OneFPA Network – Project Overkill

The Financial Planning Association has released, today, its updated OneFPA Network proposal—the controversial proposal that I’ve written about before.  The original proposal contained two key initiatives:

1: An attempt to consolidate all the FPA chapters into one entity, and create one bank account that all chapters would use to pay for their operations.  Local chapter staff coordinators would become employees of the FPA’s headquarters rather than the chapters themselves.  Along the way, the national staff would create a new integrated database to share with the chapters. 

This part of the initiative was termed “centralized functionality.”  The theory was that the FPA could be much more efficient if it were one entity instead of 88 chapters all doing their own thing independently of the home office.

2: An attempt to broaden FPA governance by giving chapter officers more say in the strategic direction of the organization, and including them in the selection of prospective members of the national board.  This would be done by creating several new committees made up of (or including for the first time) local chapter leaders.  (How much actual input they would have was up for debate.)

This part of the initiative was termed “participatory governance.”

Amended initiative

The bottom line of this new announcement is that the FPA has amended its initiative due to some fairly blunt feedback from the chapter leadership.  It has backed off of requiring chapters to give up their independent entity status, opting instead for a two-year trial where up to ten volunteer chapters will “beta test” “centralized functionality” for two years.  The only difference that I can see is that during the beta test these chapters will get to maintain their own checkbooks, albeit with coordination and guidance from the FPA national office so that both will have a consistent set of books and the chapters will be following “best practices.”  And there will be a LOT of monitoring.

I’ll get into more details in a minute, including my interview with FPA President Evelyn Zohlen, President-elect Martin Seay and CEO Lauren Schadle, where I asked the questions that I think most FPA members would want answered.  In general, I think this is a much better proposal than the initial one, and I also think this time around the FPA is being much more transparent about what it’s trying to do and how it will do it—and these are things to cheer about.  I think many chapter leaders responded negatively, more to the lack of transparency and the attempt to rush everybody to a decision before they really understood what was being proposed, than to the actual proposals themselves.

But I also think that this whole exercise finally begins to explain something that I’m sure has puzzled a number of my readers. 

How is it possible that the FPA, with all the promise at its launch at the start of this century, has found itself with many fewer members, fewer revenues and (I would argue) much less relevance in the profession after almost 20 years of existence? 

I ask this with a certain level of anger-turning-to-resignation, because I believed so strongly in the merged organization at its creation, and those high expectations have been rudely shattered. 

I believe I now understand how that happened, and it has very much to do with how this whole OneFPA Network initiative has played out.  The question I have now is: will this decline, and the causes of it, continue into the future?  Or will the association’s leadership finally realize that there is something very wrong at the FPA’s core?

Not-so-simple responses to simple requests

How did we get here, and what is now being proposed?

To start at the beginning, it seems clear from an outside consultant’s 2014 report that the FPA chapters were, back then, getting restless about the support they were receiving from headquarters.  The report mentions two types of requests that its researchers were hearing, which one might presume board members had been hearing too, in their off-the-record meetings with chapter leaders:

1) Chapter leaders wanted better technological coordination with the FPA home office—which basically (as far as I can tell from talking with chapter leaders) means a better database.  One chapter leader expressed frustration to me, saying he asked FPA for the contact information of the CFP advisors in his chapter’s region.  And he was incredulous that FPA national was unable to supply him with this.

In addition, and with much less urgency, apparently some FPA chapter leaders were asking if it would be possible for FPA national to handle some of the paperwork that they were having to deal with as independent entities—including tax filings.

2) Chapter leaders complained that they were sometimes blindsided by decisions coming out of the national headquarters, and wanted to be included in the deliberations so they would know what’s coming.  In a perfect world, they would be consulted in a timely fashion about these decisions.

Those, as far as I can tell, were the requests made to national staff and board leadership—five or more years ago.  So I invite my readers to stop here and consider how you would have handled these requests.

Wearing my mentalist’s hat, and intercepting your brain waves, I discover that you would have done the most straightforward thing possible.  You would have set aside money in the budget to create a better database.  There is no shortage of affordable database technology on the market today, so the real cost is making sure that you have good, clean contact information on the CFP planners in the U.S. market, and that somebody on your staff could identify which chapter they would appropriately belong to.  The chapters could tie into this database so that the FPA and chapters locally would know who is and is not a member, and even track interesting additional items like who has attended various meetings or national conferences.

