Since the merger of the IAFP and the ICFP over 14 years ago, the FPA has faced trying times. Amidst a backdrop of aging advisor demographics, a growing tide of retirees, and a declining total headcount of financial advisors, the FPA has never managed to grow materially beyond its peak membership on the day it was born, and since the 2008 recession has suffered a 17% decline in membership and a 36% decline in revenue.
Yet the number of CFP certificants has nearly doubled since 2000, and the FPA’s failure to grow actually marks a drastic decline from having over 50% of all CFP certificants as members to under 25% of them, leading in turn to a significant loss in its power and standing as an organization.
The FPA’s mysterious inability to grow despite the tremendous growth of its target market seems to stem from a battle between the legacy of the IAFP and ICFP that still rages on, with the FPA moving close enough to the ICFP’s “CFP-centric” worldview to alienate non-CFPs, yet not close enough to be a beacon of advocacy and success for CFP professionals.
The end result: while 10 years ago the FPA still had enough strength and momentum to sue the SEC and win in pursuit of its advocacy goals for financial planning, now the FPA’s power has waned to the point that it defers to the CFP Board on key issues for certificants. When the CFP Board launched a career center to compete with the FPA’s own Job Board the FPA congratules the CFP Board!
Ultimately, the FPA’s inability to honor its own bylaws and its founding Memorandum of Intent, and the organization’s struggle to focus effectively to champion and advocate on behalf of CFP certificants—or even control their own advocacy efforts and messaging among the leadership and the chapters—raises the fundamental question of why it’s even necessary to have a standalone membership association separate from the CFP Board that grants the marks.
Would CFP certificants be better served by going from paying two organizations to only one, with the CFP Board functioning as both the credentialing body for CFP professionals and their membership organization as well, as is done in many other countries around the world?
Of course, longstanding CFP certificants have witnessed the CFP Board engage in many of its own blunders over the years, and an outside membership association for CFP certificants can be an effective (even crucial) form of checks and balances against the CFP Board. Yet the FPA has increasingly failed to execute this key role, and the FPA’s ongoing loss in power has been the CFP Board’s gain.
As the FPA becomes weaker, is the CFP Board becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to chip away at the FPA’s sources of members and revenue and professional impact, potentially accelerating the FPA’s demise? Will the FPA be able to step up and grow its market share of CFP certificants to regain its former power before it’s too late? Or has the FPA already lost too much focus and momentum, and made itself irrelevant for too many CFP certificants?
What Is the Membership Association for CFP Certificants?
If you ask the average CFP certificant “as a CFP professional, what is the membership association that represents you and advocates on your behalf” you’d be surprisingly hard pressed to find a clear and consistent answer.
Many might name the CFP Board, though in point of fact the CFP Board is not actually a 501(c)(6) membership association, but a 501(c)(3) charitable organization whose mission and purpose is to benefit the public by granting the CFP marks and maintaining their standards. The CFP Board grants the CFP certification and is the owner of the associated trademark, but functions closer to a regulato” of CFP certificants (as an overseer of the use of the CFP trademark) than a membership association representing them.
In fact, given some of the CFP Board’s recent enforcement actions, arguably the whole point of having a membership association for CFP certificants would be to specifically represent the interests of CFP professionals against the CFP Board when its policies go awry!
If it’s not the CFP Board, the next logical answer for the membership association for CFP certificants might be the Financial Planning Association (FPA), which arose from the merger in 2000 of the former International Association of Financial Planning (IAFP) and the Institute for Certified Financial Planners (ICFP). At that time, the ICFP was effectively the membership association for CFP certificants, while the IAFP was a broader organization open to anyone who wished to do or support financial planning (regardless of designation).
The merger was intended to bring some of the size and capabilities (and dollars) of the IAFP to the profession-building focus of the ICFP, consolidating their power, dollars and numbers to advocate on behalf of the profession while simplifying the number of membership organizations to which financial planners belonged. At the time of the merger, the FPA was nearly 30,000 members strong.
Yet over the past 14 years, despite a clear Memorandum of Intent created to facilitate the merger and endow the subsequent direction and vision of the organization, the FPA has failed stunningly to grow into its role as the membership association for CFP certificants and those who support them.
The FPA’s Declining Market Share of CFP Professionals
Since the merger, the FPA’s total membership headcount declined, from a peak at the merger of almost 30,000 to only about 23,000 now. On the one hand, this might be forgivable given that the overall number of financial advisors has declined a little over 10% (as estimated by Cerulli) over that time period.
Yet this decline in the FPA’s membership count has also come during a time where the number of CFP certificants has nearly doubled (from about 36,000 to over 70,000), and the percentage of financial advisors who have CFP certification has more than doubled from about 11% to 23%, as the number of CFP certificants rose as the total number of advisors has declined.
