring Advisory Firm,” written with Kim Dellarocca of BNY Mellon and published by Wiley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.