Professional Associations: Gold Mines or Coal Mines?
Soon after former history professor George Bates opened Bates and Associates, a one-man consulting practice in Germantown, MD, he realized that he would have to extend his services to clients outside higher education.
"My focus on higher education wasn't going to support me," he said in a February 1999 interview. "I knew I had to expand."
Bates was still new to consulting in 1995, however, and didn't know many people in the business who could advise him. To meet other consultants and to educate himself, he joined three professional associations, including the New York-based Institute of Management Consultants (IMC). Now, five years later, he's on the executive board of IMC's Washington, D.C., chapter. Bates says he sought a leadership position because regular participation had helped him to expand his business.
"To put it crassly," he said, "when you're consulting, you're very careful about how you spend your time, because there has to be a payoff." Bates' payoff has been a string of contracts with arts and cultural organizations and religious and charitable foundations, a natural extension, he says, of his work with universities.
For years, Bates and many independent professionals have known that membership in professional associations can lead to new business, primarily through informal networking. More recently, associations have begun to provide members with an increasing variety of benefits, ranging from the essential (affordable health insurance plans) to the useful (referral services) to the trivial (discounts on newsstand magazine subscriptions). Nonetheless, leaders of the very same associations insist that the immediate, practical benefits aren't the reason to join.
"Too many associations put too much emphasis on the tangible," says IMC Chairman Ed Stone, principal of The Dallas Marketing Group in Dallas, TX. "I get a 2% discount on Time Magazine, I get a discount on a car rental. Fine. But I believe that the intangibles are the most important thing."
Chief among the intangible benefits IMC offers, Stone says, is credibility in the marketplace through certification.
In order to become a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) through IMC, members must have at least three years' full-time consulting experience, devote 60% or more of their time to consulting, have a Bachelor's degree or equivalent training, present summaries of previous assignments, and pass both an ethics exam and an interview with senior CMCs. Certification by an established association, IMC leaders assert, distinguishes a dedicated consultant from the thousands of other Americans who identify themselves as "consultants".
"Consulting is such a nebulous term," says Steve Savia, Stone's predecessor as IMC's chairman. "Anyone can go to the local Kinko's and print some business cards and call himself a consultant. That's why we view certification as so important. You demonstrate within the context of your peers that you are an expert and know what you're doing."
All IMC members agree in writing to uphold an ethics code whether they have been certified or not. The code stipulates that members exercise "self-discipline above and beyond the requirements of law," and that they will "safeguard confidential information, render impartial, independent advice, accept only those client engagements they are qualified to perform, agree with the client in advance on the basis for professional charges [ and] develop realistic and practical solutions to client problems."
"When a [ potential] client is looking at comparable proposals and yours says 'I'm an IMC member and this is our code of ethics,' it can certainly swing him in your favor," says Savia.
Within an association itself, the exchange of ideas and perspectives often has the most immediate effect on a member's work. Stone describes a common predicament of the solo professional: "You leave corporate America, where you're working with five people or 25, where you can walk into your neighbor's office and ask him a question or bounce an idea off him," he says. "And then you go to work for yourself. Whom do you ask then?" Like everyone else, independent consultants need advice; associations help them to get it. "We believe 100% in being in business for yourself," says Saralyn Collins of the International Guild of Professional Consultants (IGPC), "but not by yourself."
"When members come to meetings, they see that they have a unique perspective," says IMC spokeswoman Lisa Burdige. "Sometimes you don't realize that you have something to market until you start talking with other people in the business."
Members who make the greatest personal investment in the organization -- by attending meetings, leading committees, and giving speeches and advice-- get the most out of membership.
Of course, not all of an association's members partake equally of membership's rewards. Savia, principal of The Sage Group, a one-man finance, insurance and real estate consulting business in Raleigh, North Carolina, points out that members who make the greatest personal investment in the organization -- by attending meetings, leading committees, and giving speeches and advice -- get the most out of membership. "That's really the place where most people make a mistake," he says. "They join and assume that the association is going to know what their needs are and is going to solve all their problems. We see it all the time at IMC. But I can't refer you if I don't know you. If I don't see you at meetings, if I don't get to know you, how in the world am I going to feel comfortable referring you to someone else? A person needs to make a commitment. They need to get involved."
Involvement can take many forms and benefit members in unexpected ways. David Garfinkel, a San Francisco marketing consultant and lecturer, tells the story of John Cantu, a comedy club producer and fellow member of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Last year, Mr. Cantu fell ill. He was uninsured and now faces staggering medical bills.
One evening in December, Garfinkel and Cantu were advising Patricia Fripp, a former president of the NSA, on a speech she was to give at the NSA's national convention in February. The conversation drifted.
"Cantu started regaling us with stories about the hospital," says Garfinkel. "He wasn't trying to entertain us, but he can't not be funny. After he told this story, Fripp told him that he had a great speech right there."
The three have since developed "Awesome Story Telling: Tap Into the Gold Mine of Your Own Life Experience to Create a Lucrative Keynote You Can Give Anywhere," a seminar they will lead at the May 8 meeting of the NSA's Northern California chapter. The proceeds will benefit the John Cantu Hospital Fund.
"When you find the right association, it can be a gold mine," said Garfinkel. "But when you join, you can't expect to get something out of it. If you do, people notice and stay away from you. I try to look for ways I can contribute to associations without expecting to get anything out of it, but just to meet people. And then you see what happens."
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