The advisory business’s biggest association has faced some near-existential challenges in recent years.

Foremost, there’s the recession. In a short two years, the FPA lost more than 10%, or about 3,000, of its members – and its budget took a bigger hit. The association had to slash about a quarter of its staff as members, which now number 24,000, cut back on their conference attendance.

Meanwhile, the FPA, which may house the broadest array of advisors of any association, has had a difficult road to walk in an environment in which the argument over the fee and non-fee advisory business is more inflamed than ever. Better than 60% of its members are dually registered, and a smaller portion are commission-based or commission-only. Yet, the association lobbied for a high fiduciary standard in Washington, D.C.

“Some of our members haven’t liked our positions,” acknowledges Marvin Tuttle, chief executive. The association continues to advocate for more regulation of financial planning.

So the FPA is going into its annual conference, scheduled this year for its hometown in Denver, with more than usual at stake. Trying to regain its footing, the association has revamped its web site to focus more on consumers and a referral program to FPA members. It also has launched its first-ever ad campaign aimed at both consumers and advisors, on which it is spending in the high six figures.

“We’re trying to send the message that we’re doing well and promote our high-quality education,” Tuttle says.

Pickup in members

So far, so good. He expects attendance at the Denver conference to be at about 2,300, up from 2,000 in Anaheim last year, which was down from 3,200 in Boston the year before. He says the association has seen a pickup in new members.

This year’s conference begins Saturday and lasts through Tuesday. Speakers include Tom Bradley, president of TD Ameritrade Institutional, futurist Ian Bremmer and Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel.

Tuttle calls this year’s numbers a return to stability. A full-fledged return to health depends on the FPA making the strong case that it offers high-quality education and a chance for advisors to cross boundaries. The group is also introducing a fiduciary curriculum, developed with consultant Don Trone.

Tougher sell

Because it is more of an umbrella organization than other groups, the FPA may have a tougher sell than organizations like NAPFA, which benefited in the past two years from its clear identity as the industry’s voice for the pure-fee model of advice. NAPFA membership costs more than $500 a year, typically. Membership grew 12% in 2008-09 and almost 6% in 09-10, to about 2,300, said CEO Ellen Turf.

The CFP Board of Standards , which owns the most widely recognized planning mark, saw the number of certificants climb from 58,830 in 2008 to 61,604 as of the end of August. Maintaining a CFP mark costs about $360 every two years, plus the cost of continuing education.

The FPA, on the other hand, is by design and definition, a broad-based organization. The group was formed 10 years ago by the merger of the Institute of Certified Financial Planners (ICFP) and the International Association for Financial Planning. It costs $225 for a membership for people new to the profession, and $395 for individual financial planners.

Community of communities

About 70% of the members are CFPs; close to 60% are dually registered; about 25% are fee-only planners.
“We are truly a community of communities,”said Tuttle.

Traditionally, the FPA was the loudest voice in Washington for the broad advisory community. In recent years, the CFP has taken more of an advocacy role in Washington, D.C. But to the question of whether the two organizations might ever become one, Tuttle gave a definitive no. “I don’t see that,” he said. “We’re specifically a professional membership organization.”

He maintains that what make the FPA different is its spirit of cooperation. One of the sessions of note at the conference is one for “major” firms like wirehouses, that want to apply more financial planning practices to the business of sales.

“We’re always been about sharing and helping everyone thrive and prosper,” Tuttle says.

Clare Stenstrom, a New York City based advisor with Bourne Stenstrom Lent Capital Management Inc., which has about $150 million in AUM, says she belongs to the FPA precisely because of that spirit.

She plans to attend the conference in hopes of meeting with vendors, including those from MoneyTree, which she uses. She wants some compliance insights. Mostly, she just wants to reconnect with people.

Good folks

“I met my best friend through the FPA,” she says. “I have never met a better group of people.”

Elizabeth’s note: If you are planning to attend the FPA conference and would like to write a blog post about it, drop me a line at elizabeth@riabiz.com. We’re recruiting people from across the industry to give readers a sense of what it’s like to be there.

This article was adjusted on Oct. 6 to correct the renewal fee for the CFP mark.