I’m recently returned from a West coast trip—to the IRS Nationwide Tax Forum, to be more precise—where I had the opportunity to meet dozens of tax professionals, and to reconnect with many others who happen to be members of the association I have the privilege to lead.
These events are opportunities to broadcast your value proposition: Why should someone belong to your association? In our case, I distill it to the fundamentals: we are the only association dedicated to the success of enrolled agents, and we protect, promote, and provide for their success.
On my flight back from the San Diego IRS Tax Forum, I had the opportunity to think about why tax pros join—or should join—a professional association. Associations, in general, leverage efforts of individuals and succeed because a group of like-minded individuals bound by a shared interest is always more powerful than individuals acting independently.
A full-service professional association provides upside potential, protects from downside risks, and promotes its profession broadly. Let’s unpack those one at a time—I’ll use the National Association of Enrolled Agents (NAEA) as an example, because others may answer this question differently, and because it is the association I know best.
1. Professional associations provide upside potential
Let’s face it, why would a tax pro part from hard-earned money if he or she were not better off for it? In our case, we provide community, which may sound trivial yet I believe a community is far from trivial.
Many tax pros are small business owners and may be sole proprietors. In a world changing as rapidly as ours (e.g., the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) and cybersecurity, to name two), partners are invaluable. NAEA provides community through its state affiliates, social media, and a closed, online platform. We also provide education, some with the continuing education (CE) credits enrolled agents are required to receive (through our in-person events, publications, and webinars) and some that may not provide CE (free webinars). Our members are tax experts over a shockingly large waterfront—individual taxation, business taxation, estate and trust taxation, nonprofit taxation—and we continually ask ourselves how to provide timely, meaningful, actionable education.
2. They protect from downside risks
Any profession is subject to environmental risks. Ours is no exception—and in fact, we unfortunately have a good bit of downside risk: in the legislative and regulatory space, in the technology space, and in the overall competitive business environment.
NAEA is second to none when it comes to covering an enrolled agent’s most significant asset: her/his right to practice. We engage at the state level, as necessary, to assist our state societies in preventing encroachment, and we also advise individual members who may receive cease and desist letters from a state accountancy board. NAEA also engages, significantly, in tax administration, whether that is the functioning of the transcript delivery system—the lifeblood of our representation services—or user fee increases or new Forms W-4. We engage with senior officials, up to and including the IRS commissioner (who spoke at our 2019 National Conference). We also engage on Capitol Hill on issues that could have significant downside risk (for instance, poorly executed return preparer minimum standards legislation).
3. Professional associations protect the profession
Guarding against downside risk and providing for upside potential are not siloed away from promoting the profession. For instance, NAEA’s advocacy work on the Hill, at IRS, and in the states promotes the profession, and highlights its importance to audiences who, frankly, should already know.
Increasing awareness of enrolled agents is hugely important. NAEA does this in a variety of ways, some obvious (high-level conversations with IRS officials and through the media) and others less so (our Ethics and Professional Conduct Committee reviews ethics complaints against NAEA members).
Promoting the profession also means providing an introduction to those who aspire to be part of the profession. In our case, we highlight the importance of the profession and provide a Pathway to EA™ Program with our exclusive education partner, Surgent.
Finally, an association promotes the profession by providing an avenue for its members to give back to the profession, whether that is by teaching, serving on a committee, or mentoring.
A number of years ago Tracy Chapman belted out a tune called “Give Me One Good Reason.” In this case, I’ve provided three good reasons, and would welcome both potential enrolled agents and current enrolled agents to join NAEA as we protect, promote, and provide for the profession.
Robert A. Kerr, EA, is executive vice president at the National Association of Enrolled Agents. Kerr spent a decade at the Internal Revenue Service where he provided IRS oversight on the United States Senate Finance Committee. An Ohio native, Kerr received a bachelor’s degree in business administration before earning his MBA from Case Western Reserve University.