As I sat down for an interview with the president-elect of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors during NAIFA’s annual meeting in Seattle this month, one question was top of mind: How can the organization stay relevant as a force on Capitol Hill and in the states when its membership has been declining–and when a significant percentage of the association’s rank-and-file are not engaged in issues that are critical to their futures?

Others evidently share this concern. Michael Kerley–a senior VP of federal government relations at NAIFA, whose retirement after 41 years of service to the organization was announced during NAIFA’s kick-off general session on September 12–told the 2,000 assembled conventioneers that every citizen has the right to speak on public policy issues. But, quoting Jack Bobo–a former NAIFA president and retired NU columnist–you have to earn the right to be taken seriously.

Translation: Life insurance agents have to actively participate in, and financially support, NAIFA’s legislative agenda. Otherwise, the organization will lose political muscle and the authority to speak for the profession. Kerley directed his message to the attending NAIFA members, but he could also have been speaking to the estimated 200,000 agents who are not–and should be–NAIFA members.

Since NAIFA’s ranks hit a peak of 143,000+ in the early 1990s, its membership has steadily declined by about 5% annually, dipping to approximately 50,250 life agents for the 2010 fiscal year that ended June 30th. Only a few years ago, when former CEO David Woods announced the NAIFA 21 Strategic Plan, which called (among other things) for growing the organization’s membership rolls to 100,000, the total stood at approximately 65,000. And yet, the number has moved in the opposite direction.

NAIFA President-elect Terry Headley expressed confidence, however, that the hemorrhaging is almost over. He noted during our interview the organization has renewed membership for a progressively larger percentage of its base each year. In 2009-2010, NAIFA reintroduced to its ranks nearly 10,000 lapsed members out of more than 55,000 producers contacted.

Headley said the goal of boosting membership by 10% annually is well within NAIFA’s reach. To this end, he added, NAIFA has expanded its recruitment efforts at the local, state and national level, and it is spearheading strategic initiatives with the Million Dollar Round Table, the National Association of Independent Life Brokerage Agencies, and NAILBA.

The various outreach efforts are having an impact: NAIFA has increased its market share of the existing agent labor pool. But as Headley acknowledged, NAIFA is recruiting from a shrinking pie. Today’s estimated 256,000 life agents is down from 315,000 producers in 2006, according to research firm Ketchum Inc.

But even if the decline in the labor pool stabilizes, NAIFA membership aspirations will meet with other obstacles. Among them: a continuing fragmentation of the agent workforce that makes identifying and marketing to prospective members more difficult; a still uncertain economy, which may dampen agents’ enthusiasm for, and ability to fund, time away from the office for professional development; and a seeming disinclination among young agents entering the profession–Gen Xers and Millennials–to attend industry events.

Without a strong NAIFA, to represent the industry’s legislative needs on issues such as the tax treatment of life insurance and a fiduciary standard for registered reps, the industry’s greatest fears could come to pass–and agents and their clients will suffer the consequences. One can only hope that NAIFA’s membership and advocacy objectives will be realized. But my confidence on this score is, I think, more qualified than the “cautious optimism” Headley evinced during our time together.