You would also set up some kind of advisory council, made up of chapter leaders, which would be tasked with giving input to the FPA home office leadership about issues facing the chapters.  The council would also communicate,  to chapters, what the FPA board and staff were thinking about in advance of final decisions.

You would do these things sooner rather than later, because chapters are kind of important.

Right? 

Is this what the FPA did?  Far from it.  The FPA took this feedback and created the godawfulest expensive hullaballoo in the history of the planet which, after five long years of debate, consultancy fees, endless staff and board member hours, is still being refined down to something that is still more than what the chapters and members were asking for.

You want to argue that I’m exaggerating?  Instead of creating the database, the FPA spent years designing a much larger initiative that would require the chapters to give up their independent status, give up their own checking accounts, give up employing their own chapter coordinators, and create a variety of committees, advisory councils and liaison councils, one of which will have to seat at least 88 members at its meetings.

I think most of us predicted the ultimate results to this vast, ambitious and slightly creepy overreach.  In my interview with the FPA leadership, Zohlen confirmed the (easily-anticipated) feedback from chapters on all these initiatives that they never asked for in the first place.  After launching a long exhausting listening tour (add this to what I described as a ‘hullaballoo’), she and other board members got an earful.

“We learned that our members and our chapter leaders want to have a greater voice in the association.”  (Which they were told in the first place, five long years ago.  But let’s celebrate that now they’re finally hearing it clearly.)

“We heard over and over again that chapter autonomy is absolutely paramount.  This whole idea of merging into a single legal entity was really abhorrent; that the folks just were not feeling it; didn’t understand it; didn’t want it.  We heard that over and over again.”  (This, of course, was the chapters’ response to an initiative that was never requested in the first place.  Is anybody surprised?)

“We also heard, better technology is really required.  There was a lot of feedback that went along the lines of: yeah, I don’t think we need the rest of the stuff that you’re talking about, but better technology: heck yeah.  Get on it!  (Remember, this was the original request five years ago.  Now, after this long travel around Robin Hood’s barn, after proposing “the rest of the stuff” unnecessarily, the FPA leadership is finally getting this message clearly.)

“We also heard repeatedly that a higher level of collaboration and cooperation among FPA and its communities is needed.”  (Nice to know that this message, voiced years ago, has finally been internalized at the top levels of the organization.)

“A final takeaway was that greater unification and integration and alignment—those words that we keep using—they are critical.  They are very important.”  (I’m still not sure the FPA leadership understands that this doesn’t mean the home office taking over chapter functions and autonomy, given that they’ve launched a beta test that would seem to do exactly that.)

Wasted energy

So now we have a new proposal, and you’ve probably at least glanced over it.  My take is that it is a continuation of the hullaballoo—a new, slightly more refined, incredible expenditure of wasted energy.  Now, instead of providing a centralized database function, the FPA plans to go through a rigorous, expensive, labor-intensive testing process of that original proposal which the chapters (according to Zohlen) were “not feeling.”  Up to ten chapters will be selected, to “work with FPA leadership to develop a framework of protocols to encourage a collaborative and supportive experience through the OneFPA Leadership Institute Committee.” 

This newly-created committee will create an orientation program for chapter leaders “to establish the parameters of the collaborative relationship.”  The leaders of these ten chapters will engage in monthly meetings with FPA staff “to enhance communication and integrate resources on a local and national level.”

The FPA national will “develop and disseminate reports that drive baseline measurements, benchmarking and best practices” regarding these ten chapters.

The ten test local chapters will “map their current chart of accounts to the new master chart of accounts that is being developed with FPA’s accounting vendor, RSM.”  Chapters will provide their monthly financial and budget data to FPA, and “receive regular standardized reporting (monthly income statement, balance sheet, dashboard, KPIs [key performance indicators],” and “receive membership and other reporting based on data that is currently housed in FPA’s national database.”

Note that only this last item is what the chapters were actually asking for.

I think here that the FPA is absolutely determined to prove that its initial proposal was the right one.  This testing, as I mentioned, will go on for two years, at which time the results will be shared with other chapters who have (remember) never asked to be rolled up into one entity, ever, in the first place, and who vigorously resisted the idea when it was rolled out. 

Along the way, additional time and energy will be spent on amending governance documents “to reflect the principles of participatory governance,” the creation of a Master Services Agreement “that outlines the responsibilities of, and commitment to, beta-test chapters,” and adding policies to the governance documents that “substantiate core aspects of participatory governance.”

