I recently received a packet in the mail from the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC), which appears to be a “politically conservative” alternative to the AARP. It seems that some folks believe that the AARP sometimes uses its position of representing the interests of millions of “senior” Americans to support political agendas that may or may not be in the best interests of its constituents. I haven’t looked into the political positions of the AARP recently, but as a senior citizen (who isn’t a member of either organization), I find it unfortunate that my demographic age group, with its unique interests and needs, may find our political clout diminished by its inability to speak with one voice in Washington. 

By now, many of you will have heard about the letter sent out Monday to the membership of NAPFA by that organization’s chairman, Bob Gerstemeier, and its CEO, Geoff Brown (see Charles Paikert’s story on Financial-Planning.com). In the letter, the duo announced that NAPFA is considering moving the location of its October annual conference out of Indianapolis, in response to Indiana’s new law, the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Now, I’m not going to use this forum to spout my political opinions (although I maybe the only journalist in America who feels any such constraints): that’s not what this blog is about. But I have written many times before about my belief that it’s a big mistake for industry associations to take political positions unless it’s on financial issues that affect the markets, the economy, and/or the well-being of advisory clients (such as the fiduciary standard debate).

Consequently, I can’t help but feel that NAPFA is asking for trouble. 

Gerstemeier and Brown’s letter stated that Indiana’s Religious Freedom and Restoration Act has been “openly cited as the legalization of discrimination against lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered individuals in the state of Indiana … We are extremely concerned about [the Indiana law’s] potential impact on the LGBT community. We are reviewing our event contracts and considering the impact this bill will have on our fall conference. We want to affirm our commitment that every member should experience our conference without fear of discrimination.” 

While the sentiment to protect its members from discrimination is worthy, NAPFA’s first problem is that it’s position seems to be based primarily on media speculation (“openly cited”), and (“potential impact”), rather than an existing threat. But its bigger problem is that when it comes to politics, there’s rarely a “right answer.” Yes, the civil rights of all Americans are a serious issue. So are our religious rights. When they conflict, that’s a job for our courts to sort out, as they did with Sen. Chuck Schumer’s federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

It’s not a job for the NAPFA board. By taking a political position on an issue such as this—one without any financial basis—NAPFA runs the risk of alienating at least half of its members, and probably a lot more (in every poll I’ve seen, a large majority of financial planners identify themselves as politically “conservative.”) A quick perusal of some industry discussion boards seems to bear this out: comments appear to be running at least 3 to one against NAPFA’s position.  One of the sterner rebukes came in an open email to Geoff Brown by NAPFA cofounder and former member Jim Schwartz.

“NAPFA was founded as a professional organization. Period…NAPFA’s self-serving leadership and bureaucracy has taken its eye off the ball—and certainly been ineffective relative to fiduciary standards. But now what the [expletive deleted] is NAPFA doing relative to this Indiana law, which has nothing to do with fiduciary disclosure nor being a professional organization by thinking of changing the venue for the national conference? (Please don’t even try the stretch of root causes, moral equivalency, etc. If you want to do that, run for elected political office). Really, does NAPFA have so little to offer that it now has to get attention like this: by changing the conference venue? NAPFA has morphed into nothing but a marketing trade association. Obsolete to its founding mission, and now desperate for attention and relevancy, NAPFA now has to go far afield to be politically correct (i.e., considering changing its conference venue in response to Indiana’s law – regardless of its merits or demerits).” 

Ouch. Harsh? To be sure. Yet, this is exactly the kind of response industry groups are likely to get when they venture into politics, where people have strong feelings and few reservations about voicing them.

Far better to leave the politics to the politicians. And if one of your members actually becomes a victim of discrimination, take action and stick up for her/him then: that way you’ll be the hero, rather than the goat. And you won’t run the risk of some financial planners feeling the need for two fee-only organizations—or two FPAs, or two NAIFAs, or two CFP Boards, etc.—reducing the clout of the entire profession.