As a result, the FPA’s estimated market share of the CFP certificants it purportedly represents, which should be its core membership, has plummeted from 50% to under 25%. Only about 17,500 of the FPA’s 23,000 members have their CFP certification today (the rest being students, international members, affiliated professionals, and a small number of non-CFP financial advisors), out of a total of more than 70,000 CFP professionals.
By contrast, if the FPA had merely maintained its percentage of CFP certificants since the merger, and did no more than hitch its wagon to the CFP Board’s growth engine for the past 14 years, the association would/should be more than double its current size, with upwards of 50,000 members. To be merely flat in membership since 2000 would actually indicate a significant loss of market share, while the actual decline in membership since 2000 represents a dramatic step backwards in the power of the organization since the merger!
Where Did the FPA Go Wrong?
So given what appeared to be a relatively clear focus for the FPA at the time of the merger, what happened?
In the early years, the FPA (and especially its board) maintained a strong ICFP focus, notably spinning off the old IAFP broker-dealer division into the newly spawned Financial Services Institute in 2003 so the FPA could focus on financial planning issues. The FPA’s early momentum culminated in 2004 when it sued the SEC over the broker-dealer exemption for fee-based accounts (colloquially known as the “Merrill Lynch” rule), and industry articles at the time were declaring that the ICFP’s profession-building CFP-centric focus were winning the contest for the FPA’s soul.
The FPA’s lawsuit turned out to be a resounding victory, as the organization not only sued the SEC but won the lawsuit 3 years later. In turn, this forced broker-dealers that wanted their advisors to get paid investment management fees while providing ongoing advice to actually become registered as investment advisors, preventing broker-dealers from charging fiduciary-like fees without any fiduciary duty, and spawning the explosive rise in hybrid B-D/RIAs over the past decade or so.
Yet in the midst of its incredible forward momentum in being the membership association for CFP certificants as a burgeoning profession, the FPA started to come under criticism. Some suggested that the board of directors was becoming too RIA- (and former ICFP-member) centric, and needed to be less ICFP-homogeneous. Others asked whether the FPA’s CFP-centric focus was preventing its growth, since total membership had remained stagnant for several years, though arguably that was inevitable early on as the merged organization found its footing). Still others wondered whether the FPA needed to do a better job drawing in non-CFPs and other various allied/affiliated professionals.
As a result, the composition of the FPA board of directors began to shift, the organization began to adopt a more IAFP-style big tent philosophy (anyone who values financial planning is welcome under the tent, with less focus specifically on CFP certificants), with the unfortunate outcome that even as the FPA won the lawsuit with the SEC, the victory may have marked the zenith of FPA’s power (and its membership count), both of which have been waning ever since as its focus has wandered.
The problem with this “swinging of the pendulum” back towards the IAFP in the mid-2000s is that it left the FPA in a deadly no-man’s land for membership. The organization was too CFP-centric to attract non-CFP financial advisors who didn’t feel welcome (they represent only about 5% of total membership today). It also backed too far away from its CFP-centric messaging to be a beacon for some CFP certificants who were turned off by the low bar necessary to become a member (driving down CFP market share from over 50% to under 25%).
The end result? By trying to adjust its membership requirements to the lowest common denominator, the FPA has simultaneously become less appealing for CFP certificants and non-CFPs as well, and thus membership has been in decline, despite the fact that it was intended to be the membership association for a base of CFP certificants that has doubled over the same time period. Yes, some have suggested that FPA’s fiduciary positioning may have cost it some members, but it’s difficult to see how given that the CFP Board adopted its own fiduciary standard in 2008 and has continued to grow throughout.
FPA Bylaws and a Return to CFP Centricity… In Name Only?
In a seeming acknowledgement of its problem—and how far the pendulum had swung in the wrong direction—the FPA “recommitted” in 2012 to its ICFP roots, and ICFP-founder P. Kemp Fain’s vision of “one profession, one designation,” as incoming CEO Lauren Schadle took the reins.
On the one hand, the fact that the FPA had to “recommit” to this vision at all is somewhat stunning, as part of the legacy of the merger Memorandum of Intent was the ICFP’s codification of the FPA’s CFP-centricity into the bylaws of the organization itself.
Article II of the FPA’s bylaws state (and have since the merger):
Section 2.1. The purposes of the Association shall be to serve the needs of its members and to establish the value of financial planning and the success of the financial planning profession. This Association is organized exclusively for one or more of the purposes as specified in Section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986.
Section 2.1.1. The thrust of FPA’s message to the public will be that everyone needs objective advice to make smart financial decisions and that when seeking the advice of a financial planner, the planner should be a CFP licensee.
Section 2.1.2. The thrust of FPA’s message to the financial services industry will be that all those who support the financial planning process are valued equally as members in FPA and that anyone holding themselves out as a financial planner should seek the attainment of the CFP mark. FPA will commit to assisting financial planners who are interested in pursuing the CFP designation.
