If you are a practitioner operating within a regulated profession, or if you are a business professional or specialist, chances are you are a member of a professional association.  Simply, a professional association is an organization with a mandate to provide oversight, training, regulation and direction for its members and affiliated chapters.  Professional associations exist in all countries and across a number of disciplines.

In some cases, you may be a member of several organizations.  For instance, a practicing attorney may be a member of a provincial or state bar association.  If you manage your own operation you may be a member of a local chamber of commerce or business association.  If you have clients you service in a particular field or sector you may have a membership in an industry association.  All of this raises the critical question:  Do these professional associations provide real value?

A Long and Winding Road

Back when I was in graduate school, I took out a membership in what used to be known as the Personnel Association of Ontario (“PAO”).  The annual dues back then were about $200.  I got to attend Chapter dinners and listen to guest speakers.  When I started working my new employer paid for me to attend the Annual Conference in Toronto. The networking opportunities were great, and for someone just starting out in the profession it seemed like a smart move.

In 1990 the PAO became the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario, and later, the Human Resources Professionals Association (“HRPA”).  Professional accreditation standards were introduced.  A Code of Conduct was adopted.  Later came accreditation requirements.  The HRPA applied for and then received a Charter to become a regulated profession about 10 years ago.  My membership fees more than doubled.  There was a requirement to renew my credentials every three years.  Registration fees for the Annual Conference skyrocketed.  Now that I have my own business there is a whole myriad of complex and convoluted attestations and additional requirements I must meet and maintain in order to remain a member in good standing.


Professional Associations may provide value, but the arguments in support of membership need to be carefully evaluated (Photo Courtesy Luis Quintero from Pexels)

Professional Associations may provide value, but the arguments in support of membership need to be carefully evaluated (Photo Courtesy Luis Quintero from Pexels)

The Litmus Test for Value Added

Determining whether a professional association offers tangible benefits is difficult to discern.  Here are the questions I think you need to ask yourself in determining whether membership is both useful or even necessary:

1) Is membership in this professional association necessary in order to work in this industry or profession?  If you are in a field where membership or certification is a requirement (e.g. Accounting, Human Resources) then it is likely imperative that you need to be a member in good standing in order to remain employed.

2) How long has this professional association been in existence?  If the association has been in existence for more than fifteen years then it probably has some standing and credibility in the industry.  If it has only recently started then the value of membership is questionable.

3) Are colleagues and other professionals you know members?  If you know individuals who are members of this association, and particularly, if they speak favourably about it, then chances are taking out a membership may be worthwhile.

4) Does this professional association have a significant number of long service members?  Try to find out whether there is high turnover which is often indicative of lack of commitment, interest or a perceived lack of perceived value in a membership.

5) Does this professional association have a recognized brand in the community or the industry?  It’s fine to be a member of an association based in a major metropolitan centre, but if you reside in a smaller community that is far away then taking out a membership and participating in various events may not be easy or practical.

6) Does this professional association offer in-house, sponsored training courses and seminars, and how current are the offerings?  Training courses and certification programs are a lucrative cash cow for many associations.  Many aren’t worth the costs they charge.  Look at the courses that are offered, and do some research to see if they worthwhile and recognized.  If they are simply general interest then you need to weigh the costs against the purported value provided.

7) Are there perques or benefits provided to members, and are these typically ones you would use or access?  Membership should offer some value to you as a member.  Discounts on certain services (e.g. printing, transcription, stationery, website design, etc.) may be an inducement to take out and continue your membership.  Make sure the services offered are something that may provide value.

8) Are the costs reasonable in comparison to similar organizations? If your membership is a few hundred dollars a year then the cost of membership is likely quite affordable.  However when that figure crosses north of $500 per annum, and especially when it exceeds $1,000, you have to seriously weigh the pros and cons of membership.

9) Does this association have a local chapter?  If not, how will you avail yourself of networking opportunities?  A local chapter is an excellent forum through which to network with other professionals in your field, as well as partake in various social and educational events.  If your association doesn’t have a local chapter then you have to ask how you would avail yourself of the various offerings.

10) Can you get a test drive?  Before you take out a membership ask to attend a chapter or local event.  Ask questions, and lots of them.  Find out what makes this association special. If those in attendance are less than enthusiastic then you have to question whether membership is worthwhile.

A Personal Perspective

In the past eight years I have cancelled memberships in three professional associations.  One was an organization that catered to Human Resources practitioners and recruitment specialists.  It had a small membership base, had little in the way of unique training courses, and its brand had virtually no industry recognition.

The second was a membership in a local Chamber of Commerce.  I joined thinking that being a self-employed professional offering a unique service I would naturally find a pool of similar individuals who were interested in networking and supporting one another.  What I realized was that unless you had been a member for twenty years and had a “bricks and mortar” operation no one was much interested in what I was offering. 

The third organization with whom I recently parted company was an association catering to career coaches and professionals.  They offered a dizzying array of certification training courses with little in the way of differentiation.  While the annual membership fee was reasonable there was little in the way of benefits, networking or recognition.

A Final Thought….

In the last ten years many professional associations have become a huge impediment to labour mobility and new entrants.  Several have created complex and expensive bureaucracies to manage their daily affairs and, most importantly, to monitor and limit new entrants.  All of this is purportedly done in the interests of ensuring adherence to their Code of Conduct and upholding professional standards.  However, the creation of complex, structured and expensive training and recertification courses, coupled with a set curriculum, ensures not only a continuing income stream for the association, but also, a mechanism for limiting new entrants.  A limited membership means a limited supply, and by controlling the supply curve associations can maintain and even increase earnings for their members. 

Flashback.  The best professional association I ever joined was a local Human Resources association that operated about thirty years ago.  I heard about it from a colleague.  The association members met once a month for lunch at a local hotel.  There were perhaps 150 members in total.  There was always a guest speaker.  Membership dues were comparatively inexpensive. The executive of this association was unpaid.  The networking opportunities were fantastic.  There was little formality, minimal administration and structure, but amazing esprit de corps.

Sometimes simpler really is better!