Named CEO in 2013, Geoffrey Brown joined the National Association of Personal Finance Advisors (NAPFA) after years of experience in association management, strategic planning, and organizational development.
NAPFA is seeing an even younger generation entering the association, “Generation 3.0” as CEO Geoffrey Brown calls it. He and his team are adapting to this by focusing on the organization’s clarity of purpose: to provide education content, community, and avenues of advocacy for financial advisors.
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- NAPFA’s Diversity + Inclusion Toolkit
To learn more about our On Purpose guest, please visit Geoffry Brown’s LinkedIn page.
Full Audio Transcript
All right. Well, Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today. I'm excited to hear a little bit more about you and NAPFA, what brought you here and just really the future of the industry at large. So why don't we go ahead and start there. How did you get to the position that you're in today? I'd love to hear a little bit more of your background.
Sure. Sure. But first of all, thank you for having me, Lauren. I really appreciate it. You all have been a good partner for NAPFA and NAPFA firms. So it's really good to spend some time with you. I've been with the association for eight years. Looking back on it, I'm a career association guy. I graduated from college on a Tuesday and I started my first association job a week later on Wednesday. So this is really all I've ever done for my adult professional life. And back in 2013, NAPFA’s CEO at the time had announced her retirement and as boards do, they initiated a search and hired a search firm that does a lot of work in the financial planning association space.
Initially I was like, no, I'm not interested. I was working at a consultancy here in Chicago that focused on associations and nonprofit organizations, and it was a good gig. It was a great play. So I was on an equity track. Luckily that search firm was very persistent. They said maybe I should just learn a little bit more about the organization and then it was, maybe I should meet some of the members. And from that point on, it was just really infectious. I know that every American needs a financial advisor in their life to some degree, and some people make bad decisions. Some people make good decisions. Some people make decisions based on what they know, and that's often not enough. And when I started hearing the members I met with in the search process talk about what they do, why they do it, what really motivates them professionally, I was hooked. Part of it was because I was one of those consumers that made a bad decision in terms of the advisor I engaged with and got wrapped up in some products that were totally unsuitable for me at my age and profession, where I was in life. And from then on, it was just, this is the right place for me and it's been a great eight years.
And then when you came to NAPFA, looking back eight years ago and looking at where you are now, what's kind of been perhaps your philosophy or the tone or value set you've been able to cultivate, to really kind of move the needle from looking back eight years ago to where you are now, as you move forward.
You know, when I came to NAPFA, it was in a really solid place. There were some things volunteers and members in the community were demanding that the board addressed for sure, but that's every professional membership organization. So it wasn't a situation where, wow, we need to blow this up and start from scratch. It was an organization that at the time just celebrated its 30th anniversary. So the opportunity to really look to the future and identify what we wanted to do to create some lasting change was right there on the horizon. And luckily, we had great volunteers that were willing to share their info. They really had an understanding of where they wanted to take the association, and an understanding of what they believed its potential to be.
And so walking into that situation, it was really easy to start by listening. Hey, what are the things that we need to do better? What are the things that we need to do more of and what are the things that we should stop doing? And people were willing and interested in sharing their thoughts and their opinions. And that really allowed me to get a roadmap to discuss with the volunteers that were at the helm at the time to really think about where we are going, to sharpen the saw a little bit around the edges, just really to make this experience a little bit better for the members and the consumers they serve. It's interesting when you think about it. Eight years ago, NAPFA was an association of about 23, 2,400 practitioners and students and right now we're pushing 4,400, which is really, really exciting to think about that trajectory and just where the association could go into the future. We're two years shy of our 40th anniversary. So we've got this little thing out there, what do we wanna be when we grow up? Because that 40-year mark is really grown up, not only the association, but also the profession that just celebrated its 50th anniversary a few years ago.
Absolutely. And so it sounds like membership, I would assume, is a goal, or perhaps it just came from the value set of NAPFA seeing that growth. What other changes have you seen in the past eight years, and then what are some of the changes looking ahead that you see for NAPFA?
