An Open Letter to Mr. Field

Daniel YergerFinancial Planning 1 Comment

Dear Mr. Field,

Today, I write this open letter to you because I had the mixed fortune of watching you speak before 200 or so NexGen financial planners. I call it mixed fortune because I thought you spoke well for the most part. Your story of the pizza parlor and its pay-it-forward policy was heartwarming. Your personal journey of having launched a non-profit to help fight human trafficking by creating economic empowerment for people in Ghana was inspiring. It was all part of a well-intended message, I think, about doing good for others. The title of the talk was, “Disrupting for Good,” after all. Yet, about 2/3rds of the way through, I think you made a mistake, and it needs to be discussed.

Now, I also spoke at the conference. Not on the main stage, mind you, but in one of the breakouts. I began my talk by referencing a quote from Walt Whitman made famous by Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.” It’s in this spirit that I feel it’s important to address a lack of curiosity in your speech, because while I think your message was overall well intended, your own lack of curiosity led to you openly insulting not just the financial planners in the room, but our entire profession.

You see, about 2/3rds of the way through your speech, you made a remarkably bold statement, which I’ll have to quote as best I can: “This industry, your profession, has a pro bono problem. Do you know how I know that? When our company, Holistiplan, reached 10,000 subscribers, we offered 10,000 free uploads to our customers to be used in pro bono financial planning. Not a single one was used.” You then went on to tell us not to question you, challenge, or talk back, but to listen as you emphatically emphasized that we have a pro bono problem. That our lack of curiosity, our lack of interest in helping people, made us averse to pro bono. You then went on to contradict yourself and call us a helping profession, but, I think you were trying to make the point that, because none of your 10,000 customers had used your pro bono use-of-software offer, our entire profession was somehow lacking in its ability to engage in pro bono work.

Mr. Field, did you know that the CFP Board asks CFP® Professionals every year how much pro bono work they’ve done? Did you know that, of the 13,482 who reported pro bono hours, they averaged 20.4 hours each, a cumulative 275,873 hours of pro bono work? Did you know that the Foundation for Financial Planning, which includes both CFP® Professionals and other financial professionals, helped over 124,800 people in 2022 and provided 1,750 volunteer financial planners who provided a combined 18,700 hours of service? Did you think to consider that, in your firm’s population of 10,000 clients, that if not even one, a 0.001% participation rate, took you up on the offer to use the software, that the issue might not be the 10,000 clients, but the offer? Let me suggest two ways in which the software, not the planners, might have been the issue.

First, let’s talk about the means of the donation. In Dan Pallotta’s book, Uncharitable, he documents well the strange social psychology and history of America’s relationship with charity. At one point, in particular, he highlights and emphasizes a problem with in-kind donations. While many non-profits need in-kind donations of food, furniture, clothing, or other materials, others have a specific and select service-based mission that really only needs one form of support: money. You yourself on the stage told us that the only thing that held you back from helping the people of Ghana at first was not a lack of any resource other than money. Yet, non-profits report year after year that well-intentioned good citizens donate assorted goods and products in the laps of non-profits, effectively turning them into dumping grounds for old clothing, furniture, and other household goods that may or may not actually be valuable to the mission of the non-profit. In your hurry, I think, to “donate” the use of your software for non-profit work, you may have done the very same thing in a digital medium. Please don’t think I missed the $10,000 check you mentioned as well, but the core of your thesis is that we didn’t use the software, ergo, we have a pro bono problem. So, with that in mind, let me explain the second way and issue.

Mr. Field, do you know how pro bono financial planning is conducted? Well, let me illustrate one popular method. A financial planning group, such as a local FPA chapter, will partner with local non-profits that support the impoverished, those with disabilities, and other vulnerable and underserved populations. They will then hold clinics where those populations can take free financial education classes and receive one-to-one financial counseling and financial planning services. Often, participants in these pro bono clinics do not bring documentation with them, or even have access to documentation about their situation. The financial planner will gather what data is available, often just a verbal testimony about the participant’s financial situation, and will do their best to provide them with a financial plan of action to improve their financial situation. Notably, in these clinics, the probability that someone has printed out their tax return, or even has the means to print out their tax return, or thought to bring a copy with them is incredibly low. It’s even less likely that they have a conveniently accessible .pdf version of their tax return to be uploaded to your software. Their income might even be so low or non-existent that they don’t file a tax return. Thus, while the 10,000 scans might be helpful, you’re offering can openers to a population that has no canned goods. Now, on the other hand, some pro bono work is done in private practice. Many financial planners take on non-paying clients from vulnerable populations or under special circumstances. These might be better candidates for the pro bono offering but let us once again consider the participation rate. What do you think is more likely? That not one in 10,000 of your customers provided pro bono services to someone after your generous offer was made? Or that the offer was not as well communicated or accessible as you seem to think?

