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 to drop 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.
The Problem With Multi-Disciplinary Membership Associations
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)! Especially when it comes to practice management content (that is both ineligible for CE, and irrelevant for the majority of the practitioners in affiliated professions!)
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.
Networking Meetings Should Be For Networking, Not Continuing Education (CE) Credits?
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?