Continuing education content has long been the anchor of the professional association chapter meeting. It creates a common purpose and bond for the community to meet, break bread, and form relationships with colleagues and peers. Yet in recent years, several financial services associations have shifted from making CE the centerpiece of core membership community-building, to the anchor around which multi-disciplinary networking is supposed to occur. Unfortunately, though, the approach is fatally flawed, as affiliated professionals are unlikely to find the content and sponsors relevant, and CE can take up so much of the meeting time there is little left to actually network! As a result, many organizations are at a crossroads – to either really restructure meetings to allow for proper and structured networking opportunities, or to refocus on using the chapter meeting once again to build community around a core membership. 

The inspiration for today’s blog post is a recent conversation I had with an attorney who had decided dropped his membership in one of the major financial planning membership associations. He complained it just didn’t feel like he got anything out of it; he joined for the opportunity to network, but after two years of involvement, he hadn’t cultivated a single referral. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying to get involved; he regularly attended the local chapter meetings. But he hadn’t developed any relationships, so it just didn’t make sense to renew anymore.

In recent years I’ve come to realize that this is a common plight for several of the financial services associations (most notably, the Financial Planning Association and the Society for Financial Services Professionals) that have taken an increasingly “multi-disciplinary” membership approach in recent years. The basic concept seems pretty straightforward. Financial advisors often view and position themselves as the quarterback of the client relationship, but they require a whole team of affiliated professionals to function. Consequently, the associations thought, we can grow our membership by bringing in affiliated professionals in a variety of disciplines who would want to work with our members, and invite them to the meetings that are already occurring! The members get the opportunity to network with outside professionals to generate referrals, the affiliated professionals get the opportunity to network with financial advisors to generate referrals, and the association gets more members, leading to greater membership dues, growing the attendance at chapters meetings, and increased sponsorship revenue.

Unfortunately, though, there’s one fundamental but crucial and fatal flaw to the approach:  the professional educational meeting is the anchor of the local chapter experience for most associations, and the professional education meeting is an absolutely terrible way to facilitate networking for multi-disciplinary members. There are three primary reasons:

1) Content. Quality professional educational content – differentiated from the increasing amount of free-but-not-always-good content available on the web – is advanced and challenging, yet specifically relevant to the target audience. However, when a room is filled with professionals from multiple disciplines, content that is created in a manner to be advanced yet relevant to one professional group virtually ensures the content will be completely irrelevant for the rest of the group. Or stated more simply: the best content for a financial advisor doesn’t feel very relevant for a practicing attorney; the best content for a practicing attorney doesn’t feel very relevant for a practicing accountant; and the best content for a practicing accountant has little relevance for a financial advisor. The multi-disciplinary professional education session is virtually guaranteed to leave the majority of attendees unfulfilled in their content needs (if not outright ineligible for continuing education credit). The end result: if the content was targeted at the advisors, the affiliated professionals feel like meetings are a waste of time; if the content was targeted more broadly to make it relevant for the affiliated professionals, the core members find it irrelevant (and stop showing up for the meetings)!

2) Sponsorship. While more people attending the meeting initially seems positive for the meeting sponsor, the good feelings quickly end when the sponsor realizes that most of the new faces at the meeting aren’t actually potential users of the company’s products and services anyway. From the perspective of an investment company, for example, a room full of 40 people can turn out to be worse than a room with just 25 people, if the former includes 20 advisors and 20 attorneys while the latter is 25 advisors and no attorneys.  The former may have more people in the room, but the latter has more prospects in the room for the company. The end result: sponsors don’t see results, and sponsors don’t renew after a few years. The secondary result: the affiliated professionals, bored with not only content that isn’t relevant, but vendors with sales pitches that aren’t relevant either, become even more resolved not to renew. It’s just flat out awkward at best for all involved when the majority of the people in the room at a sponsored chapter meeting couldn’t possibly do business with the sponsor anyway.