I further must comment on one almost flippant suggestion you made in your speech: “I’ll bet you right now there’s a houseful of teachers up the street from your office who would love the help of a financial planner.” Setting aside the strange suggestion that teachers must gather in housing together like some sort of swarm, let me point something out to you, Mr. Field: Financial planners work with teachers. I personally serve over two dozen teachers in my practice of 152 clients. Teachers are not uncommon financial planning clients, nor are they financial invalids who cannot afford to work with a planner. Can they afford to work with any and all planners? No, but there are plenty of financial planners who take on teachers both as paying clients and as a pro bono demographic in other cases. Yet, again, you have made the suggestion that financial planners must only work with “those people.” Those people with the means, the income, and the assets to charge requisitely inaccessible fees, those people who are not the people you imagine might need a financial planner’s help, but those you assume can afford it. Despite how much work so many financial planners do to ensure they are accessible to anyone who wishes to work with them, your simple and flippant remark simply washed away the very idea that financial planners might serve anyone other than “those people.”

I do not doubt your good intentions. I’ll remind us of the Walt Whitman quote earlier in the letter. I am not here to be judgmental but to ask you: For someone who chastised, chided, and berated us for not doing pro bono work, for having a pro bono problem, for needing to be more curious about how we can help people, you appear to have been remarkably incurious yourself. You do not seem to be aware of all the pro bono work that goes on. Could there be more? Certainly, but to imply that it doesn’t happen at all is insulting. Your firm’s offer of an in-kind donation for the use of the software is well-meaning but seems to ignore the manner by which financial planners often engage in pro bono work. And even assuming that financial planners have been doing pro bono work for which your software was suitable, let me ask once more: Do you really think all 10,000 of your clients didn’t do any pro bono work? Or was it that the offer you made was inappropriate for the work, too difficult to use, or simply not a viable solution for pro bono work? Which do you think is more probable?

Mr. Field, let me suggest that before you find yourself in a position again to stand on stage, to be invited to speak to a cohort of young and passionate financial planners, that you take the time to think about the message you are sending, and more importantly, why you feel so empowered to send it. You could have made your point in so many ways: “We need to do MORE pro bono work. We can partner together to provide more efficient and effective pro bono work. Together, we can serve so many more people with limited access to financial planning!” But, in this instance, you chose to flippantly and, with respect, ignorantly, state “Your profession has a pro bono problem.” So please, before you speak to the community of financial planners again, take the time to learn about the thing you’re taking the time to lecture us about. You might just find that a heartwarming message of helping others is better received when it isn’t precipitated by insulting your audience and isn’t built on a foundation of your own misunderstanding.


Daniel M. Yerger, MBA, CFP®, ChFC, AIF, CDFA

Post Script – 8/25/2023: I had a phone call with Mr. Field about an hour ago. While he apologized to me personally both on LinkedIn prior to the phone call and on the call, he seems to feel that I have taken his words out of context or that the intention of his message was lost. As it was once intimated to me in PSYOP school: “If the recipient isn’t getting the message, the problem is the sender’s, not the receiver’s.” In our conversation, I made a succinct summary statement during the conversation that he had said, “You don’t do pro bono work.” He did not say that during the speech explicitly, and he quite vehemently denied it the moment I made the summary statement. Much as I am sure occurred on stage, in my haste to not overly describe or quote verbatim, my summary phrase was misunderstood and offensive to his sensibilities. So, Chris, for that part of the call and the error in my own speech, you have my public apology.

I encouraged him to make his own public comment regarding the speech and his intentions, clarifying his message for the general public and ultimately attempting to reaffirm his intended message rather than what he communicated errantly. He said he would consider it, but that he would not commit to doing so. “It would be low value” or “Not the highest use” would be paraphrased summaries of how he explained it. I told him, and am generally of the opinion, that if your apologies can only be made in private, and if you won’t take public accountability (whether to take ownership, deny, or clarify and tell your version), then the apology is meritless, and failing to do so is not living in integrity with your words. It is easy to say sorry, it is much more important to mean it. I can only hope that Mr. Field’s intended message of hope and making the world a better place can extend to clarifying remarks, the telling of his version of the story, or the simple public recognition that he did not communicate exactly what he had intended, and it has thus led us to this moment.

It is also noteworthy that while Holistiplan has not responded to my original post on the subject directly or publicly, I have been told that it is reaching out to people who’ve replied to this letter in various social media mediums to inform them that “Chris wasn’t trying to say that advisors don’t do pro bono work but our industry often emphasizes this work but it often doesn’t have legs or support behind it. He used our service as an example.” (This quote was given to me directly by someone contacted by Holistiplan, and if it is in error or a misrepresentation, then I’ll have to plead ignorance.) If that is how Chris intended his message to be heard, then I see no harm in him clearly stating that for the benefit of the public and our profession. I did not need an apology, nor did I seek one from him. But I think for the good of the community, one is owed to the profession.

Comments 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *