Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Should we care about the public interest?

by Tony Vidler

Should financial advisers care about the public at large?  The people who are NOT our clients?  Those who don't pay us anything?


When one considers "professionalism", and the attributes that define a professional, you quickly come to the conclusion that a unique characteristic of the genuine professional is a commitment to the public interest.

If you are a financial adviser who is committed to being a professional, you have a social responsibility that extends beyond just those clients who can afford your services.  In plain terms, you have a responsibility to make available your professional expertise to members of the public who have genuine need of your knowledge, but who cannot necessarily afford to access it, in order to improve the standing of the profession itself whilst rendering service to society.

It is a principle of professionalism....one of the hallmarks that define a professional.  It is referred to as pro bono, or more correctly:

"Pro bono publico (English: for the public good; usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service

It is common in the legal profession and is increasingly seen in marketing, technology, and strategy consulting firms. Pro bono service, unlike traditional volunteerism, uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them."

(source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pro_bono )

One would like to think that all good citizens care about the public interest, and will do something to benefit wider society generally with the donation of their own time and expertise.  A huge part of our society does exactly that - contributing their time and effort to coach sports teams, raise funds for disadvantaged members of the community, work together to build facilities for the common good and so on. 

Undoubtedly our society would be a far more difficult environment, and less pleasant to live in, if it wasn't for the good citizens who donate their time and effort to making their part of society a better place by looking beyond their own immediate needs and pleasures.

Many financial advisers have contributed to their society in the same way over many years - they too coach the kids, fund raise, provide foster homes, mentor troubled youth and everything else that solid members of society do.

We have the ability to provide practical help however that not all other caring members of society can do however.  By sharing our knowledge and skills with those who might never be able to access good financial advice, we can create inter-generational change.

Helping a family with poor financial literacy to learn how to create assets and self-sufficiency, or escape crippling high cost debt, or understand how to create a dignified retirement for themselves....these are things which not only change the lives of those you help, but also the lives of those who they in turn influence and are responsible for.

Sharing our skill and knowledge in this manner is very rarely done by the financial advisory industry - and for many good reasons.  It does cost the adviser personally to provide such service - even if that is only in an "opportunity" cost.  There is the potential for public cynicism and cheap accusations of the adviser engaging in such programmes as a "marketing exercise".  The adviser potentially incurs the regulatory risk despite the absolute not-for-profit nature of the work being provided.

However, the potential benefits to financial advisers collectively of creating - or enhancing - public confidence through providing pro bono assistance to those in need are worth these risks. 

The elevation of the professional standing of those who commit to the public good over and above their own commercial objectives is satisfying and personally fulfilling at the very least.  The difference you can make in people's lives though - and ultimately in the lives of their dependents - is incalculable.

A word of caution though:  the same duty of care and professional diligence obligations must be taken when providing pro bono advice.

Apart from the very obvious need to minimize the business risk to the adviser, there is a higher level of public scrutiny placed upon the actions of the professional when engaged in providing such service.

Demonstrating your professional expertise and professional conduct while working in the public interest is what actually defines the Professional in the eyes of the public.

Financial advisers should grasp such opportunities to work together on pro-bono projects.  It's what separates the really good advisers from the rest.

Like this?  Then share it with others...or visit www.strictlybiz.co.nz for loads more useful and interesting information.

P.S.  Here is a blatant plug for a campaign being run by the Commissioner for Financial Literacy and Retirement Income here in New Zealand, that a number of professionals have agreed to assist with by providing pro-bono advice to members of the public during Money Week 2012.  

(Disclosure of interest: I have volunteered, and I would dearly love to see a thousand advisers participating!)



For Consumers:  If you want to talk to a professional adviser for free during Money Week you can call the IFA on 0800 404 422 or go to 


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