3) Networking Time. Perhaps the greatest fundamental flaw of the professional educational meeting as a networking gathering is the simple fact that, when the meeting is anchored around educational content, there’s hardly any time to actually do the networking! The typical “networking” lunch meeting becomes 5 minutes of hello greetings, a few minutes of announcements, 50 minutes of content, and then everyone scatters to return their offices and their busy days (especially those members who spent the preceding hour listening to content that isn’t relevant to them, supported by sponsors with whom they can’t do business anyway). The end result: even people who were genuinely interested in networking have no time to actually network, find the dynamic unrewarding, and don’t renew.

The cumulative result of these problems is that while the associations may get a short burst of membership when they hang out the shingle of being “a multi-disciplinary networking association” the end result is that the majority of affiliated professionals don’t renew, as they find the content irrelevant, the sponsors irrelevant, and that the meetings allow virtually no time to actually network. Furthermore, as the content (and sometimes sponsorship) becomes torn between core members and affiliated professionals, the core members may begin to lapse their membership if they feel resources are becoming divided (leaving less of the pie for core members than when they were the sole membership focus) and membership meetings are becoming less relevant than ever (if the content shifts to a non-core focus). And in the meantime, sponsors begin to lapse as well, as the chapter meeting attendance shrinks significantly due to both core and affiliated professional membership attrition. 

So what’s the solution? If the organization wishes to truly embrace a multi-disciplinary networking approach, the networking should be the reason for gathering in the first place; having continuing education content just consumes networking time! Chapter meetings in a true networking organization should occur specifically for the purpose of introducing members to each other, in a facilitated manner, that ensures everyone really understands what everyone else does, what their expertise is, and who their target clients are. Notably, such multi-disciplinary meetings actually require people from multiple disciplines who do not have overlapping practices; looking to other networking organizations as a model, quotas for both a minimum and maximum number of professionals in a particular discipline or specialty are not uncommon. Minimum participation requirements are often enforced as well. Simply put, if you’re not genuinely interested in showing up to network, to learn how you can help other affiliated professionals, and to clearly explain to them how they can help you, don’t bother showing up at all.

Yet in this environment, “professional education” is not just unnecessary to facilitate networking, it’s actually a waste of precious networking time. Not to mention the nigh impossibility of finding an educational topic (or a sponsor!) that would be genuinely relevant enough to all members across all disciplines to make it worthwhile anyway. 

Notably, some affiliated professionals do manage to make connections in the multi-disciplinary financial services associations, by getting even more involved than just attending chapter meetings. For instance, volunteer committees actually do afford meaningful social interaction that can promote networking. However, this is not a replicable growth model for most chapters, especially given that in the end even volunteer committees meetings are not really structured networking time, many committees and boards still have minimum requirements for a certain number of “core” members, and only so many affiliated professionals can really get involved before it gets too competitive (given the lack of structure around balancing the number of affiliated professionals in overlapping disciplines).

Of course, this isn’t to say that continuing education content is always bad at an association meeting. When the focus of the association is on a core membership with a common focus and common needs – who all find relevance in the same content – then CE content can be an excellent common purpose around which the organization’s community is built. But the key distinction is that building community is different than networking; community involves similar people who share a similar bond and can relate to each other on common issues, while networking involves different people who have a distinct, non-overlapping business focus that can create cross-referral or partnered business opportunities.

As long as associations continue to run community-oriented CE meetings while trying to draw a multi-disciplinary networking membership base and meeting attendance, I fear there will continued high attrition rates from affiliated professionals like my attorney friend, who are often faced with chapter meetings that include irrelevant content, irrelevant sponsors, little structure to actually facilitate true networking, and often little time to actually network at all. Either focus on core members, or truly focus on networking. If there’s a fear that making meetings more truly networking focused – without the CE – might cause meeting attendance to drop, then perhaps the reality is that core members aren’t really that interested in networking after all?

