From the September 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Facilitating the Conversation

The leaders of the FPA say it's all about dialogue, despite the market and financial challenges faced by advisors and FPA itse

The FPA Retreat is a chance for members, including the leaders, pioneers, and deep thinkers of the Financial Planning Association, to get together in a relaxed, contemplative environment and discuss what's really important to them, absent the carnival-like atmosphere of some larger industry gatherings. Energized by this year's retreat, which was held in Traverse City, Michigan, the three leaders of the FPA--Chairman Bob Barry, President David Yeske, and President-Elect Elizabeth Jetton--took time afterward to talk about the profession and the association.

What are the specific challenges your members are facing that FPA can address? At Retreat, I heard a lot of people talk about the life planning movement, for instance, but there were some questions on how you get compensated for that. Yeske: As for life planning, we're coming to an almost universal acceptance that life planning, as one person at Retreat put it, is nothing more than financial planning done well. But I'd say that the [main] challenge is helping people to recommit and reenergize the financial planning part of their practices. The ones who came out of the turmoil of the financial markets of the last three years were those who who put financial planning at the core of their client relationships. They're the ones who survived and thrived. There's a growing clarity that it has to be about financial planning.

Then it's a return to your roots? Yeske: Absolutely!

Jetton: The other challenges are ever growing. Take career path: FPA is truly committed to helping new planners, new CFPs who want to do planning, to find great places to work. Whether it be institutions that are committed to the financial planning process or small practices, we're really committed to the full development of the practitioner. Another challenge is to get the message to the public about the value of financial planning and what good financial planning looks like.

The question about how you get paid is one of those conversations that FPA facilitates so well. An exciting thing we're seeing is evolving business models that reflect what people actually do. If you do investment management, then by all means get paid for it. If you need a way to get paid for doing the financial planning process, maybe it would be good if we came up with ways to get directly paid for doing so. We're engaging our members in those conversations. It's not for us to dictate; we're neutral on the question of compensation. We're neutral on the distribution channels of financial planning. What we're not neutral on is the process of financial planning.

Barry: I think there are a lot of challenges we have, but fortunately, all of them center around financial planning. And as Elizabeth said, it's getting the word out about what planning is. And that means not just to the public, but also to [FPA] members, the media, legislators, regulators--it's a whole bunch of people that are just fundamentally confused about what financial planning is. I think a lot more people think it's implementation than anything else. I think one of the biggest challenges is that there are a fair number of people out there that would tell you that they don't think that they could make a living doing financial planning without the implementation part of it. So part of the challenge becomes practice management issues, getting them to become creative in the ways that they set up and run their businesses, having conversations about what other types of compensation and pricing models people are working under. It all goes back to FPA being the perfect community to foster that dialogue, because when you have that diversity among the membership, you have a very effective conversation on all those challenges. Its not unusual for professions to go through challenge periods, and this will be one of many.

What about the local chapters? Retreat and Success Forum and yourselves are involved on the national level. On the local level there's a lot of autonomy, right? Jetton: Complete. There are 100 chapters right now, and many of them may partner with another nearby chapter or even on their own to do their own regional educational conferences that have that same quality of learning from each other. The chapters create their own leadership path and their own mission within the larger mission of FPA, and that reflects their own community.

Barry: And it just extends our reach. It's a lot of work to play a role in supporting [the chapters] financially and staff support and helping them with elections, and making sure there are people on the ground to train them, and strategic planning meetings to visualize where they want their chapters to be. It's like any franchise model: it's nice to have that kind of coverage. I think they're doing an incredible amount compared to when the IAFP and the ICFP were around. From a technology standpoint, just giving them, even if it's just over the Internet, a place to have conversations, to try to give them a sense that they're part of a bigger community. FPA started a training program for chapter leaders last year that's going to help in that process as well. So yes, national conventions, as great as they are, touch a small percentage of the overall membership.