I think that we're moving on to generation, you know, 3.0 almost. When I started, you were starting to see some of the original firm founders start to exit the profession, the association, and their next gen stepping up. And now we're seeing an even younger generation entering the association. And that's really exciting for me because one of the things that I felt like the volunteers were really concerned about at the time and rightly so was just the general makeup of NAPFA versus the population. At the time it skewed a little bit older, like most financial planning at that time. I feel like they were really cognizant of that. And one of the pieces of the marching orders they gave us was how do we make this experience more frictionless, if you will. How do we make it a place where people want to engage and engage beyond just I have to do it because I'm a financial planner, that sort of thing, but really to tap into the strength and vibrancy of the community, to really associate with other professionals that are interested in elevating their competency so they can serve consumers in a more meaningful way—people that really want to grow and spread the mission and vibrancy of financial planning around the country.
I hear you on the frictionless piece. I know there's been firms we've worked with where they might be going after a younger generation and part of making things frictionless is the paperless, more technology focus, making sure time is used efficiently, those sorts of things. I'm assuming those are things that you all have been implementing and have been top mind as well.
Yeah. We're trying to go more and more digital, like everyone else. The audience we have currently is demanding it and the audience we hope to engage in the future is going to want it. So it's a place where we're making investments. It's not moving as quickly as we hope, but it's definitely moving. I think that's a signal to people that are involved now and those that will come in the future that this is a place where I need to be. Some other points of friction really do have to evolve to what it takes to be a financial planning professional in 2021. You think about the ease of entering the profession today versus entering the profession in 2001. From your preparation through your educational coursework to working at a firm, starting your own firm, acquiring technology, things like that, it's just a very different ballgame.
And we just need to have that clarity of purpose about where we fit into the mix. We're not gonna be an entity, like one of the networks that exist for advisors; that's not our bread and butter. We're a professional membership association. So we're focused on educational content. We're focused on community and networking, and we're focused on advocacy. And so what we really need to do is make sure we're delivering on those aspects of the experience so our audience really finds the value they need to continue participating.
That's fair. I know one of the changes you've done over the years, you rolled out a new website that is more tech forward. And I'd love to hear some of the thinking around that, too, and perhaps some of the goals to be able to better serve your audience.
Yeah, I think we're in a really, I don't wanna say a unique position, because we have to serve a professional audience, our members, and then in some regard, we also have to be a place for people that want to engage with them. So really balancing those competing interests, if you will, is what was driving the changes that we were making. We were hearing from consumers, your website is punky. I'm confused. Am I a planner? Am I looking to work with a planner? And so we needed to address that point of contention. And then we also wanted to make it a little bit more easy to use for our audience. And it needed to tell a better story, if you will. I think we took the approach that it's never going to be done. As a marketing professional, you can probably appreciate that.
We're always on the cycle of, well, let's tweak this, let's change that, let's address this. So we really do pay a lot of attention to what our different audiences are doing on the site to really inform the decisions we're making from a development standpoint. And then also from a content standpoint, from a consumer audience, their primary reasons for visiting our website are looking to find a financial planner. So that's why we continue to make investments and monitor our Find an Advisor tool. And then also looking for content about working with a planner, the questions they should ask or other relevant information that might inform the decisions they make when they engage with a professional. And so that's always gonna be a high driver for us.
We need to feed that with content, and it's not just about having the technological capability to do it or place on the web to house it. It's about how we are creating the content. And so, luckily our volunteers are really interested in making investments in that area so we can feed that well, because I feel like that's what's going to drive traffic and interest for the foreseeable future. When you're thinking about it from a practitioner standpoint, what are their primary interests? One is connecting with other practitioners. So making sure we have that online community hub for people to ask questions relevant to the practice of financial planning, being a business owner, different client cases. The providers we work with are usually in awe of the type of traffic and engagement we get within our community.
