“Agents are the true miracle merchants,” said Phillip Richards, CEO of Nortstar Resource Group, Minneapolis, speaking at the Million Dollar Round Table’s annual conference here, June 13-17. “To devote one’s life and career to lightening the load of others is truly a noble calling.”

Such inspirational words were in abundance at MDRT’s 2010 annual meeting. The gathering was a mix of motivation, entertainment and education about insurance techniques and best practices.

Richards, a 2005 inductee into the GAMA International Hall of Fame, was among a number of other luminaries, including John Foley, a former lead solo pilot of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels squadron; Maria Shapiro, a physician and host of “Balance,” a talk show on Canada’s CTV channel; and Mark Johnson, founder of Playing for Change, a movement that promotes global unity through music.

In all, the conference’s 6,000-plus attendees were treated to some 99 speakers, covering such diverse topics as protection, retirement, practice management, sales, marketing, and the “whole person”–MDRT’s curriculum on how to thrive both personally and professionally.

The Vancouver conference also served as a showcase for a number of new MDRT initiatives, including a new way to qualify for membership in the association, which represents less than 1% of the world’s top life insurance and financial services professionals.

To capture the growing community of fee-only advisors, MDRT is allowing prospective members to apply for membership during its 2010-2011 fiscal year based on their fee income. Set at $150,000, the qualifying compensation would be based on 2010 production and derived in part from advisory services for the purchase of insurance products.

“The purpose here is to provide agents and advisors who no longer are receiving commissions with a way to qualify for membership,” said outgoing MDRT President Guy Baker. “The shift to fee-only income is happening in the U.K. and Australia. Given the Congressional debate about extending a fiduciary standard to broker-dealers in the U.S., it could happen here.”

The minimum thresholds for the two other qualifying methods, commissions and premiums, remain unchanged. Membership in the 2010 and 2011 Round Table is based on a minimum of $87,900 of eligible commissions paid or $175,800 paid premium credited to the agent’s account.

Also unchanged is MDRT’s phase-in of the World Bank’s purchasing power parity index, which allows it to equalize the different currencies for membership requirements worldwide. The organization’s members consist of 31,000 life insurance and financial services professionals from 84 countries and territories and 491 companies.

U.S. inductees, still the largest contingent, comprise just over 11,200 advisors, or about 36% of the total.

In part due to the recent recession, a shake-up in the ordering of the global cast of characters has also been underway. South Korea in 2009 retained the number two spot in the top 10 countries by membership (with 5,293 members), while India, with 3,922 members, displaced Japan, with 3,257 members, as number three. China moved up to eighth from tenth place over the same period.

The growing presence of Asia within MDRT’s ranks is a key reason the association sees much of its growth potential in the Pacific Rim. Thus, the organization plans to hold an “MDRT Experience” meeting in February 2011 in Singapore, where aspiring members will enjoy a mini-version of the annual U.S. meeting over two days.

To buttress its recruiting efforts, the association is also partnering with sister organizations, say MDRT execs. They include the Asia Pacific Financial Service Association (APFinFSA), the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, GAMA International, and the American College.

“Our goal is to build alliances with organizations in various geographic areas that have relationships and influence with advisors who could potentially become MDRT members,” said Baker.

MDRT and NAIFA are developing joint programs for their members that will get underway in several U.S. metro areas starting in the fourth quarter, said incoming President Julian Good. Similar collaborative programming has already resulted from MDRT’s partnership with APFinFSA, which has 11 member countries.

The partnership with GAMA–an association of general agents, managers and others in agency leadership positions–is key to revamping MDRT’s mentoring program, Good said. Pairing MDRT members with aspirants, the plan aims to help young and inexperienced producers reach MDRT production requirements for admission.

The existing program didn’t gain much traction, Good conceded, in part because of a fee requirement but also because of its U.S. focus. When launched in 2011, the initiative is expected to have greater appeal for international members. And enrollment will be free.

“The program will be redesigned to be more flexible, universal and accessible worldwide,” said Good. “With assistance from GAMA, MDRT will provide the program content, but participants will be able to customize the curriculum.”

There is also an educational focus to the group’s alliance with the American College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., which is helping to develop multimedia content for informal study groups. Unofficially dubbed MDRT Institute, the curriculum would impart sales ideas and best practices to participants.

Whether the various alliances can reverse the decline in MDRT’s membership remains to be seen. Its 2009 membership of over 31,000 is down 11% from 35,000 in 2007. U.S. membership has dipped even more sharply, down 40% from the 2007 total of nearly 14,000.

“Boosting association membership is not just MDRT’s challenge; it’s the country’s challenge,” said Good. “If you go to a local Rotary Club meeting, I guarantee you that its membership will be down from what it used to be.

“A generational shift is taking place. We need to figure out how to pull in the younger advisors. We’re making a major financial commitment to this effort, which is extremely important to our future.”

But that commitment is constrained by a continuing fiscal austerity governing MDRT’s finances. Baker said the association instituted budgetary controls in 2008 to account for an anticipated 8.2% reduction in revenue stemming from the drop in membership. The steps are bearing fruit, however: MDRT recognized a $2.6 million gain in the year past after suffering a $4.3 million loss in 2008.

To rebuild its ranks, MDRT is targeting young advisors. The average MDRT conventioneer is 57 years old, which is in line with that of other industry organizations. One challenge with recruiting younger advisors is that many among the generation X and Y crowd are disinclined to attend industry events, favoring instead professional development content available online, observed Good.

Hence, MDRT moved in recent years to move educational resources onto its web site. Its redesigned site boasts streaming audio and video; workshops delivered via webcasts; an online video club offering recordings of past conference sessions; and live broadcasts delivered via MDRTV. Also unveiled in Vancouver is MDRT 365, a portal offering resources to assist with boomer retirement planning.

A second challenge for MDRT is the increasing fragmentation of the advisor community. Gone are the days when career agents employed by such firms as New York Life, Northwestern Mutual and Prudential Financial accounted for most of its members. Today, most advisors are independent, making it more difficult to reach them through marketing campaigns.

“And yet the need for professional development has never been greater,” said Good. “That’s because most independent advisors no longer enjoy the training and support of the career agency system.”