A Different Vision

By Tom Wildsmith
President, American Academy of Actuaries

The following appeared as the lead story of the November issue of Actuarial Update.

As I begin my presidency, I’d like to share some personal thoughts with you. The leaders of some actuarial organizations have been talking a lot lately about “competition.” It seems that commercial competition has become central to their vision of how the various actuarial organizations relate to each other. My concern is not with any particular program or activity. Rather, it is with a specific approach to thinking about how actuarial organizations serve the profession.

Actuaries, and their employers, routinely compete with one another commercially. But the organizations that support the profession are not themselves commercial enterprises. They are nonprofit, tax-exempt professional associations. When the leaders of any actuarial organization view their mission primarily in commercial terms, they are taking an approach that I believe distorts the historical purpose of these organizations. This approach isn’t inevitable—it’s a choice that has been made by certain leaders in recent years. It’s time for a different vision, one that reconnects with our reason for existence. The organizations we lead exist to serve the public by strengthening the actuarial profession.

The Academy does not compete with other actuarial organizations. We have a fundamentally different mission than that of any other U.S.-based organization. When we engage in similar activities, such as webinars or research, the purpose is not to engage in commerce or maximize revenue. Our activities are intended to support the Academy’s professionalism and public policy mission. (The Academy is primarily funded by member dues. Our programs are not designed with an eye toward raising revenue.)

As the U.S. national organization, we also don’t compete with the national associations of other countries. We understand that no nation stands alone in today’s world, and U.S. actuaries are affected by developments in other countries. This is reflected in our active involvement in the International Actuarial Association and our sincere support for the development of a robust actuarial profession around the globe.

The Academy serves the public in a particularly direct way. The qualification standards, Code of Conduct, standards of practice, and discipline process all help protect the interests of those who rely on our work. Our public policy work directly serves the public good. The other U.S.-based organizations have different, but equally important, roles. The founders of those organizations recognized that the public benefits from an actuarial profession that is well educated, intellectually rigorous, and that has a growing body of tools and techniques available—just as the public benefits from advances in economics, architecture, or medicine. This public benefit is why organizations like ours are granted tax-exempt status.

Viewing the relationship between these organizations primarily through the lens of commercial competition is a new habit, which has become prominent only in the past two or three years. Prior to that, generations of leaders saw the role of the various organizations they served through the lens of service to the profession and, ultimately, the public. This isn’t because they were too naïve to understand the realities of leading a successful professional organization. These are the men and women who built the profession we have today. They simply had a different vision. If we are to be faithful stewards of the profession they built, we must recapture their vision.

It matters how our leaders think about and talk about the role of our professional associations. The current focus by some on commercial success, as if we were business enterprises, is not just novel; it’s bad for the profession. It has led to needless conflict and rancor. Instead of producing increased efficiency, it has proved a tremendous distraction to leadership from all of the major U.S.-based actuarial organizations. More important, it takes our focus away from the profession that we are all dedicated to serving. The servant is not greater than the master. None of our organizations is more important than the profession we serve or the public, which depends on that profession. As leaders, we’re here to serve the profession—not to build businesses on the back of the profession using the dues and volunteer time of our members.

If our strategies ever place more emphasis on growing our own organizations than on the health of the actuarial profession, then we have betrayed the legacy of prior generations. We are servants of the actuarial profession. That’s the heritage that’s been passed down to us. It’s a legacy worth preserving, and the path to a stronger, more effective profession.

Editor’s note: Tom Wildsmith became president of the Academy this month. The thoughts expressed in this article are the author’s alone. They do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of any other individual or organization.