It’s really, really interesting to watch the questions and the responses that happen between members about the issues that they're posing to one another. Members need to be able to take advantage of our educational programs. And a lot of that happens through the website. And so making sure we provide that capacity and then if you're a prospective student, you're a prospective planner, we need to have a way for them to become a part of this community. That really is going to start at that front door.
How are you reaching those prospective advisors or growing your base and trying to stay top of mind as a resource for the members that you serve.
A lot of what happens from a member growth standpoint is organic. But then, being intentional also about having good partnerships, so partnerships with the academic community to help tell our story there, because they have a lot of influence over where a prospective financial planner looks for career opportunities and professional communities to engage with. So making sure that we're trying to stay front and center with them through partnerships with organizations like the CFP® board. You know, at this point in time, you can't be a NAPFA registered financial advisor without having your CFP® certification. So we have a vested interest in making sure their audience really understands what NAPFA is, and how we can be a vital part of their professional journey.
One of the decisions we made a few years ago was to offer a complimentary year of membership to every new fee-only CFP® certified advisor that wants to take advantage of it. That was driven by the fact of looking at the data and seeing that people weren't finding this community until year four, year five, year six, maybe even longer in the profession. And so if we reached out, tossed a little bit of an olive branch to them to say, why don't you give it a chance? Why don't you take a look at what it is that we have to offer? Why don't you take a look, what this community can mean to you, even as an early careerist. And we've been very lucky that the conversion rate of those individuals who have taken advantage of that opportunity, they've stuck around when the time came after that one year was up and they actually had to pay some, was because they landed at fee-only firms that saw the value of them being in this community. And for some, it was because, you know what, I personally see the value in this. And so I'm gonna pay for it outta my own pocket.
Yeah. That makes sense. They're able to kind of try before you buy, if you will, or start to build those relationships in that community and then see how it applies to their short- and long-term professional growth.
Yeah. And when you think about it, there are a lot of fee-only firms for sure. They tend to skew smaller. So just the availability and inventory of professional opportunities in this space is a little bit different than it may be in some other segments of financial advice and financial planning. So anything we can do to open the door and welcome these individuals in, we wanna make sure we're doing it.
Absolutely. And then you have a unique vantage point, sitting at the helm at NAPFA, being able to see some of these conversations advisors are having. You're able to see the inbound data from what potential clients are asking about, what's of interest to them. You've got these partnership connections. From your vantage point, what do you see, where do you see the industry going? And what do you think would be good? Where are some opportunities for improvement as well as you look ahead, either both from the association level or really more from the industry at large.
I think in the big picture, the people that founded this community were onto something, they were trailblazers, they had a vision and their vision is the reality. Now, when you think about it, the movement in our space is more toward a NAPFA model than it isn't. And that's really, really exciting because that means the opportunities for the association are really fruitful, really bright. That means we need to be able to scale up what we do in a more meaningful way. And we can't look at ourselves as the underdog anymore. I think a lot of what happened in this space was built on us being a challenger. I've heard the term, the mouse that roars, but we're not a small player anymore.
Our voice is definitely outsized given the number of participants we have, but we are an incumbent. We bring a lot of credibility to the table. And I think that credibility in the marketplace has been one of the high drivers of people being interested in what we do and bringing people to the table in terms of participating as members and just watching where this association is going. So I think as the broader profession starts moving more toward a fee for service model, I think it's gonna present good opportunities for us. And another thing I think we need to be thinking about is just how our firms are structured. You work with a lot of wealth management firms.
You probably see the spectrum. When I started, there was this whole thing: all the small firms are gonna go away. There's gonna be a consolidation. You're gonna have super regional RAs. You're gonna have national RAs, and that's gonna be it, small guys won't be able to compete. Here we are, and we still see a vibrant place for small firms, whether they're sole proprietorships or ensembles, they have a vibrant place in this market and that's really exciting for them. And it points to some great signs for the future. The big guys are definitely getting bigger and that's good for them. We need enterprise-level firms, but also need some of the middle market and smaller firms to be able to compete as well.
