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Advocacy--Numero Uno???

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Recently, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors’ board of trustees circulated a report on their ongoing strategic plan among their local and state associations. It is my understanding that an array of task forces will soon begin work to implement recommendations embodied in the plan. Based on some of the feedback they are getting, implementation may be a bit premature.

Executing plans based on false premises is not likely to produce desired results. Or, as Leo Futia and Alan Press often said, “There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”

I have problems with parts of the report and the conclusions reached. Perhaps the main concern I have with the report is its overemphasis on “advocacy” as the core product of NAIFA and the key to its rebuilding process. There is no question that legislative effectiveness, or advocacy, is very important–but it is not the glue that holds us together. Advocacy is more dependent upon a large membership than any other NAIFA program.

I remember a meeting in Baton Rouge, La., about 25 years ago between then Senate Finance Committee Chairman Richard Russell, D-La., and about 12 CEOs of our major companies. Tom Wolff, then president of the National Association of Life Underwriters, and I were invited to attend the meeting as well, for the purpose of the meeting was to discuss legislative issues affecting the entire insurance business. In the course of the meeting, Senator Russell said he appreciated the help and support he received from the companies–but the best support in the legislative arena came from the agents, who had people working in every community in the country.

It was a bit of a shock to some of the CEOs present, but they paid attention, and some went home bent on organizing their own agents for legislative activities. But Sen. Russell was clear in his message that numbers count. Advocacy depends on membership, not the other way around. The companies present had lots of money, lawyers and influence, but they lacked the numbers.

I would never minimize the value of advocacy, but it did not build or maintain the structure that enabled growth of NALU (now NAIFA) to 140,000 plus members in its almost 900 local associations. It is true that lawyers who executed much of our legislative agenda were always the stars at any meeting of the association, and we showcased them to the fullest.

But it was our field service and public relations departments that built and nourished the structure that created the membership and held on to it. That structure is now malnourished. As NAIFA resources have dwindled in past years, resources have been drained from other activities to retain a high level of legislative activities.

A high level of legislative activity is helpful in selling initial membership to NAIFA, much like the way we motivate people to buy life insurance. But most legislation we fear affects primarily producers working in the most sophisticated markets. The average producer often loses interest in the subject and may drop out if that is all there is.

A case in point may help us understand the issue. Around 1980, the Federal Trade Commission issued a very damaging report regarding whole life insurance–then the industry’s core product. Under the leadership of then NALU President Tom Wolff and the American Council of Life Insurers, we went to Congress to curb activities of the FTC that we felt were inaccurate and injurious to the business. We won the issue and it was a great legislative victory. Soon afterward, membership suffered the worst drop in history up to that point.

The main damage to the business came from a hostile media that trumpeted the negatives of the report to the world. Perennial gadfly Norman Dacey, appearing on the Phil Donahue Show, stated that the only useful purpose of a whole life policy was to “line the bottom of a birdcage.” Thanks to the PR departments of Prudential and NALU, Bob Beck and Tom Wolff were able to rebut criticism on a subsequent Donahue show.

What the field service department of NAIFA did best for the association was to build the leadership that comprised the structure for growth. Association execs were also trained in ways to more effectively manage association affairs. I still get an occasional invitation to speak at a local or state association meeting, and the differences between a well-led and a poorly led association are stark. The differences lie mostly in the way meetings are promoted or conducted. Sending out an email to local members announcing an upcoming meeting is not, in my view, promotion of a meeting.

I remember the last time I spoke at the Austin, Texas, association meeting as an example of true professional leadership. For weeks before my scheduled appearance, I received letters (10 in all) from their members expressing appreciation for my coming to their town and extending a warm welcome. The meeting itself was conducted with precision and style and the speaker introduction was unique and effective. I really felt good just being a part of such a happening. Austin was NALU Past President Bart Hodges’ home association, and knowing Bart as a great proponent of public relations, I am sure this was part of his legacy.

I know that I am not the only voice that does not agree with the directions advocated by the strategic plan as it now stands. I urge the NAIFA board to stop and listen carefully before moving ahead.


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