Friday, February 11, 2011

Licensing: Is It Time?

"A License to Shampoo: Jobs Needing State Approval Rise"
--Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal reporter Stephanie Simon writes that in 2008 23% of American workers needed a state license to do their jobs. (She was quoting data from Morris Kleiner at the University of Minnesota). Conspicuously absent from a list that includes - as she says " ... cat groomers, tattoo artists, tree trimmer and about a dozen other specialists ..." are "professional" fund raisers.(I put professional in quotes because there is considerable confusion and controversy in deciding who is or is not a "professional)."

The industry's long-time position has been that self-policing is an effective constraint and that licensing is not required. For many years I shared that view. As matters stand right now all the states have some sort of registration requirement for consultants, "professional solicitors" and fund raisers. But no state licenses fund raisers. Yet. Legislation has been introduced in New York state from time to time but has always been killed when the lobbyists checked in.

Putting aside the states' thirst for new revenue sources in the face of shrinking tax collections is licensing fund raisers an idea whose time has come? When I look at professions that are licensed - such as law, architecture, medicine, real estate, securities etc. it is difficult to conclude that licensing assures either competence or honesty. Why would it be any different in this instance? The Association for Professional Fundraisers (AFP) encourages all its members to "certify" by passing an exam and renewing credentials every three years. But only about 20% of the members do so - a datum that has been remarkably consistent since the certification program was introduced a few decades ago.

Medicine requires a state license and board certification for specialties (the boards' pass rate hovers at about 90% so the rigor of boarding is open to inquiry). In law and other fields continuing education credits are a mark of keeping up with one's profession but still voluntary as I understand it. Thus certification or boarding to some extent serves as a form of self-policing and augments licensing which is not a choice but a requirement for professional practice.

So if professional fund raisers were licensed would it make any difference? As a matter of practice I don't think so. Embedded mediocrity would still obtain as it does now. But as a signal to the public that you or I have met some standard external to self-policing licensing might have weight. And as the WSJ article suggests licensing would "... box out competitors."

Given the regulatory environment - and I know New York best as sub-par, bureaucratic legalism without forethought, and the appearance but not the reality of protecting the public from scammers, crooks, cads and other low life - the idea of the charity bureau writing up and enforcing the licensing of fund raisers and consultants in the field is just plain scary. But there are many thousands of men and women in New York alone who work full or part time as "fund raisers," a potential honey pot of dollars likely to be far more remunerative than the tribute collected from tree trimmers, cat groomers, barbers, undertakers and what all else.

The largest cohort of licensees in New York (and everywhere I guess) are of course drivers. In New York City if you believe a driver's license protects the public you best up your meds. I do believe licensing of fund raisers is coming. May the public beware!


1 comment:

john said...

I think it was just right that they require agents to take something like Minnesota Continuing Education to renew their real estate licenses. It kinda keeps the best of the best agents licensed in the state and not just anyone who knows how to sales talk.