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The Role of Technology in Pro Bono Financial Planning

Sasha Grabenstetter June 24, 2022

Financial advisors typically serve those of means. But in the wake of the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the lower- to moderate-income (LMI) families—the majority of the population in America—have a great need for financial guidance.

With organizations like the Foundation for Financial Planning (FFP), more people in need are getting connected to quality advice to improve their finances and their lives.

Virtual pro bono financial planning engagements have become popular and can help scale this critical service. However, innovation to support financial planners in these engagements still lags.

Understanding the Requirements of Pro Bono Planning Engagements

In 2021, the FFP conducted both qualitative and quantitative research to dig into the need for technology to support pro bono financial planning engagements.1 They surveyed approximately 400 CFP® professionals who had volunteered to do pro bono service and held focus groups with stakeholders. This included volunteers, nonprofit leaders, and pro bono financial planning clients.

The comprehensive research by the FFP brought to light some of the commonalities across clients who need assistance, as well as the frequency and type of pro bono engagements.

These findings collectively help to scope out how technology could be leveraged to scale pro bono financial planning. And if we understand how to better support pro bono efforts, then we also understand how to better serve everyday Americans.

Moving Beyond the Pen and Pad for Pro Bono Planning

Pro bono financial planning can be a one-time or multi-session engagement. The typical length is two to five sessions, depending on the client’s needs. In this way the volunteer understands there is a finite time to deliver enduring value to the individual’s or family’s financial situation.

To conduct these sessions, volunteers are connecting by phone, email, and online conferencing. Some volunteers have access to financial planning software, but there is often a desire to keep these limited engagements separate from their ongoing business.

Not surprising then, 86 percent of the volunteers within the FFP study cited that their top tools to do pro bono financial planning were paper and pen.1

This finding illuminates the need for planning tools that are simple, accessible, and relevant to pro bono clients’ key needs.

Addressing Core Needs Towards Financial Wellness

Financial professionals are accustomed to improving their clients’ situations by not only thinking for today, but also thinking about tomorrow and “what if?”

An individual or LMI family may seek out pro bono planning because of a pressing financial emergency or an unforeseen obstacle, such as a health condition. But beyond the more immediate need, they are just like everyone else with an aspiration to learn how to balance today’s money and tomorrow’s goals.

The underlying focus for the majority of pro bono engagements is helping clients with basic financial needs to better manage their finances.

According to the FFP research1, the top three goals the volunteer financial professionals address with clients are:

  • Creating a budget and managing cash flow
  • Building an emergency fund
  • Credit card debt management

These areas similarly reflect the building blocks of what we see at eMoney as starting on a path to financial wellness:

  • Control over daily finances
  • Financial preparedness for emergencies
  • Planning for the future

Engaging Efficiently and Securely with Technology

Helping clients—whether creating a budget or estimating an amount for an emergency fund—requires data about their personal financial situation.

The data collection required for a budget may comprise several essential expense categories. And it’s not uncommon for a client’s assets and liabilities to be spread across multiple sources. This is why inputting clients’ financial data is generally the most cumbersome aspect of planning, especially if using paper and pen or a spreadsheet.

Identifying all of the client’s accounts could be made easier with data aggregation for a holistic view of their finances. Additionally, digital technology that offers secure document storage or encryption of their sensitive information is more secure than pen and paper.

There’s also a need and opportunity in pro bono planning to integrate with public benefits and public assistance directories to provide just-in-time guidance on specific needs.

This is another area where the use of data aggregation or a digital integration to these agency and state-run sources could help the volunteer be the most effective in these conversations.

Technology Tools That Teach and Inspire

Being effective and engaging is a difficult task for pro bono volunteers when time and resources are limited. Enhancing engagement and providing accessible education in an efficient way is critical for lasting change.

Pro bono planning engagements can be an effective vehicle for financial education. About 65 percent of the population are visual learners.2 It’s likely that a client may benefit from the advice and direction if given a picture, a graph, or a chart to visualize.

Using digital technology can provide inspiration by showing immediate analysis and outcomes of the data that is entered. Visual communication may help pinpoint opportunities more efficiently to make more informed decisions.

Providing access to bite-sized personal finance lessons is an extremely valuable resource for volunteers to leverage. More financially educated, aware, and engaged clients can help foster more financially prepared future generations as well.

Motivated by a Financial Wellness Mission

Helping others is at the core of the financial planning profession. Pro bono services address the needs of individuals we are meeting with in that moment. But even further, it supports their financial wellness which may ultimately affect their households’ financial wellness and future generations in the family.

Setting others up with financial knowledge and access to the right tools to manage their finances can have a multiplying effect to the greater community around us. It elevates wealth and possibilities for everyone. With greater access to planning, more people can achieve their dreams and overcome barriers to reach their potential.

If you want to learn more about getting started with pro bono financial planning, check out advice from a fellow planner, or visit the FFP to learn about pro bono volunteer opportunities.


1 Foundation for Financial Planning, “Pro Bono Technology Use Research Findings,” October 2021.

2 Reynolds, Molly. “How to Spot Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic-Learning Executives,” Inc. n.d.

DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.

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About the Author

Sasha Grabenstetter, AFC®, BFA™ is a Financial Planning Education Consultant at eMoney Advisor. She is an integral part of the internal and external financial planning education programs, as well as financial planning content development. Sasha won the 2020 Outstanding Symposium Practitioners' Forum Award from the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education. She previously co-authored “Apple Seed: A Student Guide to Pro Bono Financial Planning” and “All My Money: Change for the Better.” With close to 10 years in financial education, Sasha received her AFC® designation in 2015 and graduated with her master’s degree from Texas Tech University in 2012.

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