Are State CPA Societies Still Relevant?

Michael Platt

Guest Author: Michael Platt, AccountingWEB, Inc.


The accounting profession is facing challenges as never before. Time commitments to family, increased demands by clients, increased workload due to regulatory scrutiny, increased competition, a shaken image post-Enron, and a declining accounting workforce are all contributing to obstacles to success that need to be overcome. Traditional solutions to meeting these challenges have been put to the test, so it's appropriate that we ask the question - "Are state CPA societies still relevant?"

State CPA organizations - whether they are called "Societies," "Institutes" or "Associations" - exist for each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They are independent membership organizations serving the CPA in public practice as well as the CPA in industry. Their relationship with the American Institute of CPAs and other state societies is one of a cooperative working relationship, but structurally they are unaffiliated with either the AICPA or with each other.

Those who have not been in touch recently with today's state society may argue that the state CPA societies have been slow to adapt to the changing nature of the profession, and that they have been stuck in an operational mode that is increasingly divergent from the dynamic needs of its membership. Other critics might have been turned off by "yet another association" that they felt was out of touch with an increasingly complex marketplace. Still other skeptics feel that they simply don't have time to participate in the activities of an association that in some way "allowed" the profession to get a tarnished image in recent years.

But an objective view shows that today's state society isn't the organization of the past.

In many ways, the events and fallout from Enron and WorldCom have initiated a renewed level of pride in and commitment to the profession from not only the members of the profession, but also the staff of state societies in a way that demands that skeptics take a fresh look at what's happening in their state society.

AccountingWEB spoke with over a dozen state society executive directors over the last few weeks and what we found is an enthusiastic group, overtly passionate about the profession, addressing the needs of their members in a dynamic, aggressive way. In some cases, state societies have been quietly evolving to adapt to the ever-changing nature of the profession. In other cases, state societies in the post-Enron world have been reborn, re-energized with a new spirit and an unparalleled focus on helping their members succeed. We found a renewed commitment towards not only professional development of its members - from traditional CPE to leadership training to ethics - but also towards the development of the profession - from advocate to cheerleader to mentor to teacher.

So, are state CPA societies still relevant? Here are some of the areas that we found are being re-birthed into a unique focus for the state societies:

Legislative Advocacy - Perhaps the greatest threat to CPAs today is the potential "cascading effect" of Sarbanes-Oxley restrictions imposed at the federal level. State societies are singularly responsible for legislative lobbying at the state level to preserve and protect the roles of CPAs in an increasingly regulatory world. It is these advocacy responsibilities that exist quietly in the background that is making the state society a powerful force in shaping the future of the profession in each state.

Ambassadors for the Profession - Keeping the CPA designation and preserving the profession doesn't happen by itself. It requires the support of the profession and getting the members involved. It is for this reason that many of the state societies have embarked in programs that help engage their members and helps them become ambassadors to the local community. Being a good CPA citizen is important in building the perception of the profession, and many societies help provide the opportunities, the tools, the training, and the resources to ensure that their members can serve this role effectively.

Intensifying information flows to members - With the myriad of information coming at the profession from Congress, the SEC, the AICPA, consultants, educators, regulators, and other CPAs, the state societies have taken on a renewed responsibility for keeping their members on top of the critical issues that CPAs need to know about. As the organization closest to the CPA at the state level, state societies provide a direct route and a local "angle" on news, legislative updates, and new standards that most affect their constituencies.

Networking opportunities - Committee and Task Force structures that encourage CPAs to get involved on a project-by-project basis team have always been opportunities for the best and the brightest in certain niche areas to contribute to the development of the profession. State societies are moving towards more project-based work that recognizes the demands on a members' time and still provides the same networking opportunities traditionally available through a Committee structure.

Training - Training has always been a mainstay of the state societies. Different approaches to training have emerged that recognizes time challenges faced by CPAs and delivers more local programming, in-house training, quick conference call updates, and web-based training allowing the CPA access 24-7 to the information they need, relative to their state developments.

Practical / Real Life Development - In a post-Enron world, many state societies have been delivering leadership and ethics training - welcomed with high regard by the members who need the real-life practical case studies on issues that they may be facing in an increasingly complex world.

Professional Development - CPE, leadership training, and other programs dedicated to individual development of the membership are increasing. State societies are adopting a "high-tech, high-touch" approach to offering both traditional and innovative training in ways that members can best take advantage of.

Development of the Profession - Among the unique responsibilities of today's state CPA society is the commitment not only to professional development but also to developing the profession. Image enhancement, public relations efforts, advertising, community outreach and representation of the profession to incoming professionals have become a major strategic and operational goal of today's CPA society.

Student Outreach - Recognizing the decline in enrollment in accounting curricula over the past decade, one of the main priorities of today's CPA society is organizing a student outreach program to attract potential new members to the profession much earlier than before. The societies organize community events, enrolling members and other organizations to help educate college students, high school students, and even grade school students as to the importance of business, finance and accounting in today's world. Several state societies have also created entertaining and informative web sites for students to learn about the profession in a way that is fun and educational.

Across the board, state society executive directors view their associations as THE ONLY statewide organization dedicated to preserving, protecting and promoting the CPA brand. "We're the only ones looking out for the profession in its totality," said one of the executive directors we spoke with.

