For any profession, there are usually a variety of organizations that have been created over the years that exist as a “club” if you will for people who have chosen a particular career path. Throughout history these various groups have clustered together informally and then formally to let people with like minds and similar studies interact with each other and exchange information. As times moved on and more and more professions splintered off and specialized, these groups and organizations also multiplied in attempts to garner membership and specifically catering to the knowledge base of those who fit their membership profiles.
There has been a debate about the necessity and importance of these particular groups. Some say that anyone of a particular professional identity should join the organization or organizations to which they fulfill the professional criteria and specialties. There are those who believe that we must band together as a professional group to show our solidarity. There are others that believe that it is all a giant waste of time and money, and in fact, that joining is just a way for the leadership of said groups to make money off the flocks of professional sheep that herd together.
- Advocate for professional identity and benefit
- Provide oversight and require professional conduct guidelines
- Malpractice insurance
- Addresses questions and concerns of the profession
- Provides leadership opportunities
- Provides a platform for publication of research
- Professional networking opportunities
- Marketing opportunities
That is, by no means, a comprehensive list. However, it does cover the most common benefits of membership in professional organizations. I’ll now address each of these points with a brief description or explanation of what it means.
Advocacy. To be recognized as a profession worthy of reimbursement is sometimes not automatic. Especially with healthcare professions, third-party payment has always been a turf war between the varying professional options. Professional organizations can lobby for legislation that defends their ability to get paid and hold that turf. Additionally, with any profession that engages with the public to provide some commodity or service, there can be disputes. While it has been said that the customer is always right, that isn’t always true or the best way to mediate said disputes. We’ve sadly become a very litigious society where there are individuals and groups of individuals who deliberately look for opportunities to bring legal action against entities for some sort of gain, monetary, social, or power. Professional organizations provide advocacy to address action and evaluate the claims of malfeasance or harm. This serves to make the profession the best ethically that it can be. Which brings use to…
Ethical and Professional Oversight. Without some sort of organized understanding of what the scope of practice is for any particular profession, folks identifying themselves as such could go about willy-nilly taking on whatever task or role they wish without any thorough examination of their ability or right to do so. What does that mean? That means that professionals who identify as a particular role would be bound to hold to specific requirements set to protect not only the professional themselves, but also to protect the recipients of their service. It also makes sure that any professional claiming to provide a certain service will maintain their knowledge and skills to the required level to avoid harm to those they serve. This is the area that sets boundaries to make sure that professionals do not violate their customers, clients, or patients and by so doing cause harm. As such, members of the professional organization in good standing can be trusted by potential clients, customers, and patients as vouched for by such to adhere to their ethics and principles.
Malpractice Protection. Really not a lot to be said here. It is fairly self-explanatory, and it goes along with the advocacy piece. Many professional organizations sponsor or provide access to insurance that provides financial support for addressing claims of malpractice. The professional must pay the premiums, of course, but having membership in the professional organization is usually required or at least provides a discount to purchase the coverage.
Address Questions and Concerns. Professional organizations can be a source of information and consultation in situations where information is sought. Often these organizations are available to the public for complaint or question regarding the stance of the profession about varying concerns. Also, clients, customers, and patients of individuals belonging to said group have an agency by which any wrongs, violations, or professional misconduct can be addressed and punitive damages assessed to make sure that the standard of the profession is upheld.
Publication of Research. Many professional organizations have media publications ranging from academic journals to online blogs. These publication opportunities allow for professionals to publish their findings, research, and best practice observations to share with others to broaden the field and expand the breadth of knowledge applicable for the betterment of the customers, clients, and patients who receive their service. Members of the professional organizations often receive the subscriptions as a part of their membership fees. They also have opportunity to see presentations and attend workshops, seminars, and conferences where the information is shared with professionals as an educational opportunity. Many professions require continuing education to stay current with the most up to date practices to benefit clients. Most professional organization sponsor educational opportunities, including free or discounted courses to fulfill those requirements.
Leadership. For those in the profession who might have ambitions to direct the course of their chosen field, belonging to a professional organization and moving into positions of contribution and leadership might be just their style. Individuals who seek to help their profession grow and change can embrace that ambition by belonging to such a group, which can provide the opportunity to direct that growth and change and share their vision.
Professional Networking Opportunities. Belonging to an organization allows a professional to meet and interact with others of their field that otherwise would not necessarily be within their daily contact. Many professional networks stretch beyond the confines of state or even national borders to allow professionals to communicate and form contacts with varied cultural experiences, broadening and enriching the understanding and conceptualization of the profession.