But of course that takes money, and I know that FPA has had budget cuts. Are you finished with those cuts? And has it helped you to prioritize? Yeske: Well, there's good news and bad news. The board and management have spent a lot of time reexamining everything we're doing. At the macro level, you think "We must be doing some stuff that we can drop, some stuff that's low priority." As we go back and look at it, we're finding very little that we are doing that doesn't seem like a core activity, that doesn't seem extremely important. That's the good news. It means that over the last three or four years, we've actually done a good job at identifying the best use of our resources. The fact is, money is tight, and so it's been less about hacking away at incentives, and more about trying to be continuously trying to be more efficient and trying to do more with less. Sometimes that means partnering better with our local chapters, and sometimes that means using technology more efficiently. I'll leave it at that.

Jetton: We are financial planners, so thinking and talking about money is something we actually enjoy doing. We have had to apply some of those very same principles that we use in our relationship with our clients to our own financial process. We've spent the last couple of years developing a financial philosophy for FPA that reflects and mirrors our primary aim and core values. We are not going to necessarily stop doing something just because it's not a revenue generator if it's in perfect alignment with our primary aim and our purpose for existing. On the other hand, we agree that we're not going to run our organization into the ground. The pain's not over. We are more interested in controlling expenses and to finding ways to increase retention in our members and attract new members of all sorts, and put more tension on the revenue side as well as expense side.

Barry: I don't know if cuts will continue or not, but we'll do whatever we have to do to keep the organization financially sound, and yet have it be as vibrant and exciting a place to be as we possibly can.

Specifically though, you've added William DeReuter in your Washington office (as assistant director of government relations). That would seem to indicate you're beefing up the FPA's presence on Capitol Hill. I know you don't do lobbying there... Yeske: I'm not sure I would say that. We have a full-time Washington office with a staff of four right now. And we take government relations very seriously. We see it as one of our primary responsibilities, one of the ways that we serve our members and serve the profession.

Barry: Even some of our biggest detractors freely admit that one thing that we do a phenomenal job on is government relations.

What about on the education side? You recently hired Robert Powell [as a "contracted content strategist"]. Is he the replacement for Bud Elsea [former director of education]? Yeske: No.

Jetton: That's really a new position. He'll be working in the virtual education area and coordinating education instead of being focused strictly on events.

Barry: If you look at Success Forum last year, we had about 3,000 attendees, and a couple hundred more at Retreat. That's great, but that's 3,200 people out of 29,000 [members]. One of the issues we had to deal with is that people in event management, people like Bud, were responsible for educational content for national meetings, which was a big job just in itself. So relying on someone in that role to also be responsible for making sure there was a level of commonality in how we deliver education and through as many channels as we possibly could . . .well, it was a job that was beyond one person.

Jetton: Regarding education, we want to do more than deliver information. We want to find ways to deliver information that becomes knowledge and wisdom in the hands of our members.

Yeske: Last week, for instance, I participated in a virtual seminar that FPA hosted on the new tax law. Immediately after the seminar ended, it migrated to a conversation space online. It was an extremely active online dialogue that flowed naturally from the presentation. We've been focusing on continuity, so that things that get developed in one of our meetings, like Retreat, can be carried forward into the virtual space, nurtured, and then reflected again at physical gatherings like Success Forum.

With 29,000 members, at any given time you're going to have some people who are unhappy, some getting out of the group, or others coming in. So it must be a challenge to know what direction to move into. Yeske: That's the beauty of being the facilitator of the conversation. We don't own the conversation. We believe in a democracy of ideas. So the best ideas are going to survive if they are given the widest exposure and people discuss them.

Jetton: The stand we took for FPA, with Bob's wisdom and guidance, was to shift our membership to taking a stand behind the CFP mark. For us, that's a means to an end. We want to promote exquisite financial planning and to give the public a way to know how to find exquisite financial planning. It's the financial planning association, not the financial planner association.

Is the future pretty rosy for the FPA? Barry: Absolutely. I don't know how we can go wrong. If we go forward without fear, if we have clarity with respect to our organizational values and visions, and if we are not trying to impose some hidden agenda, then there is nothing to fear. It's about what is going to surface from the community: Collective wisdom is something I believe you can count on. But you also have to create the environment so that wisdom can emerge, and that is what we are focused on.

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