And, of course, there have to be developed criteria for selecting those beta-test chapters in the first place.  All these documents will be created between now and June for the National Board’s approval.  It seems to me, from talking with the FPA leadership, that the central premise of these new legal documents is to guarantee that the test chapters will have the same autonomy that they have currently.  The trip around Robin Hood’s barn continues.

Of course, I’ve left out some things, like the five focus groups the FPA conducted in addition to the listening tour, and the fact that the FPA is hiring (at what expense?) an outside consultant to monitor its experiment with the ten beta-test chapters over the next two years.  There will be reports, modifications and even an offer that if a beta-test chapter wants to voluntarily give up its affiliation agreement with the FPA, if it wants it back, the FPA will pay the legal fees to restore it back to independence.

With all the energy and expense that the FPA is throwing at this initiative, I am trying to imagine what a beautiful database it could have created for the chapters to use—five years ago.  If you ask the FPA for a ride to the airport, five years later they come back with plans for an auto manufacturing plant.

And we’ve been wondering, all these years, why the association is not growing or thriving.  It simply doesn’t have the ability to get out of its own way.  It is spending a tremendous amount of staff and board time and energy on a lot of complicated initiatives that have nothing to do with providing the members a suite of new conveniences or services, with reforming the Journal, with improving the national conference, with negotiating discounts on your software suite, commissioning books or illuminating white papers or anything else you might have expected the FPA to engage in when it was founded two decades ago.

Committee after committee

But didn’t I leave out the participatory governance part?  Let’s get to the new participatory governance proposals in the modified OneFPA Network initiative.  My initial comment is that these initiatives to broaden decision-making at the national level are being rolled out five years after the FPA heard, very clearly, the request that chapter leaders be more involved in association governance.  Let us not accuse the FPA of being nimble.

If you or I were responding to a request for more and better input, we’d create a representative committee of chapter officers who would meet a couple of times a year on their own, and then have them spend some time with the national board at least once a year.  A national board member might participate in their meetings, to keep them updated on what the FPA leadership was up to.

The FPA has responded to the request, but I will leave it to the reader to decide if this isn’t somewhat of a clunky framework.  The new “participatory governance” process begins with the new OneFPA Advisory Council.  Each of the 88 chapters will send a representative, which sounds like a pretty big group for getting anything done.  At meetings, it is hard to imagine that everybody will even have a chance to speak up—but that’s a challenge for the Advisory Council, not you and me.  They will meet in person at last once a year and virtually as often as needed.  Imagine conference calls with 88 people on the line.

Then there’s the OneFPA Advisory Council Executive Committee, which will be composed of seven members from the Advisory Council.  This group will help set the agenda for the Advisory Council, and be the liaison between whatever the Advisory Council comes up with and the FPA national board.

There will be a new OneFPA Nominating Committee, made up of equal numbers of the FPA national board and members of the Advisory Council as recommended by the Executive Committee.  As most of you know, prospective board members are currently vetted and selected by the current national board.  This would open up that process a bit and give the chapter leaders a voice.  This Nominating Committee will be chaired by the FPA Board Chair.

There’s also a new OneFPA Technology Task Force, which will oversee the new system-wide digital strategy and technology solution—which seems to be that database I referenced earlier.  Members of this committee will include chapter leaders, chapter executives, board designees and FPA staff.  Instead of the FPA just going out and creating the database (are databases that hard to create and populate?), there will be a committee overseeing the process.

More committees?  The amended proposal would also have the FPA create a new OneFPA Leadership Institute Committee, which will provide “general oversight and guidance concerning the orientation, training and support of volunteer leaders and staff” of those 10 beta-test chapters referenced earlier.  This will include members from those beta-test chapters and the FPA national board.  One role will be to pioneer the process of having the chapter staff coordinators be hired and managed by the home office instead of the chapter—or, as the document puts it: the committee “reviews the hiring, training, assessment and support protocols of beta-test chapter staff. While FPA retains legal responsibility for beta-test chapter staff, beta-test chapters manage the day-to-day oversight responsibilities of local staff, and drive the hiring and performance decisions.”

A new OneFPA Transition Task force, made up of chapter leaders and FPA national board members, will assess the OneFPA Network plan and make recommendations on how to amend it.  This includes not only the beta-test chapters but also the participatory governance aspect of the initiative.

No, we’re not finished yet.  More troubling, to me, is the OneFPA Resource Coordination Committee. This committee will review but, (the proposal is clear to say) does not approve, “the annual operational plans and budgets of the beta-test chapters, oversees the integrated financial reporting process for beta-test chapters, and provides beta-test chapters with guidance and support of the optimal functioning of beta-test chapters.”  This committee is made up of members from the beta test chapters and members of the FPA national board.