Marketing. The truth is that most people in any profession are not participating merely for the fun of it or as an avocation. Most are in the profession to earn an income. If we’re lucky, we don’t hate it. However, the bottom line is… well, the bottom line. We want to pay our bills and be successful in our profession in the sense of financial stability. Gone are the days of hanging a shingle and waiting for people to come banging on the door. Most occupations and professions require some sort of advertisement to let potential clientele know that they are there and what service they provide. The clientele available have become more savvy in the modern era. While word of mouth is still a good form of verification, many people also look for external validation of service. Professional organizations frequently keep a list of their membership which also confirms the “good standing” marker for potential clients. Ethical violations or misconduct would result in said professional being removed from the roster. Potential customers can use that as a type of safety check to make sure that they are getting the genuine quality article for their money. Some organizations even have advertisement opportunities or search features on websites to allow for potential clients to search for that type of professional that would be in their geographic territory.
Again, this is not a complete or extensive list of the activities or benefits of membership to any organization. It’s just a brief overview.
I need to make a distinction between certain organizations that pertain to areas of learning and career paths. There are some that are also what I will call credentialing bodies. These professional organizations not only provide all of the aforementioned benefits, but they also are the gatekeepers to the profession by providing certification. I will use a mental health profession as my example since I know it best. There are many different groups and professional societies for mental health professionals. There is the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC), the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT), the American Counseling Association (ACA), and the American Psychological Association (APA)… just to name a few. Some of these organizations allow for student, professional, and retired memberships. Some also exist as credentialing organizations. The NBCC, NASW, and AAMFT serve not only as the guiding organizations for their professions but also as the gatekeepers. Individuals entering the professions complete examinations to be certified and qualified. State boards often require those certifications or endorsements in order to grant licensure. Many states have severe legislation against those who practice without licensure or oversight by a licensed professional. Other groups, such as the ACA and APA, are voluntary but require application to be assessed for membership. Yet other levels of organization grant specialty endorsement for roles such as clinical supervision. Yes… I know, it gets complicated, confusing, and costly to decide what all to join and determine benefit vs. expense.
And now… to the detriment? Some professional organizations are remarkably expensive. Many have subsets of the main membership for specialties, as I mentioned previously. This means that you have dues for the main membership and then might have multiple specialization groups that have their own additional dues. Adding all together, some membership dues can cost hundreds of dollars. Most professional organizations require members to qualify (as stated above), meaning they have passed some sort of test or course of study to enter the profession in question. There are some for which the only qualification is paying the dues, but for others, the criteria are a bit more stringent. For those with more rigorous qualification requirements, it is less about elitism and more about making sure that the member they are backing is who they say they are.
With all of that said, there are other types of groups and organizations that can be considered honor societies. These are generally organizations that reflect upon the academic or professional performance level of an individual. Most of these organizations select and invite membership from student bodies based on course of study and academic performance. These types of organizations can also require a fee for membership, but often it is one time and pays for certificates, regalia, and other physical symbols of achievement. While they do not necessarily provide all of the same sort of opportunities as the professional organizations, membership provides endorsement and accreditation for achieving certain levels of quality. In other words, it looks good on a resume.
I have had friends and colleagues tell me that they don’t join because it is all a big racket. They claim that belonging to said groups is completely unnecessary once licensure is achieved, and that there is no need to pour money into their coffers. That is their prerogative, and I won’t say that they are completely wrong. My personal stance is that reputable organizations that support and represent some of the major professions are necessary and beneficial. I personally belong to those that align with my degrees and my practice. Honor societies and diplomate levels do not feel strictly necessary to me at this time because of added expense and the fact that they will provide little to no added benefit to my professional knowledge or identity through continuing education or reputation. Perhaps when I find myself on a lecture circuit or invited to Ted Talks, I might feel need to add more credentials to my collection, but for now, I’m good.
Suffice to say, I consider professional organizations a resource. In some instances, I consider them a requirement. I think that what they offer to members is worth the cost of membership, but each person must make up their own mind on this point. However, I would encourage new professionals, especially, to join their “umbrella” groups for the benefit of continuing education, networking, and support. Subgroup membership can be assessed and joined once special interests have been identified. Remember to balance the cost with the benefits provided, and avoid confusing honor groups and societies with professional organizations. I am not an expert in every field of reference, and so, for some professions, belonging may not be necessary. Evaluate the options, and do your homework, but don’t assume that they are all just a racket.