So what do you think? Do you join professional associations for networking (for cross referral opportunities) or for community (meeting professional colleagues and peers)? Do you actually find chapter meetings anchored by financial planning CE credit to really be effective networking time as a financial planner? Are you an affiliated professional that finds CE meetings to be a good use of time when you’re not the target of the CE? Have you ever been involved in other networking organizations? Do you see a difference between networking organizations and professional membership associations?

  • Ray Streker

    Long term the best solution may be to do large upscale pro bono projects and specifically include affiliated professionals. Both the organization and allied professionals gain branding which can only help generate business long term. The upscale part is necessary to facilitate the networking component and bring in people who probably would not go to an inner city homeless shelter. Essentially a sand box is created where professional skills are show cased and trusting professional relationships are created.
    This strategy it is not a quick kill networking strategy. This would be more of a long term relationship and branding strategy. The strategy of incorporating a pro bono aspect into networking minimizes the empty feeling of wasted time and effort for traditional networking events. At the end of the day at least you did your “good deed of the day”

    Most of the public and lawmakers still do not know what a Certified Financial Planner is this strategy brings the good guys in front of the public.

  • http://www.financialpro.org Joe Frack

    From the Society of FSP's perspective, it is true that just bringing professionals together for a CE event does not automatically result in creating a good networking environment. We have found that bringing professionals from different disciplines together is most effective when the following occurs:

    1. Chapter leadership makes sure that new professionals are introduced to other chapter leaders and made to feel welcome at every event. Our Greensboro chapter is a prime example of the value of this effort - a built in networking structure and mentality.

    2. Chapters host interesting events that have networking as the prime purpose. A number of our chapters have had good sucess with "after hours" gatherings.

    3. Chapters host CE events that have networking time before or after. Our Philadelphia chapter does a great job with this - Example, CE event in the morning at the ballpark followed by networking lunch and ball game. Gives professionals a lot to talk about and reasons to get to know each other.

    4. As Ray memtioned, Chapters bring members together for Pro Bono endeavors. Our Financial Education Partners program has brought professionals together to work with Habitat for Humanity, MS, and other causes.

    Bottom line - there has to be a networking structure in place with some forethought.

    • Michael Kitces

      Joe,
      Thanks so much for the feedback.

      My challenge, though, is that - as you note in your points above - CE seems to be very downplayed in the networking environment. Even in #3, the chapter has to host separate networking time from the CE itself at a CE meeting to drive activity (and in fact, the example you gave is a scenario where someone could just come for lunch and the ball game, and not the CE).

      Obviously I'm a huge fan of professional education, both as a consumer and provider of good CE. But seeing one chapter after another struggle with this, I still wonder if trying to deliver CE and networking simultaneously isn't making the situation more difficult, and muddying the message and value proposition?
      - Michael

      • Omega Hartman

        I agree with you that networking and CE don't mesh well. Gauging by what I've seen at our chapter meetings, the room clears after the CE portion is finished as everyone rushes to either start the business day or get home at a reasonable time.

        Community outreach events/programs (pro bono or public awareness, however each chapter designates it) bring members and allied professionals together in a meaningful way. These programs have driven membership and networking and helped integrate those new to the profession.

        Outreach to military and financial literacy programs, for example, have brought new members and allied professionals to our chapter, since the intrinsic value of the experience would not have been possible without membership. The value proposition in these situations is clear, unlike delivering CE and networking.

        -Omega

  • http://www.brokered.net Edward Barrett

    Michael, I have a suggestion, I have developed CE programs that provide a correspondence course with a classroom course that are approved for all professions (Insurance, CFP, IMCA, CPE and special requests CLE). The programs will require pre-reading prior to the meeting, a 1-hour class for a review, and then the professional takes an exam (50-100 questions. They pass they can receive 10-20 combined hours of CE credit. I have developed courses such as: IRA Planning, IRA beneficiary Planning, Social Security and Medicare Planning, and Advanced ealth Transfer Planning. I currently provide these programs to every major wirehouse firm. The bottom line: two hours of a program (plus pre-reading) and the professional will be better educated (build their practice) and achieve a large number of hours of Ce for all designations. Ed Barrett

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