If you’re looking for an accurate barometer of passion in a profession, look at the health of your professional association. By all accounts, the asset management profession is booming, as IMCA and CFA Institute memberships have been healthy and growing. The life insurance sales world, as measured by the declining membership of the Society of Financial Services Professionals, is in the throes of a long, slow retreat.
And the financial planning profession? The AICPA PFS Section breaks membership records every year. But we have experienced a decade of stagnant growth numbers at the Financial Planning Association, and only marginal growth at the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. It seems clear that the powerful driving passion that created the profession has suddenly gone missing in action at two of the three financial planning-oriented membership organizations.
Making the case even stronger, I now hear people cite very different reasons for their membership today than I did ten years ago. In the past, people joined their association because they wanted to participate in the hard, rewarding process of building a new profession. There was an enormous sense of pride in being a NAPFA or FPA (or ICFP) member, a feeling that you were contributing to something larger than yourself and important to the world.
Today, in stark contrast to that attitude, I hear members grumble that they’re not getting their money’s worth of association benefits, as if association membership could be measured as a bottom-line financial transaction.
Please don’t get me wrong; you should expect a healthy array of member benefits when you join a professional organization. Associations exist, in part, to pool the assets of their members and create things that could not be funded by any single member, like advocacy at the state and national level, like a publication and discussion forum, like educational conferences and robust local meetings. But all of these member benefits depend on audience participation; they become weak when the membership is low and not engaged. The association’s primary reason to exist is to concentrate and disseminate the passion of its members, and on this most important metric both the associations and their members have not measured up.
Building a profession requires professionals to foster and maintain a sense of community. In the financial planning world, against the vast backdrop of sales masquerading as advice, this manifests most clearly as an “us vs. them” mentality. The professionals stand for something important, ultimately for the best interests of the consumer without conflict or compromise. They’re committed to exploring what it means to be a professional, to communicating the value of professionalism, and growing both their ranks and their moral clarity, year after year. It’s a team effort, and the organized teams are the associations.
Why has the financial planning community slipped into this recent malaise? I can speculate that the “them” in the “us vs. them” formulation has become weaker, and is no longer taken as seriously as it once was. The competing brokerage firms and sales organizations are transparently not providing the value that financial planners do, and the smarter, more sophisticated consumers are rewarding financial planners by giving them a growing share of the market. The competitive urgency is diminished compared to 10 or 20 years ago.
Linked to that, we have seen a shift in the way that financial planning professionals discuss their challenges. In the past, the discussions— in forums, at conferences and in our trade publications—focused on how to pioneer the powerful new concept of objective advice. We looked for better ways to provide a visible contrast between the planning and (brokerage) sales model. Financial planning was regarded as a “movement,” a rebellion against the old, self-interested way of providing advice.
Today those discussions focus more on professional management of the firm, profitability metrics and growth. I hear professional financial planners talking about how to “comply” with the fiduciary standard instead of how to provide a more-than-fiduciary experience that will electrify a client’s life. We seem to assume that the rebellion has been won, that idealism can finally take a back seat to the more practical business evolution of the profession.
Certainly, it’s important for planning firms to keep evolving their professional management. As an old warrior in the cause of idealism, I’m delighted to see the increase in market share that professional financial planners are enjoying. But I sincerely—let’s say passionately—hope that financial planning is not destined to evolve into merely a business.
You, readers of these words, are still part of an important rebellion against self-interest and sales masquerading as advice, and your battle is far from won. Yes, increasing market share is a form of victory. But we also win when sales agents are attracted to our association meetings and see the passion of the members, who communicate virtue of financial planning and working for the client. We win when the associations, bursting with vitality, communicate those virtues into the greater community of consumers in a way that I haven’t seen for more than a decade.
Where do we start? With you. If you’re a member of the FPA or NAPFA (or both), this is your call to get more involved. Now is a great time to help clarify what strong important principles your association is willing to stand for, and turn those unwavering principles into a magnet for those who share those principles to make a stand and join up.
At your local, regional and national meetings, put an emphasis on communicating those principles and the general concept of true professionalism. Talk about how to elevate the impact of your advice, and how to extend your services into the middle market. Don’t be afraid to talk openly about making the world a better place.
Above all, help reenergize your association, and turn it back into what it once was: a driver of idealism and passion and growth, a strong, powerful enemy of cynicism and self-interest in the larger, still-conflicted financial services landscape. Together, we can recover some of the rebellious spirit that created a new financial planning profession despite the best efforts of a sales culture that would like us all to go away. We can show the consuming public that the financial planning profession is not merely a business; it is fundamentally and importantly a vehicle for making the world a much better place.