A spiritual take on financial planning

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Aug 7, 2018

Call it the church of financial planning ... and take it as an example of how the financial community is honing its human focus.

Once each year, members of the Nazrudin Project gather for a four-day retreat at a serene location, like Estes Park in Colorado or quaint coastal towns in the Pacific Northwest, to support each other’s professional pursuits, pass the peace and wax poetic on the relationship between humans and money.

The group, now 150 members strong, consists of an eclectic mix of psychologists, lawyers and financial professionals who believe there is much more to money than balance sheets and investment returns.

They do not actively recruit, but welcome all newcomers who embrace their ideals.

“We are not into volume; we are into quality,” said Susan Bradley, a Certified Financial Planner® professional and one of the original members of the group. “There is a belief that the right people just show up.”

The Nazrudin Project, named after the religious leader, or Mullah, of Asian and Middle Eastern lore, was founded in the early 1990s by Certified Financial Planner® professionals George Kinder, of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning , and Dick Wagner, of WorthLiving , who is also an attorney.

They set a date for their first meeting and mailed off a few invites to those they thought might want to attend. Thirty three people showed up, Bradley among them.

“The letter said, ‘we think there’s more to money; a spiritual and psychological side,’” she recalled. “I didn’t really know anyone. It was like a big blind date.”

Absent any precedent (or industry jargon) to describe their goal-based approach to financial planning, they coined the term “interior finance,” but two decades later Kinder and Wagner would be viewed by some as the forefathers of what is now commonly called a holistic approach to financial advising.

“Nazrudin Project is a fascinating group when you look at who they are and what they do,” said Ed Gjertsen, a financial planner and former chairman of the Financial Planning Association. “Finances are not just about spreadsheets or bank balances. It’s your money and your life and that is why I really appreciate what this group does in holistic planning.”

While Gjertsen stops short of calling himself a holistic advisor, he said has always placed a premium on developing a more personal relationship with his clients. (He recently visited a client’s garden to better understand her motivation, because that is the source of her passion.)

Increasingly, younger financial advisors “get it,” he said.

“When I look at the next generation of financial planners, anecdotally I see that many have a deeper purpose that goes beyond how much they can get in assets under management,” said Gjertsen. “They truly seek to make a difference in the lives of their clients. Not all financial planners are doing this, but there is definitely a more holistic movement afoot.”

In some ways, Gjertsen said, the passion that ignited Nazrudin Project also gave rise to the financial planning industry itself some 20 years before.

“This all started in 1969 when a group of people who believed financial planning, not just portfolio building, could change the world got together and it is good to see us get back to that kind of passion where people are fervent believers in the power of financial planning,” he said. “There is so much more to it than investment returns and numbers.”

Christopher Stappas is a financial advisor with Summit Financial Resources in Parsippany, New Jersey and former volunteer life coach. While he is not directly familiar with the Nazrudin Project, said he too supports the philosophy.

“Holistic financial planning is something that I’ve always done throughout my career because it just makes intuitive sense,” he said. “When I meet with clients, very little time is spent talking about numbers or their portfolios. I want to know what’s important to them.”

Stappas said he has a close, personal relationship with his clients and takes pride in encouraging them to spend some of their income on things that bring them joy.

“Money does not buy happiness, as we know. It’s just a tool,” he said. “I have clients worth eight figures and, sadly, they’re just not happy people. And then I have clients worth much less who lead really fulfilling lives.”

An ‘idea incubator’

Over the years, the annual conferences of the Nazrudin Project have not only shed new light on the spiritual side of money, but have also become an idea incubator.

“Many bodies of work have come from this,” said Bradley, including her own Sudden Money Institute, which helps clients manage life transitions like retirement, a large inheritance, the death of a loved one, or the sale of a business. “My organization was really created because of a late night conversation in Estes Park. I had finished my book and thought I was done with it and my Nazrudin friends said, ‘We don’t think so.’ They talked me into creating an institute.”

George Kinder’s leadership in life planning, which led to two books, "The Seven Stages of Money Maturity" and "Lighting the Torch, the Kinder Method of Life Planning," also took root at Nazrudin Project meetings. So, too, did Gayle Colman’s workshops in “ Somatic Finance “, which seek to connect the “brilliance of the mind, the integrity of one’s center, and compassion of the heart, in order to create a balanced and clear relationship with finances and our authentic self.”

“We percolate when we’re together,” said Bradley. “When you get into a space like this, it’s just fertile.”

Richard Kagawa, a financial advisor with Capital Resources and Insurance Inc. in Huntington Beach, California and unabashed Nazrudin Project member, however, acknowledged that his amped up brand of holistic planning is not for everyone.

Coached by members of Nazrudin Project, the pointed and often provocative questions he asks to help clients define their values and vision are a turn off for those who seek more traditional financial advice. (Examples: What would you do if you had 24-hours to live? What do you most regret? If you won the lottery or had all the money in the world, what would you do?)

“If you ask, ‘How are you?’ they’ll tell you they’re doing ‘good’ or ‘OK,’” but that doesn’t stir any emotion,” said Kagawa, noting one of the psychologists in the Nazrudin group trained him to instead ask clients to share something good that happened to them in the last 24 hours, and then wait for the answer. ”You are trying to build a relationship with your client. By asking them to tell you something good, you create endorphins in their brain so they start off with a positive association. It’s mind blowing.”

Kagawa dubs himself a “financial concierge” and encourages clients to call him for any matters that pertain to money. He recently helped a client negotiate a fair price for a new car, and encouraged another to reconsider their purchase of a condo in Montenegro.

“My clients know that part of my conversation with them is what’s their current passion,” he said, noting having a reason to get up in the morning is critical to being happy and fruitful. “Many times I give my clients permission to go do something they have always wanted to do. Too many people are afraid to spend money on themselves.”

He encouraged one client to pursue his dream of taking guitar lessons. “He’s been playing and practicing for five years now,” said Kagawa. Another couple he advises owns a small business and found it hard to get away, but dreamed of taking trips. They worked together to plan their first, short weekend trip and have since traveled the globe.

“You have to talk about money, of course, but you get them to talk about why they need it and what it means to them first,” said Kagawa.

Kagawa plans to attend the next meeting of Nazrudin Group, where he will once again reconnect with his brethren to discuss philosophy, philanthropy, impact investing, and the personal side of money.

Per usual, members will set the agenda the first night of the conference based on who would like to lead a discussion or learn more about a subject. They will jot topics down on a chalkboard, vote informally, and plan their weekend in less than an hour.

“It is a very loose organization,” said Bradley. “After we set the agenda, we all go have a glass of wine and have meaningful conversations that are different than you might hear at a broker dealer conference. It’s really pretty cool.”

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This story was first published November, 2016. It has been updated.

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