THE COALFACE: Planning for a cause

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AMP director of financial planning, advice and services, Steve Helmich talks to Wealth Professional about the organisation's program of free advice for cancer sufferers.

Tell us about the Cancer Council pro bono program

We’re very big here in AMP about promoting financial planning as a profession. And we’re very big about promoting AMP’s role in the community. We see the community as one of our partners – stakeholders if you like.

We thought, ‘what’s the sort of thing we could do to really give to the community, and also promote financial planning’s value as a profession’? We thought that pro bono is really the sort of thing that great professions do – whether it’s Doctors Without Borders, or lawyers that do pro bono work.

We went to the Cancer Council, we talked about it, and they said from their studies they’ve found that the financial concern is one of the greatest concerns – apart from fighting this life-threatening disease that they’ve got – the financial thing is one of the greatest areas of concern for people who they deal with in the Cancer Council.

We thought, ‘we can help there’, because the sort of expertise our planners have is wading their way through the financial mire for people who are facing the greatest challenge in their life. If we go back to AMP’s motto, it’s amicus certus in re incerta, which is ‘a sure friend in uncertain times’. We thought this fits really well, so let’s trial it.

We trialled it in New South Wales and ACT. The feedback from the Cancer Council and the people we work with was outstanding. We went to South Australia, now Victoria, and Tasmania, and soon to be Western Australia, and hopefully soon to be Queensland.

We see the value of this being an Australia-wide program. To make it work you’ve got to have a really structured program. The Cancer Council are a tremendous partner in this. They really put a lot of work in to working with us to make sure it works.

But you’ve also got to make sure you select your planners properly and accredit them properly. We’ve built an accreditation program for planners to go through to understand what this means, how they should operate and that it’s absolutely pro bono. There’s not a dollar that goes to the planners or AMP – because that’s not the aim of it. The aim is to help someone who’s facing a great challenge in life.

In a nutshell that’s it. And the success has happened because our planners, their natural bent is to help people – and that’s why they do it. 

When did the program start?

It started in 2010. It started quite modestly, and it’s grown now – I think we’ve helped over 800 cases. We’re getting one case a day now across the country. We’ve got a number of our practices across AMP Financial Planning, Hillross, and also our new friends from Charter. When they saw it they were very keen to get involved.

We’re very big on the ‘act, learn, act’ approach. So we ran a pilot, and from that pilot we were able to show the results to planners, and from that the wave of enthusiasm for planners to get involved has been very strong.

We’ve got 316 practices involved in the program. That’s a substantial number from AMP Financial Planning, Hillross and Charter. Some have handled quite a number of cases over quite a number of practices. We’ve got practices that have handled over 30 cases. Of course they’re quite large practices and they have a number of planners in them. For others they might just get one or two a year.

How hard is it preparing for eventuality that the client may not survive?

It’s very hard for them not to get emotionally involved. We’ve kept a close eye on the planners ourselves, because it can be emotionally draining on them – they get quite close to their clients.
In many cases, the primary person they’re dealing with won’t survive. The situation there is to make sure that the remaining family members are well looked after, and that everything that person was entitled to in terms of insurance and coverage is pursued – and pursued as quickly as possible.

Quite often you’ll hear that they want to own their house and have their debts paid off. That’s one of the things we’ll pursue so that the survivors – whether that’s the cancer patient themself who comes good, or the survivors who are left from someone unfortunately passing away – are in the best possible position we can put them in.

How does the relationship with the planner last?

It’s not always about writing a plan. It’s quite often about chasing up their entitlements from superannuation funds, and making sure that the entitlements are there. The ongoing relationship with the planner will depend on what the client wants to do and what the client’s needs are.

We’ve found that planners have had friends of clients come up and thank them and just ask them to take over their financial planning. Because they can see the value they can add. But I know a particular case where the planner spent 70 hours with these clients.

You don’t have to write too many statements of advice, because that’s not the primary focus of this. It’s about helping them with the challenge.

What kind of feedback are you getting?

I can’t emphasise how good the Cancer Council are as a partner in this. And I think they think the same about us, because it is a really strong partnership with a great outcome for the clients.
I was at a fundraising ball for the oncology unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital. I had this person at the ball tell me about this great service where people get financial help, and I said ‘I think I know the service!’

It’s great that it’s viewed so positively. And I know the social workers in all the oncology units talk in glowing terms. They say they can see people walk in with a completely different attitude once out planners have been involved with them. And that feels good.

We don’t publicise it at all really. It’s not something we beat our chest about. We’re a quiet achiever in areas like this. We just know what we need to do, and we get on and do it.

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