Section 2.1.3. FPA will proactively advocate the legislative, regulatory and other interests of financial planning and of CFP licensees. FPA will encourage input from all of its members in developing its advocacy agenda. It is the intent of FPA not to take a legislative or regulatory advocacy position that is in conflict with the interests of CFP licensees who hold themselves out to the public as financial planners.
Saying that “anyone holding themselves out as a financial planner should seek the attainment of the CFP mark” while also allowing as members anyone else who supports the financial planning process – was not only written into the bylaws, but would be almost impossible to change, as Section 17.1 of the bylaws states: “…any amendment or repeal of the Organization’s purposes, as outlined in Article II, shall require ratification through an affirmative vote of at least a majority of the individual members of the FPA…” In other words, to the extent that the FPA in the mid-2000s wanted to become less CFP-centric in its focus, it was operating in violation of its own bylaws by shifting its focus without securing a majority vote of the membership.
Yet despite the FPA’s recommitment to what its bylaws already said it was, and a partial rebranding of the FPA towards a “One FPA” theme (One Profession, One Designation), since Schadle’s announcement of the FPA’s renewed focus upon becoming CEO in 2012 (and a rather negative “blasting” response from American College CEO Larry Barton), the FPA has taken virtually no public positions and statements declaring itself to be the primary membership association for CFP certificants, and taken no significant public positions advocating on their behalf to the CFP Board. Their “CFP centric” return appears to be reflected only on its own website, and is far more difficult to observe in its deeds and public advocacy.
In fact, in its recent “Advocacy Day In Washington DC”, the FPA focused all of its efforts lobbying legislators on Capitol Hill, and embarrassingly forgot to include the DC-based CFP Board itself on the list of organizations to visit regarding advocacy in Washington, despite the ongoing challenges for CFP certificants regarding compensation disclosures! In other words, the FPA has declared that it is an advocacy organization on behalf of CFP certificants, but apparently saw no need to advocate with the very organization that oversees their CFP marks (despite plenty of recent CFP Board challenges and issues to advocate about).
The FPA and the CFP Board: Checks and Balances
The fact that the FPA has not viewed the CFP Board as an organization to which it should lobby and advocate raises a crucial fundamental question about its very reason for being. After all, what’s the point of having two organizations, the FPA and the CFP Board, if not so they can serve as a system of checks and balances against each other? Couldn’t the profession have more efficiency, and generate more political clout on behalf of the profession with legislators and (other) regulators if the roles were merged into one? (Not to mention, being less expensive for CFP certificants who don’t have to pay two fees to two organizations.)
The Australian “FPA” fills both roles. There is no separation of membership and credentialing, allowing the organization to advocate directly to regulators as both the credentialing organization and the membership association. The Australian FPA has played a key lobbying role over the past several years as Australian regulators have rolled out their “Future of Financial Advice” (FoFA) reforms.
For members of the financial planning community here in the US, the answer to the question “Why not just merge the FPA and CFP Board into one organization?” quickly comes back to the fact that the CFP Board has a long and unfortunate history of engaging in blunders from time to time, for which the FPA (and its predecessor organizations) can sometimes play a key advocacy role in getting the CFP Board back on the right track. Yet when the FPA refuses to take a public position on key issues to represent CFP certificants to the CFP Board, it raises the question of whether the FPA is simply making itself irrelevant and is becoming redundant as a membership association.
The FPA’s Waning Power as an Advocate for CFP Professionals
To some extent, it’s not entirely surprising that the FPA has been less willing to push the CFP Board on advocacy issues pertaining to CFP certificants, since it doesn’t have a lot of power to advocate with as the FPA’s own clout has waned dramatically while its share of CFP certificants declines. If the FPA had kept pace with the growth in CFP certificants itself, and had 40,000-50,000 of them as members, it would be hard for the CFP Board to ignore. Since the FPA has failed to take up the mantle for CFP certificants and its market share has fallen to fewer than 25% of CFP certificants as members, its role as a check-and-balance power to the CFP Board is coming undone, and the balance of power is shifting to the CFP Board.
The rapid decline in FPA’s power has been astonishing, especially given the recent compensation issues of the CFP Board. The FPA could have taken the situation as a renewed opportunity to reassert itself as being relevant in representing CFP certificants to the CFP Board and embolden its CFP advocacy brand, especially on behalf of its members working at broker-dealers who may have been slighted by the compensation disclosure debacle but are not comfortable confronting the CFP Board directly. Instead the FPA deferred entirely to the CFP Board about when to have “the talk” about its recent compensation disclosure issues (and given that the CFP Board has insisted there is no problem to talk about, is tantamount to the FPA just looking the other away and ignoring the issue altogether).