And the tools and the capacity are there for them to be able to do so in a really meaningful way. So we just need to do what we can do to nurture that. Some of the other things that I think are on the horizon, challenges, opportunities, it's just what we're doing in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. When you think about the demographics of this country, how they're changing, the demographics of financial planning need to shift as well. And I like to say this is one of the areas where we're not competing. You know, there isn't a NAPFA viewpoint on DEI; there isn't an FPA viewpoint on DEI. There isn't a BD world position on DEI. This is one of those things where we all can win by making sure that financial advice and financial planning is more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive.
So we need to start thinking about that from an advocacy standpoint. There's still so much that needs to be done from a regulatory and legislative standpoint. We took a few steps forward during the Obama administration. Then we took a few steps back during the Trump administration. And so we just need to keep fighting the good fight to make sure consumers across this country have access to fiduciary-level advice that's delivered in their best interest. So that's something that will be a strategic priority for this organization for forever. So we can say that every American, when they decide to engage with a financial advisor, they're doing so under a fiduciary standard of care.
That's exciting to hear you share all of that. So like I said, I think you're at a very unique vantage point to be able to see everything that's going on. And is there anything in particular you feel NAPFA as an organization is doing to be able to step up, to meet those challenges beyond what you've already shared?
I just think the investments in the foresight that our volunteer leadership has in terms of wanting to lead on issues of equity inclusion, wanting to lead on an advocacy agenda, that's really member-led, member-driven, but consumer-centric. Meaning when we go to Washington and we start talking about fiduciary, we hear sometimes that's very self-serving. Well, it's self-serving, but it's also the right thing to do. It means our members have committed to this because they know it's the right thing for the public. And so that's why we will doggedly pursue fiduciary-level advice for all Americans. I think some of the other things that are really, really exciting for us are the fact that awareness of financial planning is mainstream.
People know what financial planners do. They may not know it at a deep level, but I think they have an understanding. I think there's still some work we can do to help that story. But again, that's not something we're competing against anyone else on. The CFP® board has a great awareness campaign that benefits the entire profession. It's really interesting that I'll talk to my peers and they're like, oh, I saw this commercial. It was about getting a financial plan. Is that your organization? I'm like, well, that's not ours, but we've got 4,400 members that can help you pursue that if you wish. So it's really been exciting to watch that take place, just Americans’ awareness of the term fiduciary. It was like overnight this change happened where now I hear from advisors, it's like probably nine outta 10 clients that come in, potential clients that come into the office, they ask the F-word question. So I like to think this organization, currently and in the past, plays a pretty significant role in helping to create those conditions. And that's a responsibility to take very seriously into the future as well.
Yeah, that's not an easy task. And it becomes less jargony to the public. A lot of jargon is easy to throw around. I think of how sophisticated a particular investor is, or an individual, and those are questions that come up, but to be able to say you’re a fiduciary and what that value set means and for it to be translated on a one-to-one basis is valuable.
And it's also helpful. I remember when I started and was meeting members of the consumer financial press and asking, well, why don't you write more stories about this? Don't you think it would be helpful if Americans read this in whatever their paper choice was. And they're like, because people don't understand it. Because I'd have to spend too many words explaining what everything means for it to be meaningful. Now the fact that they can say it and people understand it, internalize it, and then share it when they're having conversations with the professionals they're seeking to engage with is really exciting.
Very good. So just a few more questions here. I’d love to just ask over the years that you've been with NAPFA, is there anything you're really proud of that you feel was a really big win, maybe for the industry at large or for the organization, but anything that you're especially proud of, you'd like to share.
You know, there's a few actually. I think just the work we did with our partners in the financial planning coalition around on the DOLs Fiduciary rule, even though it was short-lived, being a part of a group that was one of the loan industry voices advocating for more regulation on behalf of the public. That was pretty exciting, knowing we were at the center of those conversations, that was just really rewarding because as an association professional, I could probably have gone my entire career and not worked on anything that would've been that meaningful to so many people in this country as what we were doing back then. I think the organization's work when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion was small, but we started our initiative well before a lot of others in this and we're chipping away at it and doing some meaningful work and we have a lot of good engagement on a number of dimensions when it comes to DEI.