And finally, again troubling, is the new OneFPA Strategic Partnerships Committee.  As it stands right now, the FPA chapters are free to build their own sponsorship arrangements with their local vendors—and, of course, there are vendors who prefer to sponsor at the local rather than the national level, attracted by the intimacy of local meetings.  The new Partnerships Committee, made up of beta-test chapter members and members of the FPA national board, will have the following function: “analyzes and strategizes on how to remove competition for partnership revenue between FPA and beta-test chapters. 

Of course, I asked in our interview what problem this was intended to solve, and was told that sometimes national sponsors want to sponsor at the local level too, and this will be coordinated.  There was no mention of the obvious other direction: of companies that prefer to sponsor at the local level, who would be required to also participate in national sponsorship opportunities. 

I’ll be curious to see what comes out of this committee as it “assesses the roles and responsibilities of the beta-test chapters with respect to FPA’s national and local corporate partners, and clarifies areas of independence for beta-test chapters to coordinate local relationships and negotiate agreements.”

Unnecessary effort

All these committees!  All this effort!  The chapters asked for a little rain and the FPA National gave them a Category 5 hurricane. 

And it’s important to remember that after all this, 78 of the 88 chapters won’t actually see the new database for another two years, as it is rolled out to the beta-test chapters.  They might see it seven years after the consultant’s report said they were asking for it.

My question throughout the OneFPA Network initiative still begs an answer: why did the FPA create such a massive amount of unnecessary work for itself when that time and energy could have been spent enhancing the membership proposition for prospective FPA members?

So at the end of our interview, I asked the FPA leadership what I think is the key question: What are the individual members going to get out of all this time and energy and money and committees and proposals and beta tests and multiple consultant expenses and new guidance documentation and all the rest of it?

Zohlen’s answer seemed to point to benefits that could have been achieved if the FPA had simply gotten busy and build a nice database to share with the chapters. 

“My membership association is going to know where I’m plugged in across the association,” she said.  “They will know that I attended Retreat in La Jolla, and sessions predominately on estate planning and tax planning, so that I will receive curated content from FPA specifically around my demonstrated interest in tax and estate planning.

“I will know when I travel to Brooklyn to go see all my clients,” she continued, “that FPA of Metro New York is going to have a chapter meeting that Tuesday, so I can go ahead and attend that chapter meeting, because I am very interested in the speaker they’ve got on estate planning, while, I, right now, have no idea when Metro New York has their chapter meetings.”

Right after we hung up the phone, I went onto the website of the Metro NY FPA, and found its meeting schedule here:  https://www.fpametrony.org/events/event_list.asp?.  The next meeting is a Pro Bono Committee meeting tomorrow, April 17, followed by its 20th Annual Forum on April 29 at 730 Third Avenue—with, alas, no estate planning sessions. 

The chapters seem to be doing a pretty good job already of communicating their meeting information.

What if…?

And so after untold millions of dollars of consultant fees, staff time, board time and energy, legal fees and all the rest, the FPA now knows that the chapters really don’t want to lose their independent status or merge their checkbooks into an FPA national bank account.

We still wait for the database that was requested half a decade ago. 

The FPA is plowing ahead with an expensive test pilot project to prove that it was right all along to propose a consolidation that the chapter leaders vigorously opposed when the FPA tried to rush them to a decision.

And how well is the FPA conducting its normal business of serving members, creating initiatives that benefit them, and reaching out to new prospective members?

In that vein, after I hung up the phone from my interview, I went to the FPA website.  After a few years as a non-member, I decided to once again join the FPA, and start attending local meetings again. 

The first time I tried, I clicked on the “log-in” button and the website froze.  I was able to navigate off that page, but the login/create account button didn’t take me anywhere. 

Later, I was able to get in, and after verifying my contact information, I was taken to the page where I would sign up as a returning member, where I was also invited to say who had referred me.  I clicked that radio button, and received the following error message: “There was an error saving the data in one or more fields. Please contact the site administrator or try again. ArgumentFault: An error occurred. Please contact the administrator.”

You have to wonder what the FPA could have accomplished if it had just settled for a light rain instead of a hurricane, and instead of inventing a lot of new initiatives that nobody ever wanted, it had put all that energy toward running a better FPA. 

But at least now I feel like I know what has been wrong for all these otherwise unexplainable years of stagnation.

And no, I have no idea how to go about fixing it.

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