Are Financial Advisors Meeting the Full Hierarchy of Client Needs?

How to start the right conversations for charitable planning—and fulfillment—success

Whether you’re living this maxim or it’s news to you, savvy advisors understand: Meeting a client’s needs goes well beyond portfolio management to helping that client reach fulfillment at every level of the hierarchy of needs.

What is the hierarchy of needs?

It’s the idea that humans find fulfillment and happiness when they’ve not only addressed their basic needs, such as food and shelter, but also fulfilling emotional needs, such as achieving a sense of community or purpose. In my years of engaging with financial advisors on best practices, it’s clear to me that the advisors who find the greatest success are those who are heeding the call to meet the full hierarchy.

In fact, 86% of advisors say they believe having a broader view of their clients, beyond financial measures, is extremely or very beneficial1 to creating a fulfilling partnership.

They know the advisor-investor relationship is more than business as usual. It’s about solving problems. It’s about helping people meet their larger life goals. It’s helping all clients realize their vision, not only for their wealth but also for how they want to express their values and where they find meaning. Oftentimes, we discover that this vision includes bettering the world around them, and discussions around charitable planning are some of the best ways to connect at that higher level.

These big plans take big conversations year-round. Here are some effective discussion starters to help build a stronger relationship with clients and better meet their hierarchy of needs.

1. Start with charitable planning.

According to a 2020 study from Fidelity Charitable, 82% of donors give to charity because the causes they support are trying to solve what they believe are important problems, and nearly three-quarters of donors give to charity because it is important for them to live a life that reflects their values.2

Unfortunately, many investors plan for charitable giving to commence upon their death, never seeing the impact these gifts bring to the world or the legacy they’ve created for their families. At the top of their hierarchy of needs, that sense of fulfillment is something they deserve to experience while living—and advisors can be an important partner in helping them discover this joy.

The simplest questions can lead to the most meaningful conversations:

  • “Where do you want to make a difference—and whom do you hope to impact?”
  • “Are you planning to make any charitable contributions by the end of the year?”
  • “What are some of the ways you’ve supported charities in the past?”

With answers in hand, it’s time to bring that sense of fulfillment to life. You’ll likely uncover rich follow-up opportunities, such as being able to step in and support a client considering the best way to structure a significant donation to a charity he or she cares about, or introducing a client to financial strategies that can help him or her give more, whether that’s by giving appreciated securities instead of cash or by taking advantage of a high-income year by giving with a donor-advised fund.

2. Ask about the next generation.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to engaging families—sometimes the role of financial advisor can feel more like family therapist! But conversations about charitable planning and giving are a great way to help families start thinking about their shared values, creating a foundation for broader discussions about wealth planning. Ask questions like:

  • “Have you ever thought about a mission statement for your family?”
  • “Have you ever thought about getting your family involved in giving?”

Younger family members may be looking for guidance, especially as populations and wealth shift from one generation to the next; make sure you’re there when the conversation begins.

3. Don’t forget legacy.

For those in the business of providing wealth advice, the use of the word “legacy” is often synonymous with “estate plan.” Of course, a well-thought-out estate plan is a tremendously valuable way to provide clients with peace of mind. But a legacy isn’t simply about the tax-smart transfer of assets; it’s about an opportunity for clients to express their deepest personal values and desire to leave a lasting mark.

Advisors can play an important role in helping clients get to that sense of fulfillment by asking questions about what that vision really looks like. For some, it’s about enabling the next generation to carry on a tradition of generosity; for others, it’s about providing an organization with enough funds to carry out a particular project; for still others, it’s about providing ongoing steady support toward the good work of an organization.

Many advisors lead with credentials and experience, but end up minimizing what may be most valuable to clients: creating a legacy that’s meaningful in all ways. Survey data from 136 countries showed that the happiness derived from donating to charity was on par with the level of happiness associated with a doubling of one’s household income.3

Make sure you’re working at the top of your license and adapting for long-term success by prioritizing your clients’ hierarchy of needs—and helping them achieve a true sense of fulfillment. For extra charitable conversation starters, download this helpful discussion guide from Fidelity Charitable.


1“Beyond Finances: Holistic Life Planning Trends Among Advisors,” Investment News, 2020.

2Fidelity Charitable Thought Leadership Study, 2020.

3“The Science of Generosity,” Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, 2018.

Karla Valas

Karla Valas 

Head of Fundraising

Karla Valas leads fundraising for Fidelity Charitable, the nation’s largest grantmaker. The expertise from her team of Charitable Planning Consultants helps advisors and companies have more sophisticated financial planning conversations that incorporate charitable strategies, such as donor-advised funds. Ms. Valas has expertise in complex assets and previously led a team of attorneys who facilitate thousands of charitable donations of appreciated private company stock and other nonpublic assets annually. She a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, a J.D. from New England Law and an LL.M. in Taxation from Boston University School of Law. Ms. Valas is admitted to the bar in New York State and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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