The National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors has unveiled a strategic plan that aims to reverse a years-long decline in the organization’s membership and maintain its financial solvency. Dubbed “NAIFA in the 21st Century,” the plan calls on the 117-year-old organization, headquartered in Falls Church, Va., to strengthen its legislative and regulatory advocacy, create new products and services and deliver solutions to members “on demand” using wireless and computer technologies.

The blueprint additionally envisions a marketing program to showcase NAIFA’s new products and services. Beginning in September 2008, membership in NAIFA’s 719 local associations will also be optional for some 62,000 life insurance professionals.

The plan will be put to a vote of NAIFA’s National Council in September 2007, when members meet at NAIFA’s annual convention in Washington, D.C.

“What our members want is training, continuing education and sales ideas, but they also want convenience of access to this content,” says NAIFA CEO David Woods. “They don’t want to have to wait for the next local association meeting or the next issue of Advisor Today [NAIFA's monthly magazine]. They want it now.”

Underpinning Woods’ comments is research from Ketchum Inc., a New York-based public relations firm that conducted qualitative (focus group) and quantitative (online and telephone) surveys of NAIFA members, recently lapsed members and prospective members to determine their attitudes and needs. According to a white paper issued in tandem with a January 22 press release on the plan, Ketchum determined that NAIFA has “not kept pace” with changes in the life insurance industry.

That inattention has prompted a growing number of insurance professionals to view the organization as “irrelevant and archaic.” And it has resulted in a 50%-plus drop in membership during the last 14 years. If NAIFA’s rolls continue to decline at a 2% annual clip, the organization (absent program or staff cutbacks) will have spent its reserves and be insolvent by 2011, according to the white paper.

To reverse course, the strategic plan advocates that NAIFA adopt a “customer focus” on behalf of its members; create “customer value” by expanding its advocacy, training, education and network initiatives; and deliver new offerings “on demand” to an increasingly mobile advisor community. To that end, the plan also calls on NAIFA to collaborate with other industry organizations.

“We had been so concerned about saving NAIFA for the past dozen years that we had lost focus on our members–our customers,” says Woods. “By adopting a customer focus, we not only serve our members, we also save NAIFA. The big test will be whether membership increases over the next 2 or 3 years.”

Woods adds that specifics on the plan will be forthcoming in the months leading up to the September conference. NAIFA’s board of trustees, which approved the plan and will seek its ratification by NAIFA’s national council at the organization’s September convention, has created 5 strategic planning task forces–advocacy, education and sales training; networking; marketing and communications; and technology–to analyze and develop tactics around the plan goals.

NAIFA also plans to contract with a communications management firm (still to be determined) to promote the strategic plan and any components that will have been implemented. Part 1 of a marketing and membership plan is expected to get underway in April. Part 2–including components focusing on NAIFA’s image, increasing awareness and implementation of the plan–will begin in September.

Reactions to the strategic plan among NAIFA’s state and local associations have been mixed. Tom Dyer, president of NAIFA-Indianapolis and a principal of Indianapolis-based Heritage Advisory Group, sees the initiative as a big plus. By combining continuing education at the local level with national-sponsored events like webinars, he says, NAIFA will be able to “compete head-to-head” with other organizations serving financial advisors, including the Financial Planning Association and the Society of Financial Service Professionals.

But other association leaders contacted by National Underwriter questioned the wisdom of making local membership voluntary.

“Our board is stunned and disappointed to see NAIFA take this strategy,” says Sharon Heierman, CEO of the Florida AIFA, based in Tallahassee. “The local association leaders, which recruit most of our new members, are NAIFA’s strongest assets. Why should they continue to push for membership and work as hard as they do when [National] obviously doesn’t think they’re important enough to keep around any more?”

Cecelia Pierson, secretary/treasurer and chapter executive of NAIFA-Lafayette Indiana, echoes this sentiment, adding that optional membership would render her association unable to cover local event costs. “If membership becomes voluntary, then we lose funds to pay for lunch and a lunch speaker at our half-day seminars,” she says. “We desperately need that local funding.”

But proponents view the change as necessary to weed out local associations that are underperforming because of a failure of leadership or because they’re based in areas lacking in NAIFA members. Optional membership, say supporters, should spur a consolidation of chapters, with the strongest of them emerging better positioned to deliver value to NAIFA members.

“In too many cases, weak local associations act as a barrier, rather than an inducement, to membership,” says Woods. “By challenging local associations to be relevant, dynamic, inventive and creative, we think we’ll encourage the development of stronger associations and enhance membership.”

Adds Marcia Pierce, executive director of NAIFA-Midlands of South Carolina: “If you’re running a business, you have to produce a product that people want in order to survive. And our locals shouldn’t be any different. They should deliver a measurable product that attracts members and that members are willing to pay for.”