So that's really exciting. We've recently transitioned leadership from our Gen 1 leadership over to our second generation. It's interesting and exciting to see what their vision is and what their ideas are and how that could transform not only the association, but the profession as well. Just watching the community evolve, grow, and change and age down a little bit. I remember walking into my first NAPFA conference in Philadelphia in 2013 and thinking, wow, this is a very mature audience. And it was because there were a lot of people, and some of them are still around today, that were there essentially at the beginning. That's one of the exciting things about financial planning and this association, the fact that you can have a very long and vibrant career, and still meaningfully serve your clients and meaningfully engage with other professionals.
But that gives us the opportunity to have just a great generational knowledge transfer. And it's coming from a place of caring and a handoff of what my generation did in our time. We created the conditions, we laid the foundation, and you know what, now it's your turn to take it to the next level. We're still pretty young. So that means we have a lot of runway to see that happen, again and again. And so that's just one of the things I'm proud of, doing our part to keep that first generation engaged, but then also to steward the next generation's entry and ownership of where we're going as an organization.
It's interesting. I didn't make this parallel between sort of a unique lens as well. Being able to talk with a number of firms across the country at various stages of their business and there's parallels between what you're seeing at large and also what we're seeing and having conversations around. There might be an owner who is looking to transition the firm to a younger generation, questions about the future regarding technology, regarding how do you take someone who's a main rainmaker to now being spread across partners, or the DEI initiatives, or really challenging sort of defining value sets within a firm. So what you're saying from a NAPFA perspective, and I think a lot of the work you're doing, is you certainly have your finger on the pulse, because I feel it, too, but in a different way. But for those conversations there's alignment there.
Yes. And I think that's just representative of the fact that the work and the interests of our audience easily becomes the work and the interests of the association. So we're member-led, and that doesn’t mean it's because of the volunteer leadership, it's because of where they see themselves going professionally, where they see themselves going from a business standpoint. And we need to be responsive to that and make sure we're programming to keep pace. And ultimately I hope to be a little bit ahead of them so we can help to drive some of the dialogue they're having internally or very least be responsive to the dialogue they're having and create resources and bring content to bear to help inform the work that they're doing.
Absolutely. Well, that brings me to the last question here. Are there any particular resources or webpages or things you think would be helpful to point folks to, to learn more?
Yeah. I think definitely our diversity equity and inclusion toolkit. We put that together during the pandemic. So it was just very timely. <laugh> It had been in development before the pandemic, but that gave us the opportunity, the time, and the space to really focus on it. So it's really geared toward firm culture, hiring practices, taking care of your people, all from a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. That's one resource I would love to point people toward. The website, our online community, has great resources for people that are already participating in the community. If they're not members of NAPFA, we've got a network of study groups all around the country, so we'd love to have them take a test drive.
They're starting to return to some in-person experiences. So it's a good way for someone who's thinking about potentially joining the association to plug in. And then we do have a conference coming up in early May in Atlanta. I know we don't like to give dates for things like this, but I think it's just a good way to engage with this community. We've been consistently rated very high on our content, the networking opportunities, the community- building opportunities. And so I think for anyone who isn't already a part of this community, it's just an easy place to plug in. So I'd love to point toward that.
Great. Well, thank you for your time today and for sharing some insights. I greatly appreciate it. And thank you for all the work you do and for the NAPFA community and everything that you do for the industry at large.
Thanks for having me and thanks for being such a good partner for NAPFA and all of the firms that are part of our community. Everyone speaks very highly of you and your colleagues and we've witnessed it firsthand. And so I look forward to working with you guys in the future.
Aw, we appreciate it. Well, thank you again for your time this evening and looking forward to staying in touch.
All right. Thanks a lot.
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