Adjusting to Time Pressures

What about volunteer efforts in the state societies? How are these organizations addressing the time pressures faced by today's CPAs? CPA Society staff members understand that their members are not only customers, but also owners of the association as well as workers when they volunteer. Each of the executive directors that we spoke with identified time constraints as one of the major hurdles facing future volunteer efforts, but each indicated that their members are more enthusiastic about volunteering and assisting in projects than ever before. "The trick is to get on their calendars a lot earlier," says Cindie Hubiak, President of the 4,800-member Arizona Society of CPAs. "Our members care so much," says Peggy Dzierzawski, President of the 16,000-member Michigan Association of CPAs. "We are seeing an increased passion for the profession [in the post-Enron era] and our members are eager to step up and give back," she adds.

Several state societies are adjusting their product/service offering to bring more programs to their members, instead of expecting their members to come to them. "People want activities in their own backyard," says Art Renner, Executive Director of the 6,200-member Connecticut Society of CPAs. Many of the state societies are going on road trips, bringing the message to their members in their local communities about the role of the society, the benefits of membership, and the resources available to them. "I didn't know you did that" seems to be the main response to many of the local outreach efforts that the societies are now engaged in.

Engaging Members

State societies are not, and cannot be, organizations that unilaterally identify the issues, develop the resources, and affect change all by themselves. "It's not our job to tell [the members] what to do," says Lou Grumet, Executive Director of the 30,000-member New York State Society of CPAs. "Our role is to represent and connect the members to each other," he adds. Societies are facilitators of change, and many of these changes are brought about by the members participating in the process.

Associations of all kinds - whether CPA related or not - have faced an increasingly skeptical membership thinking, "How can I make a difference?" As institutions grow larger, more impersonal, and more bureaucratic, all organizations must fight the perception that their members individually cannot make a difference.

Recognizing this increasingly skeptical nature of volunteer organizations, many state societies are highlighting success stories to underscore how their members can make a difference, proving that the organization is structured in such a way to listen to and act on member input. Bert Trexler, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Institute of CPAs, shared a story of a member contacting the Society on April 2 of this year, suggesting that Pennsylvania CPAs organize an effort to assist military families with their tax return preparation. With less than two weeks left in tax season, the Society organized a program within 24 hours of the suggestion, and dozens of Pennsylvania CPAs helped local military families with their tax needs in the days leading up to the tax deadline. "Members don't realize the impact they can have," said Mr. Trexler.

Working Smarter

State Societies don't have all the answers, but they are making wholesale structural changes to adapt to the changing environment. "We need to operate smarter and be more strategic," says John Sharbaugh, Executive Director of the 27,000-member Texas Society of CPAs. "We need to use technology more... We don't need to develop every program."

States are working together in increasing numbers to share resources, and to get better "bang for the buck" when developing new programs for members. States are cooperating with each other and with other third party providers in ways they never have before. They recognize that they can't be all things to all people, therefore they are looking for more effective strategic alliances to bring the members what they need. After the hype and excitement and then ultimate failure of a nationwide alliance between the state societies and cpa2biz, the AICPA-backed online portal, states are no less deterred but are entering into future strategic alliances with a lot more caution and more realistic expectations.

One example of an effective strategic alliance is a cooperative effort among eight Midwestern states to address the needs of corporate finance professionals. The states have become partners with the Center for Corporate Financial Leadership (CCFL), founded by the Illinois CPA Society, meeting the needs of corporate finance professionals through high-quality executive education, knowledge resources and networking communities. A full service range of products and benefits await corporate members of the alliance, and services are offered at a higher level than any individual state could offer by themselves.

Overcoming Competitive Concerns

One criticism of state society participation that I have always heard has been the concern about networking with competitor organizations. Most societies acknowledge this perception, yet argue that the concern does not interfere with the vast majority of the work they, as an organization, pursue.

"We're seeing just the opposite," says Mary Medley, CEO of the 8,100-member Colorado Society of CPAs. "We're watching the smaller firms who do SEC engagements and they are asking for increased networking opportunities with larger firms as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley."

It is through projects that are bigger than competitive advantage - lobbying in state legislatures, image enhancement, encouraging students to enter the profession - that help the state societies shine and transcend the limited concerns about sitting in a room with a competitor.

Enthusiasm For The Future

So what does the future hold? Not surprisingly, executive directors of state CPA societies are bullish on the future. But they've got good reasons to be. Members recognize the need to participate in the fight for the future of their profession, and a majority understand that the CPA Societies are the most effective way to influence a change within the community that they live and work. CPA Society staff are a dedicated group of association professionals that view their members as family, and by nature they feel very protective, supportive and responsible for the well-being of their extended families. They know they can't do it all by themselves, and they take comfort in seeing that the level of commitment of the membership - their family - is stronger than ever and more committed to preserving and protecting the profession than ever before.

To those of you who are actively participating in state society activities, this article may offer little new insight, but will reinforce the positive experiences you have had with your state society. To those of you who may have nothing more than a "checkbook" relationship with your Society, perhaps there are some new initiatives that you will want to explore. Visit the society's Web site and take some time to find out what they are doing on your behalf, and - even more importantly - how you and your firm can help. And to those of you who have either never explored membership in your state society, or were involved in the past and were turned off by what you saw, it may be time to take a fresh look.

So, back to the original question, "Are state CPA societies still relevant?" Based on what we see, the answer just may be that they are more relevant today than they have ever been.

Michael Platt is the President of AccountingWEB, which serves over 75,000 accounting professionals and the associations and societies that represent them. Mike was involved in the CPA profession from the non-profit association management side for fifteen years prior to starting AccountingWEB. He can be reached at mplatt@accountingweb.com.

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